Vox Pop Riviera Americana

Riviera. A brief history. 

Image: oldcarbrochures

London in the late 1950’s could still fall victim to enveloping airborne elements. Long since relieved from wartime bombardment, the city’s endemic smog, while atmospheric (in either sense of the word) was hardly conducive to those of a compromised bronchial nature. But what transpired for a certain American one evening in the capital, would prove even more breath taking, prompting something of a three-decade exhalation.

Ford had upset the atmosphere in 1958 by introducing the second-generation Thunderbird, a hugely successful personal luxury car which forced the competition to quickly integrate something of a similar ilk into their respective product plans. The GM stopgap initially fell to Oldsmobile’s Starfire, later followed by Pontiac’s Grand Prix. Both sold well but ambitious General Motors design king, Bill Mitchell had other ideas. Since Cadillac was the General’s top trump, the all new XP-715 (or LaSalle II), would become the initial home for Ned Nickles’ design. 

The party-line of Michell’s Damascene London Pea-Soup vision is said to have taken the form of a custom-bodied Rolls-Royce emerging through the gloom outside London’s Claridges hotel. The GM style supremo decreed that his new LaSalle II should combine the formal sharpness of the British car with the sporting verve of a Ferrari. Nickles’ design gusto blew the fog away, only for Cadillac’s interest to cloud over. Not required by either Pontiac or Chevrolet, Mitchell proposed an internal competition between the in-house rivals. Buick won, hands down, backed by a full marketing campaign led by the McCann Erickson advertising agency. With the LaSalle moniker consigned to the gloom, Buick dusted down a name already in its possession: Riviera.

Specifically, the Riviera name spans thirty-six years from its late 1962 introduction to its poignant 1999 conclusion. Attracted by their professionalism, attention to detail, their depth of knowledge and a desire to help spread the regard for what in all reality is a comparative minnow in car sales, I recently joined the Riviera Owners Association. Why, you might ask? Why not? This Limey has become captivated by a car never actually witnessed in the metal. But through the ROA’s impressive archive, my Riviera lore rumbles on indubitably as that Wildcat engine.

Image: oldirononline

The stance of such a large machine bears witness to its designers’ depths. No chrome besmirched, tail-finned, jet age creature this – elegant, stately, reserved are the dominant attributes here – this was a gallant steed. The General’s wave crest was tipped with Flint made iron. A ceiling of 40,000 for 1963, which sold with ease. 1964 saw 37,658 built. The following year, fewer still Riviera’s sold – 34,586. Compare these figures to arch-rival Ford’s Thunderbird shifting nigh-on 75,000 per annum. Buick’s flagship motor had excellent advertising clout, but remember, these were $5,000 cars.

The high point of Riviera sales came in 1969 with almost 53,000 built, followed by some insanely fluctuating unit numbers as fashions, not to mention the dark cloud of the oil crisis altered perceptions. If the 1973 Boat Tail edition had divided opinion on looks, the gas price hike halted much of the Riviera’s progress. Still purchased new by the wealthy, most used Rivieras had been pensioned off, to reside within garages, barns or external lots, unused. If the dust and the rodents didn’t play havoc, GM’s lack of steel protection most certainly did.

Image: oldirononline

Yet such malignant metal failed to quell interest. Spread thinly throughout the vast American community (with higher proportions found more West than East and handfuls venturing further afield), when seen, indelible impressions were made. Countless the reports of youthful sightings; for many, a soul stirring oath to acquire one, often years in the future when finances permitted. 

As the Riviera line continued with late 1980s formulaic looks alongside now strangulated power outputs, interested parties began seeking out older examples. Enthusiast support saw the dirt cheap early Riv’s return to form, a decade or more from their flush of youth. With the American addiction to cubic inches revived, such beasts once more began to roam the hinterlands. Interest and prices began to rise as the Riviera sun peered from behind the clouds.

Image: oldcarmanualproject

With handling ostensibly on the side of comfort, the ‘Riv contained enough power to trouble more macho contemporaries, in a straight line at least. ‘Driving a boat’ being a common analogy, yet throughout the Riviera’s evolution, cockpits more closely resembled craft destined to fly. One particular instrument to catch my eye was the ribbon speedometer, a device which lent an air of altimeter, proving a visual delight.

Contemporary road tests offered encouraging handling reports, even if the brakes were drums and the approaching 5,000 lb (1973 versions) mass suggested otherwise. This car was (and remains) an effortless cruiser. Finger-light steering, automatic everything, room for the family – be that a thousand mile tour or to the ballpark – a trip in any Riviera is carried out in style. Looks that ooze a Rat Pack cool, unthinkable in today’s regimented boxes, these were America’s road kings. One cannot imagine today’s Enclave corralling such warmth in three score years.

Sadly, Riviera’s attempts at conserving its status was spelled out in sales. The General even halted Riviera production completely for 1994 in preparation for the more sculptured 1995 variant, which initially sold extremely well: 41,419. Figures and indeed interest swiftly slipped to insignificant amounts, a shade under eleven thousand for 1998 – with just 1,956 in its final pre-Millennium year. This grand finale cost at least $30,000 with reports of tags double that.

Out with a whimper. Image: R. Herriott

Compare and contrast: (all inches)

1963 – L: 208, W: 76.3, H: 53, wheelbase: 117, Weight: 4,190 pounds

1995 – L: 207, W: 75.0, H: 55, wheelbase: 113.8, Weight 3,788 pounds

Being fuel efficient, safety conscious and a modern development[1] of its illustrious forebears counts for little when the shape is no longer in vogue. But whatever the condition, style or age, admiration for the Riviera shows no sign of diminishing. Amen for some coastal joy.

[1] One stipulation on designing what was to be Riviera’s swan-song was creating a body capable of withstanding 25 hertz vibration frequency, as Mercedes S-Class. The new car had it all – except perhaps sympathy.

More on Buick here.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

23 thoughts on “Vox Pop Riviera Americana”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. I think I’ve seen all generations of the Riviera. I really like the first generation. The boat tail might be an acquired taste, but it’s an imposing car in the metal. After that they lost the plot. Having said that the redesign of the 7th generation was an improvement as Richard pointed out in his article from August 29th 2021.

    Until last Saturday I hadn’t seen the 8th generation Riviera in the metal, but I stumbled upon this supercharged version that’s for sale. Yours for € 6k.

  2. Thank you, Andrew, for putting the Riviera in the spotlight. Surely among the very best styled cars ever to come out of the USA; when the Riviera broke cover there were some who criticized the borrowing of certain styling elements from Rolls-Royce- to which Bill Mitchell admitting to the partial stylistic inspiration replied: “If you’re going to steal, rob a jeweler- not a grocery store” or something to that effect 🙂
    The second generation (at least the first two model years) was quite attractive too, as was (IMHO) the boat-tail that followed it. After that they lost the plot a bit, but the 1995-1999 Riviera did show a return to form of sorts although as with the boat-tail not everybody liked it.

    Anyway, because it was and remains so lovely, here’s a nice double view of the original:

    And for Mr Spock it was of course the logical choice…

    1. That’s an excellent quote, Bruno. Great shot of the two Rivieras too 🙂

  3. Good morning, Andrew, and thanks for featuring one of my favourite American cars. As a counterpoint to the lovely original examples pictured above (and the final eighth-generation model which, while nowhere near as elegant as the original, still marked a return to form) I present ‘Riviera, the wilderness years’ featuring the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh-generation models:

    The fifth-generation model is a real stinker. 😲

    1. Fourth was a hasty redo of the boattail, itself a compromise with management who insisted it be based on the full-size B body (Mitchell intended the boattail styling for an “A-Special”, the platform used by the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevy Monte Carlo). As admired as it is today, the boattail was not popular with buyers at its’ price point (firmly in the luxury segment) when new.

      Fifth was intended as a placeholder, the two-year run (’77-78) was all it was ever planned for. As such it’s the runt of the litter of the ’77 B/C body program which includes some truly attractive cars, particularly the 2-door Buick LeSabre which cost substantially less than a Riv. (At the other end of the spectrum, this program included the last mainstream Cadillac sedans to be both what the market wanted and also really good cars, and wagons that outsold Ford’s for the first time, and did so for years.)

      Sixth was the only really popular one of this stretch, going from 1979-85 with few changes. This one’s quasi-sporty painted headlight surrounds and two-tone medical-device beige do it no favors, but the lack of a padded landau top makes up for that.

      Seventh’s failure to be properly extravagant for personal-luxury and resemblance to the much cheaper N-bodies has been well discussed elsewhere, including elsewhere on this site.

  4. Another DTW day dawns and they never disappoint, regardless of the particular scribe or the subject. But Mr Miles is on particularly good form this morning and I do so like his ability to always include a tangent at which to take off, should one be so tempted. Pea-soupers indeed! Oh, how we relished the challenge of stepping off the kerb and carefully sliding our invisible feet forward until we located the one on the opposite side of the road. The smell, the taste….. Nurse; the screens……

    Oh yes, the Riviera, I agree – 1st generation great, 5th dire, 7th vastly improved. Not sure about the 8th; something about the B-post doesn’t look right.

    1. Good morning John. Regarding the seventh generation, it is certainly vastly improved over the hideous previous generations, but it was also around 20″ (50cm) shorter than the original and final generation cars, and was by far the smallest of the Rivieras. Hence, although it’s a very tidy design, I think it lacks the presence to be considered a ‘proper’ Riviera.

      Regarding the B-pillar on the final eighth-generation version, at first glance I thought it might be angled like that because it was retractable and the car was a pillarless coupé. Sadly, it wasn’t:

  5. Morning Andrew. My knowledge of American cars is a little lacking, I wasn’t aware of the Rivieras until now. I don’t think I’ve seen one here in the U.K. From your articles I’m warming to them. The Americans do create some great dash boards. 🤣
    Thanks again for a great and informative article.

  6. Rivieras can quite often be seen at classic car shows. Here’s a couple I spotted last weekend in north London.

    My favourite fact about the Riviera, which I’ve probably mentioned before, is that Dusty Springfield had a 1st-generation one.

    1. Jonathan: Regarding Ms. Springfield, I recall that she is also reputed to have owned a Citroen XM, shortly before her untimely demise.

  7. Hello everyone and thank you for your comments regarding the Riviera.

    Nice spotting from Mr Wadman. Up here in the frozen north, one or two may lurk in a collection somewhere but should the lottery fall your way, there’s this for sale:


    My favourite shape of the Riv alters the more I read about them. The early ones are achingly cool but I seem to dwell more on the late 60’s stuff. I don’t share the ambivalence mooted here for the later models and feel the final iteration was one of Bill Porter’s finest.

    Fact Spot.
    The Blackbird SR-71 required something of a start before chasing space. Situated on a “start-cart” were two Wildcat engines, side by side. Fitted with automatic transmission, they produced enough torque at 3,200 rpm to hold the jets at speed whilst everything ignited. A vertical drive shaft connected to bottom of the planes engine and of course, one engine per side of the plane.

    Reports of the exhausts shooting flames three feet long from the cart are not uncommon. The engineers responsible for the cart had Buick racing backgrounds.

    Stay tuned for some continued Riviera themes – right after these messages…

  8. I have a peculiar fascination with the 1974-76 Riviera perhaps partly because as a kid I used to play GTA III and there was a car called the Idaho directly inspired by it. For some reason that rear treatment has left a mark in my mind and there’s no other car quite like that.

    Aesthetically speaking I do like the 1st gen but one thing that I think spoils it is the sharp crease running along the side and over both arches. It’s a heavy handed and ornate feature on an otherwise clean and pleasant design.
    2nd generation is my favourite, i think it has the proper stance and wild proportions with a certain restraint. Especially the 66 model with the bold front end:

  9. For completeness, here’s the third-generation ‘boat-tail’ model:

    Mad, but in a good way. I wonder if the louvres in the boot lid are functional?

    1. All of the 1971 GM B,C, D, and E bodies, and the 1971 Chevrolet Vega, (including all estate versions) had these louvers, which were for the flow-thru ventilation system, in which the ventilation fan always drew fresh air into the car, even if the climate control was turned off. This system worked “too well”, making occupants uncomfortably cold in conditions where the heater core took time to warm up. Water would also frequently enter the boots. There were many customer complaints, so GM re-engineered the system for 1972, removing the visible louvers (except for the Vega estate which had rear side-fender louvers that imitated the VW type 3 and 4 engine intake louvers).

  10. Absolutely, Daniel and a 1971 only feature. Boat tail Riviera fans covet these most of all.

  11. In my first job just out of engineering school I occasionally carpooled with a colleague in his eighth generation Riviera. Though I found it attractive and shapely on the outside, GM interiors of that era in general were unyieldingly monochromatic and monotextural plastic. The most distressing part of the experience is the bleating drone of the 3800 V6 due to its 90 degree crankshaft design, betraying its origins as a sawed off V8. So while not a car for me, I did find the styling attractive and one of the few cars that really look right in white.

    There was also a significant restyling of the 7th generation in the early 90s that lengthened the nose and tail, cribbing the themes of the 6th gen. Some days I like it more than the 8th gen but I haven’t seen one in more than a decade.

  12. As usual I went to the Saturday Night Cruise last night. It was unusual in the sense that there were quite a few cars there I hadn’t seen before like this perfect example of ’63 Riviera.

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