Plutocrat Pony Car: The 1966-1970 Buick Riviera

THE WRAPUP

Although its sporty flair seemed to shrink with each washing, the second-generation Buick Riviera was a solid success, selling 227,669 units in five model years. It only beat the Thunderbird once, but Riviera sales were very close to the combined total of the Toronado and FWD Eldorado (although it must be said that the Eldorado’s lower numbers were mainly due to its deliberately limited production). GM’s accountants undoubtedly also appreciated that the tooling costs of the E-body shell could be amortized over 465,436 cars rather than fewer than 113,000.

While the second-generation Riviera may have been far less innovative than the Toronado in either styling or engineering, it was inarguably a much greater commercial success: the Toronado sold only 143,134 units in five years, less than two-thirds of the Riviera’s volume. The Riviera did have the advantage of an already-established image — when the 1966 Riviera arrived, buyers already knew exactly what a Riviera was and how it fit into the Buick lineup — but even if the Riviera and Toronado had sold equally well, the Riviera would still have been the cheaper to build and probably the more profitable to boot.

1966 Buick Riviera front 3q © Aaron Severson
Another look at the 1966 Buick Riviera.

With results like that, it’s little wonder that Buick (and GM) didn’t rush to adopt front-wheel drive in this era or that the corporation had an ambivalent attitude toward new technology even when it didn’t have any specific crippling flaws. 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).

Toronado and Eldorado buyers did appreciate their cars’ front-wheel drive, but many Toronado owners wished Oldsmobile would offer it on something other than a big coupe while a lot of Cadillac customers admitted that they were drawn more to the Eldorado’s sharp looks than its mechanical configuration. General Motors was certainly not categorically opposed to novelty, but the corporation was obviously more interested in innovations that would either sell cars or save money and front-wheel drive (in and of itself) did neither.

GM did stay the course with the E-bodies if only to get its money’s worth; the Unitized Power Package survived through 1985. By 1972, the second-generation Toronado was consistently outselling the Riviera — thanks mostly, we suspect, to the new Toro’s pronounced resemblance to the outgoing Eldorado. The Riviera finally adopted front-wheel drive for 1979, when assembly of the E-bodies was consolidated at the GM plant in Linden, New Jersey. The first FWD Riv would be the most successful of all, although it was not until 1984 until it beat the record set by the 1969 Riviera. By then, of course, front-wheel drive was no longer seen as exotic engineering.

With all this talk of corporate psychology, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the second-generation Riviera was an exceptionally good-looking design. The later facelifts are not to our tastes, but the 1966-1967 version is quite sharp. Dave Holls said later that it was one of his favorite designs of the sixties and we wholeheartedly agree.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Kathy Adelson of the GM Media Archive for her assistance with archival images for this story.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources on the development of the Riviera and its E-body siblings included “1961 Buick Analysis,” Motor Life, November 1960 (Vol. 10, No. 4), reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962 (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 108-109; “Autocar Road Test Number 2036: Buick Riviera,” Autocar, July 1965, reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 43-48; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1961-1964 Cadillac” (16 September 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1961-1964-cadillac.htm, accessed 18 June 2012), “1965-1967 Buick Gran Sport” (25 September 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1965-1967-buick-gran-sport.htm, accessed 12 June 2012), “1966-1970 Buick Riviera” (29 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1966-1970-buick-riviera.htm, accessed 15 June 2012), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Patricia Ward Biederman, “The Man Who Couldn’t Part With a Car Brochure,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2002; Ray Bohacz, “Light my fire! 1967 Buick Wildcat 430-cubic-inch V-8,” Hemmings Classic Car #23, August 2006; John R. Bond, “Road Test & Technical Review: 1963 Buick Riviera,” Car Life, October 1962 (Vol. 9, No. 9), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 6-11; Jim Brokaw, “Almost a Limousine,” Motor Trend, December 1970 (Vol. 22, No. 12), reprinted in ibid, pp. 103-107; Arch Brown, “1966 Thunderbird: ‘Big Bird,'” Special Interest Autos #106, July-August 1988, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 120-127; “Buick Riviera,” Car and Driver, October 1969 (Vol. 15, No. 4), reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973 (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2001), p. 99; “Buick Riviera,” World Automotive, 1968, reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, p. 96; “Buick Riviera: beauty only skin deep?” Road Test, July 1966, reprinted in ibid, pp. 64-69; “Buick Riviera Gran Sport,” Car and Driver, June 1965 (Vol. 10, No. 12), reprinted in ibid, pp. 38-42; “Buick Riviera GS,” Car and Driver, August 1966 (Vol. 12, No. 2), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, pp. 56-59; “Car and Driver Road Research Report: Buick Riviera,” Car and Driver, December 1963 (Vol. 9, No. 6), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 23-29 and 55; “Car Life Road Test: Chevrolet Impala SS,” Car Life March 1965 (Vol. 11, No. 6), reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1996), pp. 71–75; “Car Life Road Test: 1965 Ford Thunderbird,” Car Life, November 1964 (Vol. 11, No. 2), reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976 (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 37-41; “Car Life Road Test: Buick LeSabre 400: A Budget-Priced, Conservative Luxury Car,” Car Life, January 1965 (Vol. 11, No. 12), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, pp. 33-37; “Car Life Road Test: Oldsmobile Toronado,” Car Life, February 1966 (Vol. 12, No. 5), reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Oldsmobile Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, pp. 43-47; “Car Life Road Test: Riviera Gran Sport,” Car Life, February 1966 (Vol. 13, No. 1), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 56-61; “Car Life Road Test: Riviera: A Superb Combination of Styling, Performance, Ride and Comfort,” Car Life, November 1967 (Vol. 14, No. 10), reprinted in ibid, pp. 85-89; “Car Life Road Test: Riviera for the Freeways,” Car Life, February 1969 (Vol. 16, No. 1), reprinted in ibid, pp. 91-95; “Cars Road Test: Buick’s Riviera GS Is the Grandest Sport of Them All!” Cars, October 1967, reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, pp. 75-78 and 105; “Driving the Hot ’67s: Buick Riviera,” Motor Trend, October 1966 (Vol. 18, No. 10), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, p. 77; “Cole, Edward N.,” Generations of GM, GM Heritage Center, no date, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 22 June 2012; Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History (An Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Book), Third Edition (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1987); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1978, 1993, Second Edition); John Ethridge, “5 Luxury Specialty Cars,” Motor Trend, August 1967 (Vol. 19, No. 7), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 78-83; Darwin Falk and Ray Knott, “What is a Gran Sport/G.S./Stage 1?” The Riview, rivowners. org, accessed 11 June 2012; Craig Fitzgerald, “The Lost Riv: 1966-1970 Buick Riviera,” Hemmings Motor News, January 2010; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Bill Hartford, “Too Rough a Ride for the Soft Life,” Popular Mechanics, July 1969 (Vol. 131, No. 7), pp. 122-125; Tim Howley, “driveReport: 1958 Thunderbird: Flying Off in a New Direction,” Special Interest Autos #151, January-February 1996, reprinted in Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords, pp. 86-94; John F. Katz, “SIA comparisonReport: 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado vs. 1967 Cadillac Eldorado: The Front Line of Front-Wheel Drive,” Special Interest Autos #168, November-December 1998, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 110-119; Steve Kelly, “Mister Muscle of 1970,” Hot Rod, November 1969 (Vol. 22, No. 11), reprinted in Clarke, Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, pp. 96-98; Ray Knott, “Evolution of the Riviera – 1966,” The Riview, July-August 2002 (Vol. 18, No. 5); “Evolution of the Riviera – 1967,” The Riview, September-October 2002 (Vol. 18, No. 6); “Evolution of the Riviera – 1968,” The Riview, November-December 2002 (Vol. 18, No. 7); “Evolution of the Riviera – 1969,” The Riview, January-February 2003 (Vol. 18, No. 8); and “Evolution of the Riviera – 1970,” The Riview, March-April 2003 (Vol. 18, No. 9), rivowners. org, accessed 11 June 2012; David LaChance, “Buyer’s Guide: 1966-’67 Buick Riviera GS,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #34, July 2006; Michael Lamm, “PM Owners Report: Buick Riviera,” Popular Mechanics, September 1970 (Vol. 134, No. 3), pp. 96- 99, “The Car You Wear: 1963 Buick Riviera,” Special Interest Autos #33 (March-April 1976), reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Buicks (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 94-100, “Toronado Owners Really Dig FWD but say Gas Mileage a Bummer,” Popular Mechanics, June 1970 (Vol. 133, No. 6), pp. 118-121, and “Toro & Cord: So different and yet so much alike!” Special Interest Autos #35, July-August 1976, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 100-107; Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 181-184; Richard M. Langworth, James M. Flammang, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great American Cars of the ’60s (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1992); “Letourneur & Marchand Delage D8-120 Aerosport Coupe” (no date, Coachbuild , coachbuild. com, accessed 24 June 2012); Matthew Litwin, “Clamshell Elegance,” Hemmings Motor News, June 2007; Robert McVay, “Buick Riviera GS Road Test,” Motor Trend, February 1966 (Vol. 18, No. 1), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 62-63, and “Mustang Road Test: Ford’s top-performance Mustang has quarter-horse agility, race-horse stamina, show-horse style,” Motor Trend, August 1964 (Vol. 16, No. 8), pp. 44-49; “Oldsmobile Toronado: The Most Carefully Engineered and Thoroughly Tested Car,” Car Life, November 1965 (Vol. 12, No. 2), pp. 28-37; Productioncars.com, Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005; “Riviera Gran Sport,” Road & Track, February 1966 (Vol. 17, No. 6), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, pp. 44-47; “Car Life Road Test: 1965 Ford Thunderbird,” Car Life, November 1964 (Vol. 11, No. 2), reprinted in Clarke, ed., Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976, pp. 37-41; “Toronado vs. Riviera,” Cars, September 1966, reprinted in Clarke, ed., Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, pp. 70-76; C. Van Tune, “Retrospect: Riviera: 1963–1973 Buick Riviera,” Motor Trend Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1994), reprinted in ibid, pp. 130–132; Daniel Vaughan, “1936 Delage D8-120” (2007, 2010, Conceptcarz.com, www.conceptcarz. com, accessed 24 June 2012); a comment from stylist John Houlihan on “Buick Riviera Boattail 1971 1972 1973” (18 July 2000, Buick-Riviera.com, www.buick-riviera. com/ houlihan_history.html, accessed 13 June 2013); and a letter by John Houlihan to the editors of Collectible Automobile, reprinted with permission by Gary Smith in “Who Designed the ’71 Boattail Riviera?” (25 July 2010, Dean’s Garage, deansgarage. com/ 2010/ who-designed-the-%E2%80%9971-boattail-riveria/, accessed 13 June 2013).


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26 Comments

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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. Sat in back seat when we picked our new 1967 riv gas crunch came buick went for a olds 88 sitting on a 1987 G.N. Mis that wildcat motor. speado showed 40 but at second look you could see the 140 higher than the neighbors charger.

  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.
    V.

  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/Wht.int..in 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.
    Dan

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