Plutocrat Pony Car: The 1966-1970 Buick Riviera

It occurred to us recently that while we’ve written about the 1963-1965 Riviera and the controversial 1971–1973 “boattail,” we keep skipping over the second generation of Buick’s sporty personal luxury coupe. However, the second-generation Riviera outsold its predecessor and its successor combined — also dispatching its groundbreaking Oldsmobile Toronado cousin for good measure. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a closer look at the 1966 Buick Riviera.

1969 Buick Riviera badge


The years from 1957 to 1970 were a curiously bipolar era for General Motors technologically: a fascinating, exciting, and sometimes puzzling mixture of bleeding-edge innovation and dogged adherence to the tried and true. On one hand, the corporation dabbled in everything from air suspension to rear transaxles, some of which would still have been impressive 20 years later. On the other hand, GM often abandoned those ideas almost as quickly as it introduced them. With rare exceptions, there was little on GM’s bread-and-butter products that would have puzzled a mechanic of the late 1930s.

Of all the many production car and truck models GM offered between 1957 and 1970, only five strayed from the familiar pattern of front-engine, rear-wheel drive, and live rear axle (the Corvair, the Pontiac Tempest, the Corvette Sting Ray, the Oldsmobile Toronado, and the 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado). Only four GM cars sold in the U.S. during this period offered fewer than six cylinders — two, if we discount imports from Vauxhall and Opel — and none had more than eight. GM’s wilder innovations, like turbocharging and triple turbine automatic transmissions, were seldom offered by more than two divisions at a time and often lasted only a few years.

To see the reasons for that schizophrenia, we need look no farther than GM’s 1966 E-body coupes, the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Buick Riviera (and their Cadillac cousin, the FWD Eldorado). The Toronado is widely considered a landmark automobile; not only was it the first American production car in nearly 30 years with front-wheel drive, its tidy “Unitized Power Package” managed to integrate FWD and big block V8 power in a way experts had insisted was impossible. By comparison, the conventionally engineered Riviera seems almost banal. However, far from being the lesser car, the second-generation Riviera was actually superior in a number of meaningful ways. This is its story.


There’s a common misconception among automotive enthusiasts (and some automotive historians) that the moves automakers make from year to year are in direct response to market reaction: that the shape and features of next year’s model is dictated by customer response to this year’s car.

The reality is that as much as automakers would like to respond that quickly to the public mood, the lead times involved in production tooling make it largely impossible. Even in the days before safety and emissions regulations, a major redesign usually took at least two years and involved a lot of expensive overtime, so for better or worse, automotive stylists, engineers, and executives of that era were often developing successors for models that had not yet gone on sale.

Among the few exceptions was the emerging personal luxury genre created by the four-seat Ford Thunderbird. Because such cars were produced in comparatively small numbers, their production runs were longer than those of most family sedans (until 1970, the Thunderbird was on a three-year cycle) and annual facelifts were typically modest. The designers of personal luxury cars were still stuck with the same basic shape for the full production run, but they at least had the luxury of considering public response to the current model before finalizing its replacement.

1963 Buick Riviera rear 3q © Aaron Severson
Development of the second-generation Buick Riviera probably began well before the 1963 model debuted on October 4, 1962. We don’t know exactly when the 1966 model was approved, but we assume it was around the spring of 1963, about the same time as the Oldsmobile Toronado.

We must admit that we were not able to track down a lot of detailed information on the styling development of the 1966 Buick Riviera, but based on the chronology of its Toronado counterpart, we can make an educated guess that work began in early to mid-1962, months before the 1963 Riviera went on sale. If so, development began under the direction of Bernard N. Smith, then Buick chief stylist, but most accounts credit the design to stylist David R. Holls, who had been Charles M. Jordan’s assistant at Cadillac from 1957 to 1960, working on the 1959–1961 Cadillacs, and then in the Chevrolet studio until he moved to Buick in 1961. Holls would succeed Smith as head of the Buick studio in 1963.

As we’ve previously discussed, the first Riviera did not originate in the Buick studio at all; it was developed by Ned Nickles (who, it must be said, had previously been Buick’s chief stylist) in a separate special projects studio, under the personal direction of styling vice president William L. Mitchell. The design was inspired both by the 1939–1940 LaSalle, which Mitchell had developed during his tenure as Cadillac chief stylist in the late 1930s, and the razor-edged roofline of a Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce Mitchell had spotted on a trip to London.

Buick stylists apparently decided the sharply creased look of the original Riviera didn’t have legs (although Mitchell remained infatuated with the theme, which reemerged a decade later as the “sheer look” of the 1976 Cadillac Seville). According to later interviews with Chuck Jordan, then a GM design director, even Holls’ early sketches went in a different direction, with a sleeker, more voluptuous shape and a rakish semi-fastback roof instead of the 1963 car’s angular notchback. (Holls, for his part, described the second-generation Riviera as a natural evolution of its predecessor.)

The design that emerged was quite sporty-looking, although it was bigger than the 1963–1965 Riviera in almost every dimension. With its kicked-up rear fenders and the pronounced “W” shape of its front end, the new Riviera also bore a stronger relationship to Buick’s forthcoming 1966 intermediate and full-size lines — probably an important consideration in its design.

1965 Buick Wildcat Custom Sport Coupe front 3q © Aaron Severson
We wouldn’t go so far as to say the 1966 Buick Riviera looks like its Buick stablemates, but there was definitely a family resemblance to contemporary big Buicks like this 1965 Wildcat hardtop. Note, for example, the W-shaped nose with its vestigial hood ornament and the wasp-waisted flare of the rear fenders.


Another factor in the development of the new model was pressure from senior corporate management to make wider use of the Riviera’s body shell. The first-generation Riviera would be basically sui generis; its chassis and running gear were similar to full-size Buicks’, but the body was shared with no other GM car. In General Motors’ thinking, that was an expensive luxury. The Riviera’s body was no less expensive to tool or build than that of the sedans, but the cost had to be amortized over a much smaller production run (in this case, 112,544 units over three model years). Although the Riviera was one of the top Buick models, Buick did not charge a substantial premium for it; the Riviera was priced within $35 of an Electra 225 convertible. As a result, the Riviera was probably less profitable than it might otherwise have been.

GM’s usual answer to that problem was to share basic body shells across models and between divisions, a strategy the corporation had adopted back in the early 1930s. By the summer of 1962, months before the 1963 Riviera went on sale, Edward N. Cole, group vice president of GM’s car and truck group (and formerly general manager of Chevrolet), was pushing for Oldsmobile and Cadillac to introduce their own personal luxury coupes, sharing the “E-body” shell of the next-generation Riviera. This was not a popular decision: Cadillac (at least according to Chuck Jordan) was not terribly interested while both Bill Mitchell and Oldsmobile management wanted the Olds entry to use the smaller A-body intermediate platform. However, Cole insisted, presumably on financial grounds.

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado Deluxe front 3q 2 © Aaron Severson
The original Toronado was based on a design exercise by stylist Dave North. Originally intended for the A-body platform, it was scaled up to the package dimensions of the 1966 Buick Riviera. There is a remarkable period Styling photo (which unfortunately we were unable to obtain for this article) that shows a full-size clay model of which one half is the Toronado and the other half the contemporary Riviera. (Naturally, the two cars were very similar in overall dimensions.)

While the basic proportions and fixed dimensions of the E-body would be dictated by Buick — in late 1962 and early 1963, the Advanced studio and Oldsmobile’s own designers adapted the Olds design to fit the Buick “package” — Cole wanted Buick and Cadillac to share Oldsmobile’s mechanical layout, which was to include front-wheel drive. (As explained in our Toronado article, Oldsmobile had originally wanted to use FWD in one of its sedan lines, but senior management had balked at the cost.) The engineering development of the FWD package and its associated pieces (including a unique powertrain subframe and new front and rear suspensions) was to be divided between the three divisions, under the direction of the corporate Engineering staff.

Buick general manager Edward D. Rollert decided early on that Buick neither needed nor wanted front-wheel drive. Rollert had arrived at Buick in April 1959, following several disastrous years caused in part by quality issues and reliability problems with new technology like the ill-fated Flight Pitch Dynaflow transmission. He was well aware that he had been appointed to clean house at Buick, and we assume he was understandably reluctant to go down that road again. Buick would still contribute to the engineering of the FWD package, most notably by designing and manufacturing the Unitized Power Package’s slim planetary differential, but Rollert convinced Cole to allow the new Riviera to retain rear-wheel drive and adapt the cruciform frame of the first-generation cars to the new shell.

1965 Buick Riviera Gran Sport front 3q © Aaron Severson
The ultimate first-generation Riviera was the 1965 Riviera Gran Sport, which included the dual-carburetor Super Wildcat engine, dual exhausts, a limited-slip differential with a 3.42 axle, and the inevitable badges and trim. Although commonly associated with the Gran Sport, the heavy-duty handling package with 15:1 fast-ratio steering was technically a separate option; models so equipped ride about 1 inch (25 mm) lower than cars with the standard suspension. On all 1965 Rivieras, the quad headlamps were concealed behind the grilles in the fender nacelles. This arrangement was part of the original design, but cost and engineering issues meant that the concealed lights didn’t arrive until 1965. The wheels are not alloys, but chromed steel, a $91.38 option available on most Buicks.

That decision would make the Riviera and Toronado perhaps the most distinct of any of GM’s shared-platform models. It was common in that era for each division’s version of the corporate body shells to have its own frame, engine, and even transmissions, but the Riviera and Toronado would not only have completely different drivetrain layouts — they would also have different structures. The Toronado (and the 1967 Eldorado) had a semi-unitized body carrying the powertrain and front suspension on a long subframe that ended just ahead of the rear suspension; the Riviera, despite sharing significant portions of the Toronado’s body shell, had a separate, self-supporting chassis.

That chassis was another anomaly. Other than the big Cadillac Series Seventy-Five limousines, the Riviera’s was the last of GM’s X-frames, with no side rails. Buick had adopted the cruciform frame for its full-size models in 1961, creating a similar version for the 1963—1965 Riviera, but Buick was about to phase out that design for its big cars, which went to a perimeter frame for 1965.

Aside from their obvious differences, the perimeter and cruciform frames represented completely different chassis engineering philosophies. Where the perimeter frame was deliberately flexible, allowing it to absorb vibration and road harshness, the cruciform frame was intended to be self-supporting. We suspect Buick’s main rationale for keeping the older frame was that it was already paid for, but combining it with the quasi-unitized E-body shell made the Riviera exceptionally stout. Remarkably, the Riviera was also 250 lb (113 kg) lighter than a Toronado Deluxe.

1966 Buick Riviera Wildcat 465 engine © 2010 Bruce Renfrew (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Buick’s 340 (gross) horsepower Wildcat 465 engine was standard on 1964 Rivieras, optional in 1965, and standard again for the 1966 Riviera pictured here. The “465” referred to the engine’s 465 lb-ft (630 N-m) of torque, not its displacement, which was 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc). Note the headlights, seen here in the closed position. When turned on, an electric motor swiveled the lights downward over the grille. (Photo: “1966 Buick Riviera ‘Naihead’ 425 engine(front view)” © 2010 Bruce Renfrew; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

In other respects, the 1966 Riviera would be largely conventional. Suspension was little changed from the 1963–1965 cars, featuring coil springs all around, unequal length A-arms and an anti-roll bar up front, and a live axle located by three trailing links and a Panhard rod. The drivetrain was also carryover: Buick’s familiar 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) “Nailhead” V-8 linked to the excellent three-speed Super Turbine 400 (a.k.a. Turbo Hydra-Matic), which Buick introduced in 1964. One welcome returning feature was Buick’s big 12-inch (305mm) brakes, finned aluminum in front (with iron wear surfaces) and finned cast iron in back. They were not discs, which Buick wouldn’t offer until 1967, but as drum brakes went, Buick’s were among the best in the business.

The 1966 Riviera’s only really novel engineering feature was its windows. Along with the Toronado, the Buick Riviera was the first postwar GM car to abandon the Fisher No-Draft Venti-Planes introduced back in 1933. In their place was a modern flow-through ventilation system that Buick called Circulaire, exhausting cabin air through slots below the backlight. The loss of vent windows was controversial even within GM and would be often criticized in the years to come, but it started an industry trend.

1965 Buick Riviera dash
1966 Buick Riviera interior with Strato-Buckets © Aaron Severson
A key part of the first-generation Buick Riviera’s identity was its bucket seats and center console, seen above on a 1965 model (top). This 1966 Riviera (bottom) also has “Strato Buckets,” console, and console-mounted shifter, but they were now extra-cost options; the new Riviera came with standard bench seats. A split “Strato-Bench” seat with a folding center armrest was also optional. This car’s headrests were a pricey $84 option, which included a recline feature for the passenger seat.


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  1. In May, 1966, I drove a black one from Ft. Lauderdale to Detroit. I still believe it was one of the most beautiful cars of all time; the only problem was all the attention it got. I am not the flashy type. I ran it up to 115 on a portion of I75 and raced a VW through the mountains of Kentucky. (I could not beat it because the VW cornered so much better.) I do not believe the structure was as stiff as my 1963 Dodge Dart and it certainly took a lot more gas, about 12 miles to the gallon. Perhaps it was my hard driving, but the trip seemed to age the car slightly.

    1. The mileage sounds about typical: 425 cubic inches and 4,400 lb is not a combination conducive to fuel sipping.

      By aging the car, do you mean the engine or the ride and handling? A number of contemporary reviewers were dissatisfied with the Riviera’s shocks, which they found under-damped. OEM shock absorbers in those days were not noted for their longevity, so a few thousand miles of hard driving might well have taken a lot of the spring out their step, so to speak. And the engine may have been ready for a tune-up (also common enough in that era).

      1. There was a noise coming from the engine compartment, it could have been a belt. But the structure itself seemed a little weary from the trip, but that could have been because of the shocks. The car was not well dampened. Like any other work of art, it was not designed for utilitarian purposes.

  2. I have been enjoying this site for several weeks now. You are a very thorough writer and I love the back story of the designers and the marketplace you give to every model. Their is nothing else like this on the internet. Bravo!

    I also enjoyed seeing a shot of my Cad 16 on the site as well as my friends ’56 Studebaker.

  3. Thank you Mr. Severson. I cannot remember reading an article that I did not completely enjoy.You are the (Arch Brown) of the internet.

  4. Another great article – thank you.

    The first gen Riv is just so damn goodlooking, and there’s something about the boattail Riv that’s so great, that this one sort of gets lost. But it’s a good looking car. What strikes me now is that, like the contemporary Toronado and Eldorado, it too seemed to look best in its original guise, and subsequent facelifts really didn’t do it any favors. There was a real purity to the 1966 model that worked so well, even compared to its predecessor.

    I happen to see a 1970 model (now I know which year it is!) almost every weekend, parked near in a lot near some stores not far from where I live. I’m sure it belongs to an owner or employee of one of the stores, but I’ve never seen the owner. It’s in great condition, and I’m always amazed that it is obviously so frequently driven.

  5. Aaron,
    Thank you again for another great article about the Riviera. My father-in-law was a dedicated Buick Man and owned every series of Riviera starting with the 1963 until his death in the 90’s.
    I had the pleasure of driving each one of his cars and your articles bring back the pleasure of each Riviera. His and my favorite still remains the Boattail Riv.

  6. Great article about a car that often gets lost in comparison to the more “flashy” vehicles of the era. It’s unfortunate GM didn’t have a better archive and internal history system. 30 to 40 years later it seems unlikley the competition will gain an advantage.

    1. I want to emphasize that the archivists at GM have been extremely helpful in all my dealings with them. Articles like the first-generation Toronado history would have been much poorer without their assistance, and I’m very grateful for their help.

      To its great credit, GM [i]has[/i] made a concerted effort to preserve its history and heritage. Historians at major automakers like GM don’t have an easy task, because we’re talking about a huge corporation that has been operating — on a very large scale — for longer than any of its current employees has been alive. The sheer volume of information involved is quite staggering, and keeping EVERYTHING would be impractical, particularly for pre-digital records. While as a historian I inevitably wish it could be otherwise, I also understand that that would probably require creating a medium-sized city devoted to nothing but nine decades of corporate records!

  7. “The Unitized Power Package was very clever and it worked quite well, but it didn’t work dramatically better than a standard rear-drive layout (except in specific areas like wet traction).” The front wheel drive layout did make an important difference in one other area: snow. Front wheel drive makes a car much easier to handle in the snow, especially for “average” drivers. Combining the pulling force of the front wheel drive with the powertrain weight over the drive wheels really makes a difference in slippery conditions.

    Why GM did not market this as a feature has always puzzled me. People in Detroit are certainly familiar with snow, and the added traction could have been a selling point.

    1. That is true, and that is something that Toronado owners did stress in owners surveys and the like. Admittedly, these were not cars designed with practicality in mind, in any case: the Toronado wasn’t exactly expansive in passenger or trunk space. If Oldsmobile had made a FWD Vista Cruiser, it would have been unstoppable: flat floors, excellent space, and great snow traction. (Although standard Vista Cruisers were somewhat tail-heavy, so they probably fared better than the sedans in that respect.)

      Why didn’t Oldsmobile and Cadillac promote the snow traction aspect? One possibility is that they didn’t want to make the rest of their lines seem inferior, since most of their cars were RWD and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. I’ve heard a similar theory about why Detroit didn’t really want to promote disc brakes: the logic was that if the automakers emphasized how much better disc brakes worked, people (and perhaps their lawyers) would demand to know why all cars didn’t have discs.

      1. Another point as reported in the AUWN story about the first-generation Toronado was the fact that GM used the UPP for the Toronado and Eldorado under license of Ford Motor Company, which had considered a similar design for a front-wheel-drive Thunderbird in 1961 but later rejected it for production.

        1. I want to be clear (so as not to mislead anyone) that, as I noted in the Toronado article, I don’t know for a fact that GM used the design (or rather a key element covered in Fred Hooven’s Ford patent) under license. I have read rumors to that effect, reported by Car and Driver, inter alia, but I’ve never seen any official confirmation. Not being an engineer or a patent attorney, the question of how different the application of a given idea has to be to skirt around a similar patent is really beyond my expertise — companies spend big bucks on lawyers for these reasons. However, after looking at the Hooven patent against the UPP, it certainly appeared similar enough to at least raise some serious questions.

          So, while there may have been a license or other agreement between GM and Ford over that invention, I want to emphasize that that is speculation rather than definite fact.

    2. I did see a vintage Olds ad from 1967 that touted the Toronado’s prowess in the snow. I can’t remember what publication it was in. What I do remember was the magazine was comparing a vintage Toronado and Eldorado.

  8. Parked my 63 beside a 66 GS at a show last week. Yes, it is a handsome car despite having to share the ungainly front overhang of the Toronado and Eldorado. But the big difference is inside – a 63-64 Riviera is a gorgeous car from the inside too, while the 66-67 is typical of the cheapo uniformity that overtook American car interiors by the end of the decade.

    1. Well, when it comes to the ’68-’69-’70 cars, I would agree, but the ’66-’67 Riviera interior is still kind of neat (albeit very Toronado-like), with the drum speedometer and so forth. I haven’t spent enough time in them to judge the relative quality of interior materials, but I do think the ’66-’67 looks reasonably distinctive, whereas the ’68-’69 cars could be pretty much any big American car of this time.

  9. Thanks so much for including the 66 GS engine compartment photo; I’m restoring a 66 GS and was wondering about the heater core (mine leaks). Even my service manual for 1966 shows both inlet and outlet on the left as you face the firewall. Mine is identical to this photo in that the inlet and outlet are on opposite sides of the box. Thanks again.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t know. My suggestion would be to contact either a local Buick club or the Riviera Owners Association and see if they can help you. Sorry!

  10. Actually, my favorite Riviera is the ’70. But I also consider GM C-bodies the best cars ever :)

    There is a small mistake: The ’70 pictured here has the long skirts.

    1. Thanks for the correction!

  11. In general I have to say that as a hardcore-enthusiast I have read incredibly much about vintage American cars. But your articles on that subject are by far the best.

    Please keep up the great work.

  12. My family was a Buick Family.The best one was a ’53 Roadmaster conv.It was cream/tan top and sadle int.So when I started buying new cars,it was a Buick.I bought a new’65,SEA FOAM GREEN/ 69 I sold it to a friend.I ordered a new ’69 Riv.GS,blk/blk/blk.I immediately changed the tires for big pollyglass raised letter Good/Years.Keeping this one ,in ’79 I bought a sky blue TURBO V6,with a SHOE BOX ROOF.

  13. The ’66 Riviera and its E-platform mates, along with a few other cars (69 Fuselage Chrysler, 71 Fuselage (B body) Plymouth, 69-71 Big Mercury’s) are the last of an optimistic space-age look. They are not 1950s rocket ships with tacked-on pods, nor razor-edge jet fighters. They look more like they’d be shuttle crafts, powered by some type of fusion-gravity system. Syd Mead cars. I can find good in (almost) all eras of styling, but this era has easy favorites.

    1. I agree. I see the shift as something like this: The 1950s began, so far as American styling was concerned, with a lot of very conservative and fairly simple shapes. Designers started off by trying to enliven those shapes with tricks borrowed, in large part, from the customizers — stuff like ‘Frenched’ headlights — while the sales force pushed for more and more decoration in the form of add-on trim. The influence of the Virgil Exner Forward Look Chryslers led to a more adventuresome approach to shape, but some of the results were outlandish or chaotic and they were still rather gorp-encrusted. The recessionary backlash seems to have helped convince the sales organizations that backing off on the chrome might not be the end of the world, resulting in a wave of designs that were more sculptural or architectural than decorative, emphasizing form over detailing in a way that makes them feel very confident.

      On the architectural point, what I think makes a lot of the GM cars of this era stand out stylistically is that their draftsmanship is really first rate. There’s a sense that every angle is just right, every detail is where it needs to be, and the proportional relationships (even in seemingly trivial areas) are exceptionally well-calculated. The ’66 Riviera is a good example of the latter; from angles where sheer size would be impressive, its surfaces look vast, but they shrink discretely from other angles so the car never appears cumbersome or merely bulky. That is a hell of a trick even for a concept car, but in this period, GM pulled it off repeatedly, not only with the Riviera, but also with a lot of bread-and-butter cars.

  14. Hi.
    Im from sweden and i wonder if there is something bad about buying a riviera gs -68?
    Whats good and is there any bad things about the car?
    Thank you for information.

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