Billeted By The Waterfall

Buick tantalises, but disappoints.

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: topspeed.com

For the new millennium, GM tasked its Holden operation in Australia with creating a new global platform, which would be named Zeta. Costing around AUD $1Bn, Zeta was engineered for longitudinal engine placement and RWD as standard, with the option for AWD. It was designed to be highly flexible and could accommodate over half a dozen body styles with variable wheelbase lengths, ride heights, roof lines and windscreen rakes. The suspension comprised MacPherson struts with dual-ball lower A-arms at the front and a four-link independent set-up at the rear. With full-blown production models still another two years away, GM took the decision to introduce the Zeta with a concept car, the 2004 Buick Velite. The concept was named after an elite infantry unit in the Napoleonic army(1).

The iconic Buick Riviera had bowed out in 1999 with a limited-edition ‘Silver Arrow’ version, of which just 200 were produced. A vocal clamour for the car’s return didn’t entirely fall on deaf ears at GM. Revealed at the 2004 New York Auto Show, the Buick Velite was a product of GM’s Advanced Design Studio, but was assembled in Italy under Bertone’s watchful eyes. The two-door, four-seater convertible could, from certain angles, have been misconstrued as a Bentley Continental convertible. This was especially the case in the rear three-quarter view, thanks to the pronounced haunches over the rear wheels and large oval exhaust pipes. Anne Asenio, then Executive Director for GM’s Advanced Design Studio, described the Velite as exemplifying “Restrained extravagance,” and as an “understated yet sophisticated design.”

The Velite’s chief designer, Tom Peters, threw his hat into the ring with “Velite has an edge, much more than is reflected in its sculptured bodywork. A forward-looking vehicle that stands not only for America but how American style, performance and prestige resonates in contemporary global form.” Phew.

2004 Buick Velite Concept. Image: hotcars.com

Planted on nine-spoke aluminium wheels, 20” at the front and an inch larger aft, the Velite’s front and rear overhangs were short, while the dash-to axle-measurement was noticeably long.  The elegant flanks were smooth and unadorned, uninterrupted even by exterior door handles. There was no evidence of Buick’s traditional styling motif, the ‘sweep spear’ along the sides. Instead, there was just a muscular haunch over the rear wheels. Heaping yet more praise upon the concept was exterior designer, Sang Yup Lee, who contended that “The Velite conveys confident power.” It certainly looked alluring in the concept’s Dark Tarnished Bronze metallic hue.

The Velite proudly saluted Buick’s rich heritage with Ventiports(2) on the front wings, the tri-shield emblem and that waterfall grille, wholly enclosed by the huge bonnet. There was no front bumper, just a thin chromed strip beneath the leading edge of the bonnet, so not exactly feasible for production.

The rear bodywork, if taken at a squint and with a dose of imagination, referenced the ‘boat-tail’ of the early 1970s Riviera, thanks to the haunches and a pronounced curve pressed into the boot lid. The lower rear valance contained little else but the ovoid exhaust pipes and an indented slot for the licence plate. That boat-tail rear deck provided the Velite’s drama, arching backwards to allow the soft-top to disappear when folded down.

2004 Buick Velite Concept. Image: topspeed.com

Up front, the hood pivoted from its leading edge to reveal the car’s experimental 3.6-litre twin-turbocharged DOHC V6 engine, capable of maximum power of 400bhp and 400 lb ft of torque. Behind this sat a GM Hydra-Matic six-speed auto with manual override switches. Needless to remark, it was all beautifully presented and alluring.

Inside, we entered the subdued, intimate environment of New York’s Birdland Jazz Club, with shades of Bronze Pearl, Iceberg Blue and Woven Tan capturing the romance of such a venue. This was according to Bryan Priebe, the car’s interior designer, who continued thus: “Rich, relaxing, tactile, it invites human interaction.” That may have been a touch overstated, and finding novel ways to describe any car’s details is a perennial bridgeless river to cross, but the Velite certainly contained an interior most relishable.

The Velite concept was influential in Buick’s future styling direction, with elements transposed onto the Lucerne, Regal, Enclave and LaCrosse models, but it seems the car itself may now reside within the estate of golf prodigy, Tiger Woods, who was pictured grinning beside it at various championship events.

2004 Buick Velite Concept. Image: http://www.topspeed.com

Buick would launch a ‘Velite’ as a China-only car in 2016. Gone was the sleek roadster, the Velite was now an “innovative styling crossover hinting towards Buick’s styling for new energy vehicles.” It was quite the sales hit.

Buick did, however, resurrect the Riviera name, a former marque staple that had seen eight generations over a thirty-six year period and 1.1 million sales. GM openly admitted that the new Riviera would be influenced by the Velite Concept, heightening the sense of anticipation amongst American motorists. The concept was first unveiled at the 2007 Shanghai Motor Show, then shown on US soil for the first time at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show.

Unlike its historical namesakes, the Riviera Concept arrived as a medium-sized FWD 2+2 coupé. Its stand-out feature was gull-wing doors whose wingspan measured 67” on opening. The Riviera was designed by PATAC, the Pan Asian Technical Automotive Centre, a joint-venture between GM and SAIC, headquartered in Shanghai. China has been purchasing Buicks for over a century, but manufacturing them only since just before the new millennium.

This Riviera was based upon the (mainly) Opel-designed GM Epsilon II platform, which underpinned the 2002 Vectra C and 2003 Saab 9-3. The multinational influences allowed the then Vice President of GM Global Design, Ed Welburn to exclaim, “It’s not East. It’s not West. It’s Buick,” and that “This concept made us realise how small the world was.” Heady stuff, Ed.

2007 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: carbodydesign.com

James C. Shyr was credited with the design, his team appropriating a Chinese proverb as a suitable tag-line to describe this tension-filled, flowing beauty: ‘the greatest good is like water’. Painted Shell Blue, in daylight the curves and returning sweep spear motif were as prominent as the trihedral waterfall grille. After the sun had set, Dunbar’s(3) badge, the headlamps, slim side mirrors and exhaust surrounds all emitted a backlit icy green aura, with those doors projecting the Buick name onto the ground.

The roof comprised two shaded glass windows, to create a celestial connection on a clear night and, more prosaically, to eke out some additional headroom. The interior’s deep blues and creams captured a softer, organic aura alongside the satin silver embellishments and a strip of what appears to be jade stone. Instrumentation resembled mobile phone technology for that era, barring the circular (and rather optimistic) 300km/h speedometer.

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: supercars.net

Sadly, and in total opposition to Buick’s accelerating Chinese sales, the concept remained static. However, the name would return six years later. This new New Riviera Concept for 2013, design unattributed within the PATAC division, was more evolutionary in looks and, to this author’s eyes at least, contained the beauty of a tumbling waterfall combined with the aggression of a surfing tubular wave. Now painted ‘Ice Celadon’, a colour inspired by more jade, both front and rear facades appeared smoother and more harmonious. The sweep spear was very much the flanks’ defining feature. There were hints of Aston Martin Vantage, with some Mustang washing over the proceedings.

Inside, the makeover was not fully to this author’s taste, however. The steering wheel had gone rather soggy and misshapen and the new technology on show was far too ‘spaceship’ for my liking, but when did any concept ever take a backward step? Here we bathed in more jade, wood, sandblasted aluminium, lava suede and ebony for an ‘eagle wood’ feel. Floating seats, noise-cancelling materials and ‘transparent’ A-pillars along with those Gullwing doors added real drama to the proceedings. Sadly, the whole shebang trickled down the drain and the current Chinese (and American) Buick line-up contains exactly nothing of the New Riviera’s inspiration. Meaning what, exactly?

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: carbodydesign.com

Those doors were never meant for series-production, the interior materials were probably too expensive for such a badge, however small and exclusive the model run might have been. Elements of the exterior styling could easily have been incorporated into a luxury coupé for production, but in a market full to bursting with Crossovers, Sports Utilities and the like, its time had passed. That GM produced the Velite Concept and toyed twice with reviving the Riviera hinted at something magical, but instead we’re left in a silent, arid, valley where the waterfalls have run dry.

(1) The origin of the name dates back to Roman times, where the Velites were the youngest and poorest soldiers in the Legion and were poorly equipped. Napoleon made his Velites into crack, fast responding troops.

(2) Just three, however, rather than the original four Ventiports.

(3) David Dunbar Buick, who founded the eponymous motor company in 1903.

Data sources: netcarshow.com, motor1.com, carbodydesign.com.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

31 thoughts on “Billeted By The Waterfall”

  1. Good morning Andrew. An interesting trio of concepts, thank you. US automakers have a long history of producing truly stunning concepts that have disappointingly little influence on production models. To my eyes, the Velite looks quite different to the two Riviera concepts in that it looks virtually production-ready: stick some door handles on it and you’re done. The Riviera concepts, by comparison, look like typical flights of fancy.

  2. There was also the Buick Bengal concept. This prototype was a front wheel drive car. It was interesting mechanically. The engine was transverse with the automatic transmission chain driven and folded around ahead of the engine. Hence the engine was wholly behind the front axle line. This is unusual for a transverse engine front wheel drive car. Normally the engine is ahead of the axle line, not behind. Bob Lutz wanted this drivetrain tooled and mass produced. He felt that this would give a better handling car. He also believed it would result in cars with better proportions- more aesthetic. He lost the fight! Pity.

    1. That’s a nice car, apart from the headlights, but that’s minor. It reminds me of something, but I can’t put my finger on it (it’s probably embarrassingly obvious 😁)

    2. The Bengal reminds me a bit of the BMW GINA concept, because of the slit-like headlamps, the very sharp shoulder-spine over the rear haunches and the way the metal “drapes” around it. Now that I’ve looked at a few photos, even the side mirror placement is very similar.

  3. Buick´s a little bit like Lancia in that it has a hard-to-identify character. It´s a hybrid idea that falls between some simpler-to-express ones. As such I think it means it´s a brand that provokes the imagination. What it is is not is a marketing notion amenable to high-concept packaging and communication. Here is where the brutal exigencies of quantified marketing crush and maul vague and inchoate, almost poetic, imagery of the sort Buick and Lancia evoke. You´d need to be able to set aside simplified brandscape thinking to allow Buick to flourish. What happened was Saturn was axed and Buick nudged into their price points with carry-me-over equipment supplied by Opel, harming both Opel and Buick (mostly). Some of these concepts are very pleasing. That they led to a range of SUVs occupying a narrow size band is all the sadder. Buicks were often well made and charming cars (the 80s and 90s Electras and Park Avenues were way nicer than anything else made by GM in N America). The 2013 Riviera concept is new to me – it´s just excellent, especially from the back. It would have made a great EV if the team in GM weren´t so rare steak/Dr Pepper in their outlook.

    1. Richard

      EVs were not in the picture in the early 2,000s. They are a niche vehicle even now. Hard to fault GM for not predicting today’s irrationalities 20 years ago.

    2. JT: I am not very willing to buy your counter-argument.
      A small company called Tesla launched something called the Model S in 2012.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Model_S
      Another company, a certain “GM” of North America launched an EV in 1996 (albeit as a leasing car). I wonder if the GM that was working on the Buick had heard of this initiative?

    3. I haven’t fully embraced EV’s, but I always liked GM’s EV1. I also liked the Ultralite. Maybe an idea for a future article?

    4. In GM’s defense, they showed the Hywire* concept using a “skateboard” platform in 2002, a year before Tesla existed, and ten years before Tesla implemented it in the Model S.

      But to GM’s detriment, Hywire was a fuel cell hydrogen concept. They also followed Toyota down the rabbit hole of hybrid powertrains with two generations of the Volt/Ampera which were hardly impressive for their price. The Volt-derived Cadillac ELR was quite attractive… looking… to people like me, and perhaps you as well, and sported a clever regenerative braking system controlled by steering column-mounted paddles, but otherwise presented a remarkably poor value proposition, and thus sold accordingly.

      Considering this, perhaps the personnel assigned to the Buick division knew better than to attempt to paddle against the prevailing corporate tide, and GM’s thus far tragic forays into “green tech”. But then again, considering that the importance to Buick of the Chinese market was known by the turn of the century, it doesn’t seem like GM has a forward looking strategy even for their most respected brand in China.

      Given the beauty of the Buick concepts featured in this article, the lack of technical innovation and generally nostalgic outlook presented by the division is quite dismaying. While Buicks were always conservative, calm, mature-ish cars aimed at the professional class, they did sport many technical innovations over the years in order to achieve and maintain that status, such as the Century 100mph sedan (1937), the first mass produced coil spring rear suspension (1938), the Dynaflow transmission (1947), MaxTrac traction control (1972), and along with Saab and Porsche: a successful mass implementation of turbocharging (1978).

      But these lovely looking 21st century dream Buicks are bereft of the novel or unique engineering features that also helped establish the brand’s image and drove sales throughout its history.

      (And yes it is a very similar story for Lancia, and lately it seems for Jaguar as well)

      * GM branded the EV-1 and then the Hywire and Ultralite concepts as “GM” products, but in retrospect that was a missed opportunity for cashing in on the Buick brand’s equity that they spent the better part of 100 years building. After all, some of the best characteristics of EVs are: quietness, smooth power delivery, lots of torque off the line, and better practical value than a luxury class car (Cadillac): exactly the USP of the very Buicks that these concepts attempted to evoke.

  4. Even when it comes to the 2013 Riviera the same deal applies. A decade ago EVs were just not a practical proposition for the vast majority of people. They still aren’t. Hard to fault GM for not predicting today’s irrationalities.

    1. Gooddog, there is perhaps a certain irony that the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, that you picture, and which is currently the world’s biggest selling electric car comes from a company part owned by General Motors. SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile (上汽通用五菱汽车股份有限公司 and abbreviated as SGMW) is a joint venture between SAIC Motor, General Motors, and Liuzhou Wuling Motors Co Ltd.

      So there is a very strong Buick connection.

  5. I’ll throw in some ventiports, as seen on the Saturday Night Cruise in The Hague yesterday.

    1. Not only Ventiports, Freerk, but a perfect example of the ‘Sweep Spear’ along the flanks, described in chrome and the duo-tone paint.

    2. You’re right, Daniel. One thing I did notice on last nights edition of the Saturday Night Cruise was how few Buicks were there. Apart from the ’56 Special and the ’72 Riviera I posted here, I only spotted a ’65 Wildcat and a ’55 Century.

  6. Returning to the unusual transmission layout of the Bengal….

    GM had plenty of experience with chain drive in their transmissions. They produced the TH425 automatic gearbox for the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Cadillac Eldorado from the late 60s. This transmission was robust enough to be used in motorhomes and the GMC TransMode. It had three forward speeds. The lighter weight TH325 transmission also featured a chain drive. It was used in the Buick Riviera as well as the Toronado and the Eldorado from the late 70s onwards. Later a fourth speed was added. The chain drive was reliable and gave little or no trouble. These transmissions were used in conjunction with longitudinal engines in front wheel drive vehicles.’

    For transverse engine front wheel drive application GM developed the TH125 in the late ’70s/early ’80s. This was the first of a long series of front wheel drive automatic transmissions from GM. All of them featured the same innovative layout. The engine was transverse and mounted just ahead of the front axle line. At the output end of the engine the torque converter was mounted on a flex plate in conventional manner. Attached to the torque converter was a sprocket which drove the chain which transmitted torque to a sprocket on the input shaft of the transmission proper. The transmission was mounted on the front axle line (viewed from above, it’s centre-line was located on the front axle line) and just behind the engine. It’s centre-line was parallel to that of the engine crankshaft. The rest of the transmission was conventional GM automatic practice except for one special detail. Any shaft or gear assembly on the centre-line was hollow. This feature was there for an important reason. A differential unit was at the output end of the transmission. It was in-line with the rest of the transmission an on the front axle line. There were two output drives emerging from this, one to drive the left wheel and one to drive the right. The left side output from the diff was conventional with CV joints and a half shaft. The right side output was attached to a shaft which went right back through the entire transmission, emerging on the right side (“front” of the transmission) to drive a half shaft with CVs at both ends. So there were two unusual features- the chain drive and the RHS output shaft traversing the entire transmission, going right through the middle. Innovative indeed!

    For Bengal the arrangement was altered slightly. The engine was moved behind the transmission, closer to the driver. That gave the improvement to weight distribution that was sought for improved handling. It would have needed a new case cast to place in production.

    Something to note is that the BTCC Super Tourers accomplished an analogous rearrangement of drivetrain masses to get improved handling. They too sought to get the engine back behind the front axle line where it belonged!

    The idea of taking a solid drive shaft through a concentric shaft was also used by Audi in the original Quattro. In this case the engine was longitudinal and the drive to the differential for the front wheels passed through a hollow transmission main-shaft.

    Earlier yet, Daimler Benz manufactured an inverted V-12* (DB 600 series) which featured a gear reduction box on the front. The output gear for this was hollow. This feature allowed a machine cannon to be mounted under the engine (in the “valley”) and fire through the gear. This centreline cannon was formidably destructive and gave the Bf109 its characteristic propeller spinner shape.

    *wouldn’t an inverted V-12 be better referred to as an N-12, I wonder……

    1. The DB 600 had automotive use too: Mercedes used the DB 603 in the T80.

    2. JT. Thanks for this exegesis on GM’s medium and luxury class North American FWD transmissions. I think they understood that a lot of Americans would be put off by torque steer, and a major step to minimizing that effect is to effectively equalize the half-shaft lengths. It is reported to have been a successful effort in that regard, at least on the original UPP (1966 Toronado, etc.).

      I didn’t realize that GM was still using the Borg-Warner/Morse Hy-Vo chain even after their transition from longitudinal to transverse-engined FWD drivetrains. That’s not so surprising considering what must have been a gargantuan investment on GM’s part in its development. As simple as it looks, the Hy-Vo proved to be a major innovation in terms of reliability, relatively efficiency, and smooth running and quiet operation as compared with a gear-based power transfer.

      Perhaps the overall engineering achievement was even too successful, if that could be possible, as it’s often been said that most of the customers of the 1960s and 1970s Toronado and Eldorado didn’t even know that their cars were FWD!

    3. The real breakthrough for the Morse inverted tooth Hi Vo chain was its nearly universal use as motorcycle camshaft ďrive because its reduced chordal effect (less jumping up and down on the sprockets) greatly improves longevity and precision of high revving camshaft drives.

  7. Gaaaaah! I got it exactly the wrong way around. I should have written, “The RIGHT side output from the diff was conventional with CV joints and a half shaft. The LEFT side output was attached to a shaft which went right back through the entire transmission, emerging on the LEFT (the “front” of the transmission) to drive a LEFT side half shaft with CVs. So there were two unusual features- the chain drive and the LEFT side output shaft traversing the entire transmission, going right through the middle.

    Sorry about the error

    1. No problem, J T. I was familiair with the Toronado setup, thanks to Automobile Quarterly. I was unaware of the transverse engine gearbox layout, so thanks for sharing it here.

    2. Starting with the A4 B8 Audi uses an equally unusual transmission layout.
      The differential sits at the side of the engine in front of the clutch with the output shaft running under the engine and then connecting to a CV jointed driveshaft. Additional fun is provided by the shaft that drives the differential which comes from the gearbox at an angle to clear the clutch bellhousing and then drives the differential.

  8. Freerk, JT and Daniel

    Some excellent insights from you, thank you. Sticking my neck out I’d say the bronze/brown version is from 1958.

    The Boat tail from 1972 I’m more confident with. Great to see some Dutch love for David Dunbar’s wares.

    Gooddog, I’m guessing these types of electric vehicles are actually cheaper to buy than the over exaggerated versions currently on sale ?

    1. Hi Andrew, cheaper to run over the vehicle’s projected lifetime, at least; but also competitive to buy, albeit with government-sponsored rebates/incentives, just like in Europe and North America.

      I believe that Buick is a 1956 model…slightly different from 1957, mostly in trim details, but definitely not a 1958 (one year only body, quad headlamps).

      I’ve been practicing here daily:

      https://cardle.uk/

      Highly recommended for all.

    2. Whoa! according to this article, the depicted car costs…

      https://www.motor1.com/news/571342/wuling-mini-ev-gameboy-edition/

      … well I can’t believe this. Game Boy edition, looks like game over. Compare specs to the Honda EV. Hoping that the engineers in Minato will wake up soon. Not to pick on them exclusively, a Twizy cost £11-12K. Every auto maker in the west needs to wake up.

      BTW Tesla collect all your data, push OS updates to the car without asking for permission, and Elon has been giving the CCP what ever they ask him for. Anyone have some good news?

    3. “push OS updates to the car without asking for permission”

      My statement was incorrect, that is false. I apologize for my error.

      There are things I like very much about Tesla cars. I have driven the Model S and found it generally preferable to a similarly priced BMW 5 series. Tesla’s privacy policy is documented here: https://www.tesla.com/legal/privacy

  9. The reality of Buick, it turns out, was that they had a much-needed sleeper hit on the American market with the Encore (Opel Mokka A). In pre-facelift form with the waterfall grille it looked like a Pokemon of a Buick (the facelifted model used the same grille worldwide, with a blitz, a griffin or a tri-shield badge as needed). Hardly a bold statement of luxury but easy to get into and undemanding to drive.

    As far as I know it is only just now going out of production even though its’ not-quite replacement the Encore GX has been on the market for over a year now.

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