Swiss Riv

The final Riviera’s missing link?

1988 Buick Lucerne concept. Image: Deans Garage

The Mid-1980s downsized GM range would prove a step into the unknown for the US car giant, one which could be said to have been successful, at least in terms of raw sales numbers. But while the C-body Buick sedans proved popular with buyers[1], the E-bodied personal coupés would prove a far tougher sell. There was a good deal of trepidation amid the design leadership at Buick’s studio in GM’s Warren, Michigan Design Centre as the 1986 model year Riviera was made ready; doubts which would crystallise as the drastically downsized model failed to appeal to existing Riviera customers, who not only baulked at the style, but also its notable lack of road presence[2].

As soon as was deemed possible, Buick Design chief, Bill Porter (who had overseen the E-body design) supervised a revised styling scheme, based upon one which had originally been proposed featuring a sloping tail motif, the victim of engineering package requirements (in this case luggage capacity)[3]. With this heavily revised Riviera, the work of a team under Steve Pasteiner, the model’s fortunes were revived to some extent, but still failed to return to pre-downsized levels.

During the latter end of the 1980s, there was considerable soul-searching as to the future direction for the Buick brand, which it was felt, was losing its way amid import rivals from Europe and increasingly, Japan. To help focus minds, Porter and his design team co-created a presentation for senior management (past and present) and select members of the press, dubbed Essence of Buick. This lavish exhibition contained several of the defining Buick models from the past, alongside luxury goods, items of furniture, musical instruments, and fine crystalware, which would provide what Porter would describe as a “visual memory bank“, setting a future tone for Buick’s positioning as a premier American motor brand.

Amid the items shown at Essence of Buick was the Lucerne concept, which had made its debut at a Teamwork and Technology expo in New York in January 1988. The Lucerne, the work of a team of designers under Phil Garcia at Buick’s Advanced Studio 1, was an expansive, voluptuously surfaced personal coupe. Initially in receipt of Riviera badging, and one assumes it may have been originally intended to be proposed as such, the Lucerne offered a clear departure point from the set-square shapes of the E-body designs, clearly heralding the future direction Porter and his team wished to take with Buick design into the new decade.

So enamoured was Porter with the Lucerne’s shape that as work began on what would become the 1995 model year Riviera, the concept’s bodyshape was employed as its stylistic jumping off point. However, packaging dictates regarding the interior, and roof height in particular saw the design team depart further from the Lucerne’s sleek silhouette, so much so that Porter’s stylists were forced to begin afresh; the definitive 1995 Riviera emerging from this impasse, with a moodboard which included the 1946 Buick Sedan[4], the 1966 ‘Riv and the Jaguar XK-E.

Image: Old Concept Cars

A not entirely happy combination of formality and voluptuousness, the Lucerne[5] nevertheless exhibited some promise, but was perhaps a little over-exaggerated for comfort; certainly in profile, its extremities appearing somewhat heavy-handed. Nevertheless, it was highly regarded within Buick, and it was with considerable regret that it was ultimately set aside. However, it can be said to have served its purpose, both as a talisman for Buick’s repositioning for the 1990s and as a pathfinder to the definitive 1995 design, the last of an illustrious Riviera line.

[1] According to Bill Porter, the C-body Electra more than doubled the sales of its immediate predecessor. Porter also described how worries over the downsized cars was dubbed C-sickness at GM.

[2] Another factor was that because the ’86 Riv was delayed some two years, its cheaper and visually similar Somerset Regal Coupé sibling hit the market first – something of an own-goal for Buick management.

[3] This was remedied in the ’89 car by an 11″ tail extension.

[4] In Bill Porter’s estimation, his Lyons namesake in Coventry took influence from the ’46 Buick for his Mark VII saloon of 1950. Given Sir William’s magpie instincts, he may even be correct.

[5] The Lucerne was also shown in 1990 as a concept convertible. Not one to waste a name either, Buick employed Lucerne for a flagship sedan model from 2005 to 2011.

Source: Deans Garage

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “Swiss Riv”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I was wondering when the Lucerne would pop up in the Riviera articles. I agree that the combination of formal lines and voluptuous curves isn’t the best. However I still prefer this over the crossovers and SUV’s they’re producing now.

    Buick has a new coupé concept. A Wildcat, rather than a Riviera.

    1. Looks like a bastard of an early Audi TT and a late Saab which surely is no compliment because of the Saab content.

    2. I think that photo of the Wildcat is not so flattering, misleading even (the apparent wheel diameter difference front to rear… massive lens distortion).

    3. Hi Dave, That roofline shape has alternate parents… are these iterations more pleasing?

      I suppose it could be traced back to Lancia Stratos, but I see a bit of Riviera Silver Arrow III in it too. Still isn’t used enough, IMO.

    4. This silver Lamborghini lookalike is awful. Its roof looks like the habit of some French nuns

  2. Good morning Eóin. The Lucerne concept is new to me, and I’m shocked at just how badly proportioned it is. The front overhang is enormous and is exacerbated by the shovel-nosed front-end:

    In side profile, it looks hugely over-bodied and makes its wheels look far too small.

    The production Riviera deals much more competently with the front overhang, disguising it by pulling back the corners of the car so that the front end is almost semi-circular in plan view. For my money, it’s an unusual case where the production car is vastly better than the concept and it’s just as well the designers were forced to start again:

    1. The door really needs to be equidistant from the front and rear wheel-arches, ‘cab-forwards’ works particularly badly on a coupe.

  3. For a split second, the quarter-view at the top of the article made me think “alternate-reality Lancia Kappa coupe”

  4. The Lucerne makes me think of a Peugeot 607, mostly at the back end. I am glad they pitched in favour of the actual Riviera (though the grille/headlamp relation is unsatisfactory).

    1. Hi Richard. I certainly see what you mean about the 607, another car that would have benefitted from a slightly longer wheelbase.

      That ‘rat-hole’ where the bonnet-to-wing shut-line meets the top of the headlamp is horrible. I can see what the designers were trying to do, make the shut-line sweep down and outwards around the headlamp in a continuous, smooth arc, but they failed to take account of what would do to the shape of the headlamp aperture, creating a really awkward inboard upper corner. They should probably have pushed the shut-line outwards, so it instead met the top of the headlamp.

      Time to get my crayons out…

    1. Daniel, I can understand that this detail bothers you. Strangely enough, I don’t find this detail disturbing at all, but rather well done.

      What bothers me is another detail: the indentation in which the indicator sits. It doesn’t match the elements above it (bumper, headlights), neither on the left nor on the right.

      I’m just imagining a funny scene, the two of us back then in the design studio during the shape design. One says so and the other says not so. And meanwhile the designers are rolling their eyes and groaning, waiting for us to leave the room again.

    2. I’m with you on this one, Fred. If I would change anything about the bonnet shut-lines I would change that kink near the windscreen and I don’t like the horizontal line between the grill and headlight.

    3. Your revised version dramatically reduces the impression that there is more lamp under the bonnet. That´s because the outline of the lamp is not interruped by the corner where the bonnet and the wing meet. I think the lamp would have been even better if it had been more oblong. As it is it´s a bit indistinct. I still like the Riviera in this guise – but the predecessor is more imposing.

  5. Here you go, gents:

    The indicator is now outboard of the headlamp. The bumper rubbing strip also needed correction.

    Can’t do anything about the bonnet-to-bumper shut-line. Anyway, it’s in the least worst position, I think.

    1. Great improvement! it´s amazing how sometimes it gets better taking things out rather than adding them.

    2. Have a look at the 1999 Buick Park Avenue which I think used the same theme as the Riviera to better effect. In particular, look at the lamp and indicator at the front. Buick made some beautiful saloons at this point, far superior to what Cadillac and L’Incoln were offering.

    3. This wide angle view gives a better idea of what the designers were intending with that bonnet shut line, the surfaces on either side of the cut line are completely different and there would be no way to get such a sharp transition if the shut line were moved.

      In fact, that shut line’s counterpart on the rear end necessitated a cut line between the C-pillar and the rear wing, again facilitating a sharp transition between surfaces (that aren’t even visible from many angles).

      Notice how the bonnet shut line kink which Freerk wanted changed also appears on the bootlid, where it is actually needed.

    4. Hi Richard. Here’s the Buick you mentioned:

      The front-end is indeed very well resolved.

    5. The front view is even more unsatisfactory than the front 3/4. The effect is so pronounced: the headlamps are covered by a bonnet that has melted over them. The car needed much bigger lamps or the grille ought to have been on the same level. There are a bunch of ways to do it better (as per the Park Avenue).

  6. Hi gooddog. Yes, I understand. I’m not sure that the headlamps don’t look a little too small and ‘piggy-eyed’ from the front (although I know the effect is exaggerated in your photograph).

    In any event, the photo of Park Avenue above shows the sort of treatment I had in mind, and still has longitudinal creases in the bonnet, albeit not as pronounced as the ones at the junction of the bonnet and wings on the Riviera.

    Incidentally, I notice that the Riviera doesn’t have any Buick badging. It was also advertised as ‘Riviera by Buick’, as can be seen here:

  7. It’s worth noting that the initial design sketch for the definitive ’95 Riv (attributed to Eric Clough) featured fuller headlamp units and a smaller oval grille. A version of this treatment (with the headlamps disappearing into the grille) was then transferred onto a one-sided styling buck. Soon afterwards, GM Design VP, Chuck Jordan visited the studio, saw the proposal and was captivated. Bill Porter too was in favour of this treatment. QED.

  8. I’d like to add that the Lucerne was created just as Chuck Jordan was taking over from Irv Rybicki as GM design VP.

    Jordan may not be without his detractors, but the general consensus on Rybicki is disastrous – hence the seemingly excessive enthusiasm for what might have been considered a herald of change for the better at Tech Center.

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