Silver Car For Mr Mitchell (Part Two)

Boaty McBoat Tail

Buick Silver Arrow III. Image: Conceptcarz

An almost mythical aura surrounds the second of the Silver Arrow concepts, which is more than can be said of the car itself – now vanished without trace. Hype and overall interest for 1967 was considerably lower when compared to the first Silver Arrow; no chassis number, no documented dates, no confirmed photos, zilch.

After extensive research with limited resources[1], Silver Arrow II appears to have barely differed from a 1970 model year Riviera – the grille perhaps receiving the most noticeable change – 74 teeth opposed to only 60. The side chromed spear overlaid onto bodywork. An interior again in silver leather. Other small details differing from that of later production models include side view mirrors, the hub caps (not seen on any other Riviera) and the rear side reflectors. What is known as the Rocker Moulding[2], was also chromed.

Missing build sheets or much by other substantive information leaves it unclear if this car was ever released from within GM studios. It would certainly appear that the car was never shown to the public. Was Mitchell enjoying the original Silver Arrow too much? Or had his interest in what would become the 1970 body shape Riviera, waned? Sadly, neither are answerable.

1970 Riviera. Image: vintagecarbrochures

As the production development of the Riviera continued, Mitchell’s next move courted a controversy that still resounds today. 1971 dropped anchor with the ‘Boat Tail’. Divisional head, Lee Mays publicly declared: “A classic new design, a triumph of automotive style.” Privately, Mays detested the design, later admitting “some people liked it but some people like anything. 

Fleet Admiral Mitchell placed Rear Admiral, Jerry Hirschberg in charge of the pencils along with Chief Petty Officer, John Houlihan. Attempting to interpret Mitchell’s idea, Jerry admitted to the car being a peculiar one to look back on, whereas Houlihan remains proud. Mitchell demanded a classic theme; bold ideas incorporating pre-war Delage and Delahaye; sweeping curves, thirties extravagance. Even Mitchell let slip a typically pithy retort when questioned years later: “What hurt the boat tail was to widen it. It got so wide, the speedboat became a tugboat.” Fans and detractors appear equal in number. 

The reasoning being the malpractice of sizing. Originally a 3/8 scale model by a chap named Don DeHarsh was pounced upon by Mitchell. Placing those measurements onto the GM A-body found Mitchell and team beginning to smile as the sweep spears materialised. Management’s ideas however wiped away those joyful expressions. Insisting on the larger B-body caused headaches for both design and manufacturing teams. Looks the team never balanced; engineers sweating blood over that rear glass area. 

Silver Arrow III. Image: cardomain

Utilising a very early 1971 model year chassis[3], Silver Arrow III began life a Silver Fern Riviera with white vinyl interior, then primed for more of Mitchell’s sterling alchemy. Unveiled at the 1971 Chicago motor show, the car appears more an approval scheme for future Rivieras, opposed to an argent Mitchell runabout.

Lowering the roofline a full two inches (not applied to future production models) made this experimental showpiece most striking. Assisting with the swiftness required for the concept’s 26th of February motor show reveal, the roof was fibreglass, strengthened by a roll bar neatly engineered into the C-pillar. The rear quarter light was harmonised with the sweep spear – regular production boat tails having a more production-friendly squared off affair. The trunk fitted louvres, assisting with cabin air flow were deleted.

Other attributes found on the latest bearer of atomic number 47 that would become standard on later models being in no particular order, moulded roof rear lights, six square halogen headlights, and Max-Trac – an early form of anti skid control. The egg crate grille previewed customer 1972 models, alongside bumpers containing rubber inserts. In a nod to Silver Arrow I, the wheel arches behind the Borrani knock-off wire wheels, were red. The engine and mechanical aspects remained untouched.

Two Arrows. Image: Conceptcarz

As befitting such an experiment, Silver Arrow III’s steering wheel and pedals were adjustable, the black piped, silver bucket seats only capable of being rocked forward to allow rear passenger access. One could inflate the cushions and extend the seat, vertically. Continuing inside, the curved, two-tone dashboard housed a digital display unit, an automatic dim/dip mirror and the huge rear window being vapourmist treated in an attempt to decrease the greenhouse effect for passengers. 

Mitchell was justifiably proud of his silvery creations but whether the fault of Silver Arrow III, the boat tail effect in general or the change to specific engine output[4], Riviera sales plummeted. The third gilded lily attempt also lives with its more striking first born in the same museum. Silver as a Riviera external paint colour remained popular whereas the Boat tail style was cut adrift in 1973. In a 1980 interview, Bill Mitchell reflected, “a good design doesn’t age, it goes on forever becoming classic. A bad design will never let you forget it. It’ll haunt you forever.

Image: Conceptcarz

But this was not quite the end for the Silver Arrows, although Bill Mitchell was not around to see it. Bill Porter’s sublime, often derided (jelly mould) 1995 Riviera, divided customer’s loyalty once again, but also struggled against the oncoming SUV tide. A September 1998 press release gave warning Riviera production would cease on November 25th that year. Just 200 Silver Arrow editions would be made available before the curtain would be drawn down.

No longer a styling exercise for future Rivieras, these final arrows flew only to the paint and trim shop – the name simply becoming a model derivation. An excuse in lifting the price one last time, or an epitaph to a time when the clouds really did contain silver linings? As to be expected, all two hundred models sold quickly. Sought after today, prices are keen for those entering such unwarranted avenues.

As pure experiments, Silver Arrows one and three remain lustrous, if a little burnished, akin to a well used dollar offering comfort in use. But like the fog that first brought about the Riviera itself, the elusive second model elicits little but wispy memories. For the character that he was, one doubts Bill Mitchell would approve. 

[1] The ROA, Sloan Museum and historical records within Buick uncovered little else.

[2] The bottommost area that covers the cars wheelbase, known in this part of the world as the sill panel.

[3] The car Joe Public could buy was launched September 22nd 1970.

[4] GM up to and including 1970 offered figures as BHP gross. This changed from 1971 to a NET figure, in turn, significantly lower.

Data sources: The ROA, http://www.buick-riviera.com

Author: Andrew Miles

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

7 thoughts on “Silver Car For Mr Mitchell (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. I always wondered about the Silver Arrow II, since I’ve only known about the I and III. I didn’t realize this iteration of the Riviera started out as an A body. Here’s a shot of the model (I hope I don’t mess up future articles about the Riviera.

    1. Another progenitor was the extremely well received 1956 Centurion concept generally credited with propelling Chuck Jordan’s career at GM.

      and while some may draw comparison with the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, the feel of this trope on a larger car was well established by the highly regarded Auburn Speedster:

      Combine with the glamorous, and exotic French influence I mention below, and considering the trend toward “retro classic” styling, it would have seemed “on paper” that GM design had a sure winner on their hands.

  2. Thank you for this second part, Andrew- good stuff as usual. Although I do like the boat-tail Riviera quite a bit, I agree that had GM used a smaller body as a base it might have turned out more manageable in several senses of that word.
    They essentially made the same error AMC made with the Marlin some years before; as a concept car originally called Tarpon it was based on the compact American body and looked nice and trim. The production Marlin however did not and deserves a small picture to clarify the word “ungainly” in any illustrated dictionary.
    Also, it seems the Chevrolet division was playing with some very 1971-73 Riviera styling ideas itself, at least for the frond end styling- witness this rendering:

    1. Hi Bruno. That front-end treatment really was ubiquitous across the GM empire in the 1970s. Here it is on the Vauxhall Ventora FE:

  3. I think it helps in to understanding the motivation and inspiration behind this design, although it wasn’t what the public necessarily wanted. Some regard the Citroën SM as the spiritual successor to the excessive WW2 era French carrosserie cars, but the boat tail Riviera should qualify as well. The boat tail clearly came from the Auburn Speedster, which itself was inspired by the earliest streamlined racers. And although the sweep spear became a hallmark of postwar Buicks, the remainder speaks with a distinctly French accent.

  4. Interesting times they were. GM allowed a great deal of creativity around then. While the stylists were experimenting and creating in a manner which has since been all but utterly expunged from mainstream product, so too were the technicians and the engineers. For example, in the area of engine development there were groups working on air-cooled engines (up to an air-cooled flat-10), sohc V-8s with two exhaust valves and one inlet vale per cylinder, four-valve pushrod V-8s, V-8s with two camshafts in the cylinder block, sohc two valve V-8 hemis, dohc four-valve hemis, down draught port V-8s, tunnel port V-8s, aluminium block engines (GM was second to introduce an aluminium V-8 monoblock with aluminium cylinder heads into series production- guess who was first…), non-crossflow V-8 engines, non-crossflow hemis, turbocharging (an example being the turbocharged Buick Nailhead- what a torque monster that was, no then available transmission was up to the task of transmitting its torrential torque output) etc. etc. etc. The list seems endless. Then there were the developments in transmissions. Again it’ a long list. This was a rich time of creativity and innovation in the US automotive sector.

    Since today’s article is about Buick, consider what was occurring at Buick’s engine division. There was the turbocharged Buick Nailhead, already mentioned. More important was that Buick engineering was the domain of an extremely talented engineer, Dennis Manner. It was he who was responsible for Buick’s tunnel port engine. In the late ’60s he started its development. More importantly he was also working on a long stroke Buick V-8 for the full-size cars and station wagons. From all accounts this unit was most effective, featuring fearsome torque from off-idle and instant throttle response, even when handicapped with an automatic transmission in a 5,000lb car.

    The philosophy at Buick engineering was all about torque. While many others chased high power outputs or elevated rpm, Manner went after torque. He sought torque of the instant on-demand variety. He kept peak rpm modest and strove for highest possible torque right off idle, since that was what was needed in road use (accelerating from rest rarely sees one revving the engine aggressively prior to dumping the clutch and it is not recommended practice with automatic transmissions to rev the engine in neutral and then pull the selector into drive). Manner sought to have serious torque straight from idle and he got it without turbocharging (which adds nothing to off-idle torque anyway). What he did works. All that is needed is to floor the pedal. It is impressive.

    Here is a little known achievement of Buick. Buick were the masters of thin wall casting. They manufactured a 455 cid all cast iron V-8. That’s a 7.1/2 litre engine. It weighed about the same as the ubiquitous Chevrolet 350 small block, yet it had the swept capacity of the Chevrolet big block and it had room to be stretched further- much further. It would had less weight when fitted with aluminium heads and inlet manifolding, but that would have cost a lot more and led to various well known production challenges as well as maintenance issues for the user. Still, it is an impressive piece. Now if you stroke it (just as Dennis Manner did) and stick it in a small car…

    Instant big torque from a simple engine of modest weight. Dennis Manner knew what he was doing.

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