Buick tantalises, but disappoints.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.