From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were somewhat more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s. One of the best designs of Mitchell’s tenure — and one of his personal favorites — was the 1963–1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if things had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn’t have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.
The story of the Riviera began not at GM, but in Dearborn, Michigan in late 1954, when Ford Division general manager Lewis D. Crusoe ordered the development of a four-seat successor to the new Ford Thunderbird. The original two-seat Thunderbird was never intended as a high-volume product; Crusoe saw it mainly as a way to draw traffic to Ford showrooms. While many buyers admired the T-Bird for its styling and sporty flair, its high price, minimal cargo space, and two-seat configuration limited its audience. Ford market research, however, suggested that if the Thunderbird had a back seat, the market might be as much as 100,000 units a year — a far more profitable proposition.
Crusoe’s successor, Robert McNamara, championed the four-seater concept, so for the 1958 model year, the “Little Bird” was replaced by a significantly bigger model with room for four and a then-novel combination of bucket seats and center console.
Although the “Square Bird” was far less sporty than its predecessor had been, its distinctive styling and relative practicality made the new ‘Bird very popular. By 1960, the final year of the original Square Bird design, annual sales had reached 92,843 units. While buyers did not embrace the restyled 1961 “Bullet Bird” with quite the same enthusiasm, the Thunderbird remained a very profitable car and an image leader for the entire Ford line.
It took General Motors a curiously long time to respond to the success of the Thunderbird. More than 200,000 four-seat T-Birds had rolled out of showrooms before GM fielded its first rival, the 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire. Essentially a fully loaded Oldsmobile Super Eighty Eight convertible with sporty trim and bucket seats, the Starfire was nice enough, but it was not nearly as distinctive as a Thunderbird, so Oldsmobile only sold about 7,600 copies.
The Starfire was followed by the 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix, a tastefully cleaned-up Catalina hardtop that sold around 30,000 copies — far more successful than the Starfire, but still not a serious threat to the T-Bird. GM seemed to be sitting on its hands.
The impression of idleness was not entirely accurate. According to Bill Mitchell, who became GM’s VP of styling in December 1958, dealers were already hounding new GM president John F. Gordon about the fact that they had no rival to the four-seat Thunderbird. In mid-1959, Mitchell responded to those complaints by assigning designer Ned Nickles, then running a small Special Projects studio, to develop a sporty Thunderbird fighter, initially intended for Cadillac.
Nickles’ rendering, labeled “LaSalle II,” was a full-size convertible featuring distinctive fender nacelles with horizontal grille bars, deliberately evoking the 1939-1940 LaSalle. Nickles was presumably aware that Mitchell had a soft spot for the LaSalle, a GM marque that had been discontinued in 1940. The original LaSalle, launched in 1927 as a less-expensive “companion make” for Cadillac, had been styled by Mitchell’s mentor, Harley Earl, and its success had led directly to the creation of the Art & Colour Section, as GM Styling was originally known. Furthermore, Mitchell himself had overseen the development of the 1939 LaSalle early in his career.
Nickles showed his watercolor rendering to Mitchell, who was quite taken with it. Mitchell told Nickles to make the design a hardtop coupe and suggested a theme for the roofline, inspired by a custom-bodied Rolls-Royce that Mitchell had spotted during a recent trip to London.
Nickles incorporated Mitchell’s suggestions into a new rendering, which was assigned the project code XP-715. By the spring of 1960, there was a full-size clay model of the XP-715, still badged LaSalle II.
SEARCHING FOR A HOME
Mitchell showed the clay model to Jack Gordon and GM chairman Frederic Donner, who agreed that the design could be an effective Thunderbird rival. The question was who was going to build the car. The XP-715 clay was just a model — it hadn’t been designed with any particular chassis or running gear in mind. For it to reach production, it would first need a home at one of the automotive divisions.
Mitchell’s first stop was Cadillac, where he pitched the XP-715 as a revival of the LaSalle concept and nameplate. He found little interest from Cadillac general manager Harold Warner; Cadillac was already straining the limits of its production capacity (the division had built more than 142,000 cars for 1960) and Warner saw no need for Cadillac to worry about boosting its image or prestige. (Cadillac dealers felt otherwise, but that was the division’s verdict.) Furthermore, Cadillac’s last attempt at a more exclusive ‘personal’ model, the recently discontinued Eldorado Brougham, had been a money-loser.
Not dissuaded, Mitchell ordered the LaSalle II badges removed from the clay model and tried again at Chevrolet. It seemed logical enough that Chevrolet should have a personal car to match its arch-rival in Dearborn, but Chevrolet was no more interested in the XP-715 than Cadillac had been. Aside from its full-sized line, Chevrolet also had the rear-engine Corvair, the Corvette, and the compact Chevy II/Nova, then being prepared for its 1962 debut. With resources already split between four quite different car lines, Chevrolet general manager Semon Knudsen was loath to add yet another model.
The XP-715 found a warmer reception at GM’s mid-priced divisions. In price and prestige, the Thunderbird was a greater threat to Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick than it was to Chevrolet or Cadillac, so all three mid-price divisions were interested to varying degrees. To Mitchell’s annoyance, however, both Pontiac general manager Pete Estes and Oldsmobile’s Jack Wolfram and Harold Metzel wanted to tinker with the design; only Buick was prepared to accept the car as it was.
Buick’s enthusiasm for the XP-715 owed less to general manager Edward D. Rollert’s aesthetic sensibilities and more to his awareness that he needed a hit very badly. Although Buick had been hugely successful in the mid-fifties, a nasty recession and a series of miscalculations late in the decade had sent sales plummeting to fewer than 300,000 units a year, well under half the division’s 1955 peak. Ed Ragsdale, Buick’s general manager since 1956, was forced into early retirement in 1959 and chief engineer Oliver K. Kelley was transferred to a non-automotive division. To replace Ragsdale, GM management had appointed Rollert, a brusque, hard-driving executive with an impressive record at Harrison Radiator Division and the combined Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant in Kansas City (the predecessor of the General Motors Assembly Division). Rollert knew that if he didn’t turn things around in a hurry, both his future and that of the division were in jeopardy.
Ironically, it was Buick’s uncertain future that kept GM’s Executive Committee from assigning the XP-715 to the division outright. Instead, the committee made the unprecedented decision to hold an inter-divisional competition, giving each of the three rival divisions 60 days to develop a complete presentation, including their technical plans for the car, budget projections, and marketing strategy.
Rollert was determined to put up a good fight, so he enlisted the help of McCann-Erickson, Buick’s new ad agency, to help refine Buick’s pitch. Using an advertising agency on internal proposal was a very unusual step, but McCann-Erickson’s involvement — and the hard work of Buick’s own staff — paid off. The result was an extremely polished presentation that senior executives privately admitted was by far the best of the three.
Despite that, the Executive Committee continued to equivocate. Each of the three divisions was given an additional three weeks to develop a second proposal. Only after those were judged was Buick finally declared the winner.
THE BUICK RIVIERA
Buick’s proposal was officially approved in April 1961. To Bill Mitchell’s considerable satisfaction, it involved no changes to the existing design. The one aspect of the XP-715 model that did not make production, at least initially, was its planned headlight treatment. The original clay had its headlights concealed behind the fender grilles, but cost concerns and technical problems forced the deletion of that feature at the last minute in favor of conventional quad headlights mounted in the grille.
Buick decided to call the new car Riviera, a name the division had used since 1949 for its pillarless hardtop models. Although Nickles’ Special Projects studio had done a full-size clay model of a four-door hardtop version of the XP-715, the Riviera would be offered only in two-door form.
Rollert wanted the new Riviera ready for the 1963 model year, which gave Buick chief engineer Lowell Kintigh and his team less than a year and a half to turn the clay model into a production car. That schedule left little time for mechanical novelty, so the Riviera rode a shortened version of the cruciform frame used by full-sized Buicks, shortened to match the Riviera’s 117-inch (2,972mm) wheelbase. In production form, the Riviera stretched 208 inches (5,283 mm) overall, which made it about 6 inches (152 mm) shorter than the contemporary Buick LeSabre; the Riviera was also some 200 pounds (90 kg) lighter.
Although he had Rollert’s assurance that there would be no modifications of the XP-715’s design, Mitchell was still concerned that Buick wouldn’t do it justice. Not long after the competition, Mitchell sent Rollert a note describing what he wanted the Riviera to be: namely, a cross between a Ferrari and a Rolls-Royce. That was a tall order given that both of those cars were hand-built machines costing more than three times as much, but Kintigh’s chassis engineers tried their best to make the Riviera more athletic than the Thunderbird, which had become a rather flabby boulevardier.
If nothing else, the Riviera had a definite power advantage over the Thunderbird. The standard engine was Buick’s 401 cu. in. (6,572 cc) “Nailhead” V8 with 325 gross horsepower (242 kW) — 25 hp (19 kW) more than the Thunderbird’s standard engine. A bigger 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) “Wildcat 465” engine was optional, making 340 gross horsepower (254 kW). The Riviera’s only transmission was the Twin Turbine, the final evolution of Buick’s 1948-vintage Dynaflow, which did not provide any true automatic gear-shifts at all, deriving all torque multiplication from its five-element, dual-stator torque converter (supplemented by the occasional manual shift to Low). The Twin Turbine was arguably the smoothest automatic transmission of its era, although it was less efficient than Chrysler’s three-speed TorqueFlite and you needed to manually select low gear to extract maximum performance.
Due to cost and budget constraints, the Riviera’s interior, designed by George Moon, borrowed the dashboard and other hardware from the big Electra 225, although in keeping with its role as a Thunderbird rival, the Riviera would have standard bucket seats and a center console. If not quite as fanciful as the T-Bird’s cabin, the Riviera’s interior was certainly the sportiest Buick had offered since the the limited-edition Skylark convertibles of 1953-1954.
The new Buick Riviera went on sale in October 1962. Although Buick general sales manager Rollie Withers estimated a potential market of up to 55,000 cars, he deliberately limited initial production to 40,000, judging that it was better to have buyers clamoring for more than to have unsold examples cluttering up dealer lots. Base price was $4,333, $112 cheaper than a base Thunderbird, but $271 more than an Electra 225, making the Riviera one of Buick’s most expensive models.
The Riviera was a fast car. Even with the base engine, it was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 8 seconds with a top speed in the neighborhood of 120 mph (193 km/h). Although no Ferrari, the Riviera was a good deal more agile than most American cars its size and its big 12-inch (305mm) finned drum brakes gave it respectable stopping power. The Riviera rode somewhat more firmly than a Thunderbird, but was by no means uncomfortable.
The automotive press was very enthusiastic about the Riviera — it was perhaps the first model Buick had ever offered that was really their sort of car. While there was some mild nitpicking about the Riviera’s numb power steering and less-than-comprehensive instruments, the reviews were exceptionally positive. Even the European press, which generally took a dim view of both the capabilities and the styling of American cars, judged the Riviera a decent effort.
Sadly, like the acclaimed, award-winning film that fails to measure up to the mindless summer blockbusters at the box office, the Riviera could not approach the popularity of the Thunderbird. Despite being in the final year of a body style that buyers had greeted with some wariness, the Thunderbird outsold the Riviera by 50% and probably would have even without the artificial cap on Riviera production.
On the face of it, that disparity is difficult to understand. The Riviera was faster than the Thunderbird, had notably better handling and brakes, was arguably better-looking, and actually cost somewhat less. In those days, a Buick was theoretically much more prestigious than a Ford and tended to have better fit and finish (discounting the dark days of 1957–1958). However, the Thunderbird was by far the stronger brand. Even the least-educated automotive consumer knew that the Thunderbird name meant something special. By contrast, Buick had applied the Riviera nameplate to a whole host of cars, including the base-model Special that had been the division’s volume seller in the early to mid-fifties, so it connoted no particular distinction or prestige.
Beyond that, the Riviera’s crisp, relatively unadorned styling may have been a little too subtle for Thunderbird customers, who seemed to relish that car’s sometimes overwrought glitz and gimmickry. The Thunderbird’s appeal was not so much that it was sporty, but that it had the sort of feverish detailing automakers normally reserved for show cars.
The 1964 Buick Riviera looked little different than the 1963 model, but under the hood, the 425 cu. in (6,970 cc) engine was now standard and a 360 horsepower (269 kW) Super Wildcat version was a new $139.75 option. (Despite their extra 20 horsepower (15 kW), Super Wildcat Rivieras were not usefully faster in normal driving — the extra venturi area of the dual four-barrel carburetors hurt low-speed response and the additional power easily overwhelmed the stock tires.)
The Twin Turbine automatic, meanwhile, was replaced by the new three-speed Super Turbine 400, Buick’s name for the Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission that would shortly become a GM mainstay. The ST-400 offered better off-the-line acceleration and much greater flexibility than did the older Twin Turbine.
Even with those improvements, Riviera sales fell to 37,658, short of Withers’ 40,000-unit cap. Ford had just launched the fourth-generation Thunderbird, known to modern fans as the “Flair Bird,” which had returned to the more-popular styling themes of the 1958-1960 cars, supplemented with a full load of the space-age gadgetry that buyers seemed to love so much. The Riviera could leave the Flair Bird for dead in any objective performance contest, but it was no match for the Walter Mitty appeal of the T-Bird’s flight-deck dashboard.
For 1965, the concealed headlamps that had been part of the XP-715 design were finally added to the production Riviera. The 401 cu. in. (6,572 cc) V8 again became the standard engine, but there were two interesting new sporty options: the $37.63 ride and handling package, which added a quicker steering ratio, stiffer springs, and firmer shocks for better handling; and the $306.38 Gran Sport package, which included fatter tires, free-flowing exhaust, and a Positraction limited-slip differential with a shorter 3.42 axle ratio.
A 1965 Riviera Gran Sport with the Super Wildcat engine was a formidable luxury GT, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 7 seconds and a top speed of nearly 130 mph (210 km/h). With the optional suspension package, the Riviera had also handling and brakes to rival any large car sold in America. Its only serious foibles were an exaggerated sensitivity to crosswinds and alarmingly heavy fuel consumption, which could drop below 10 mpg (23.5 L/100 km) if flogged. Reviewers were predictably ecstatic, although the Gran Sport accounted for only about 10% of Riviera sales.
The Riviera’s total sales were down again for 1965, to 34,586 units. For all its virtues, the Riviera occupied an awkward marketing niche. It was much too expensive for the performance-minded young buyer interested in a Ford Mustang or a Pontiac GTO, but it didn’t have the sheer ostentation necessary to lure Thunderbird or Cadillac customers. The Riviera was a fine car with a somewhat rarefied audience.
By the time the first Buick Riviera went on sale, GM was already working on the second-generation Rivera, which bowed for the 1966 model year. It now shared its body shell (the E-body, in GM parlance) with a new Oldsmobile personal luxury model, the FWD Toronado, although the two cars had entirely different platforms, engines, and drivetrains. (Corporate management pressured Buick to adopt the Toronado’s Unitized Power Package front-wheel-drive layout, but Rollert refused.) Meanwhile, Mitchell finally got his ‘personal’ Cadillac — for 1967, the Riviera and Toronado would be joined by a third E-body, the new front-drove Cadillac Eldorado.
The second-generation Riviera abandoned the creased edges of the 1963-1965 model and was bigger in every dimension. Since the new Riviera was somewhat heavier than before, it was no faster, but a Riviera Gran Sport was still fairly athletic for a big car. Buyers evidently liked its more curvaceous styling and it consistently sold better than its predecessor, although its sales were still eclipsed by the Thunderbird’s.
The Riviera would go through its ups and downs in the seventies and eighties, notably the controversial “boattail” model of 1971-1973. For 1979, the Riviera switched to front-wheel drive like its Eldorado and Toronado siblings, which it retained until the end of the line in 1999.
The original Riviera doesn’t command the kind of outrageous auction prices of some sixties cars, but it still has a loyal following thanks to its strong performance and sharp styling. As a piece of design, it’s bold, confident, and risky. The fact that it made it to market practically undiluted is a testament to the artistic temperament and tenacity of Bill Mitchell — an unusual and commendable thing in a business that tends to reward conformity and safe choices.
Buick fan George Przygoda has translated this article (with our permission) into Polish for his own website. You can see it here: buick-riviera.pl/Historia-ciekawostki-wiesci/Historia-Riviery.html. (In the interests of full disclosure, George has made several financial contributions to support Ate Up With Motor, although we did not charge him for either the use of the article or this link.)
The author would also like to thank reader Adam Bernard, who provided photos to replace the rather battered white car originally featured in this article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History (An Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marque Book) (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1980); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Chapter 10 of Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 172-187; Ray Knott’s articles “Evolution of the Riviera – Concepts and Design,” The Riview Vol. 18, No. 1 (November-December 2001); “Evolution of the Riviera – 1963,” The Riview Vol. 18, No. 2 (January-February 2002); “Evolution of the Riviera – 1964,” The Riview Vol. 18, No. 3 (March-April 2002) and “Evolution of the Riviera – 1965,” The Riview Vol. 18, No. 4 (May-June 2002), Riviera Owners Association, rivowners. org, accessed 16 November 2007; Michael Lamm, “The Car You Wear: 1963 Buick Riviera,” Special Interest Autos #33 (March-April 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); 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); and C. Van Tune, “Retrospect: Riviera: 1963–1973 Buick Riviera,” Motor Trend Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1994), reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).
Background on the Ford Thunderbird came from Richard M. Langworth, The Thunderbird Story: Personal Luxury (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1980); Josiah Work and Vince Manocchi, “SIA comparisonReport: Two Kinds of Personal Luxury: Riviera and Thunderbird for 1963,” Special Interest Autos #94 (August 1986), pp. 34-41; Arch Brown, “1966 Thunderbird: ‘Big Bird,'” Special Interest Autos #106 (July-August 1988); Tim Howley, “1958 Thunderbird: Flying Off in a New Direction,” Special Interest Autos #151 (January-February 1996); and “Little Bird Meets Big Bird” from Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972); the latter three articles are reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000).
We also consulted the following period road tests: Bob McVay, “Two Buick Wildcats Road Test,” Motor Trend June 1964 and “Riviera Gran Sport,” Road & Track February 1966, both reprinted in Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2001); John R. Bond, “1963 Buick Riviera Road Test & Technical Review,” Car Life October 1962; “Buick Riviera,” Car and Driver, October 1962; “Buick Riviera,” Motor Trend April 1963; “Buick Riviera Road Research Report,” Car and Driver December 1963; “Buick Riviera Gran Sport,” Car and Driver June 1965; “Buick Riviera (Autocar Road Test Number 2036),” Autocar 16 July 1965; “Grand design by Buick (Road Test No. 36/65 – Buick Riviera),” Motor 4 September 1965; “Buick Riviera: beauty only skin deep?” Road Test July 1966; and Robert Cumberford, “1963 Buick Riviera: Almost a Classic, Certainly a Styling Milestone,” Automobile July 1988, all of which are reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1968, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).
46 CommentsAdd a Comment
One of The most beautiful American cars ever. Aside from the Cord 810/812, the Auburn 851/852, the Oldsmobile Toronado, Studebaker 1953-1954 and the 1940-1941, 1961-1969 Lincoln Continental.
Worked for Buick in 1960’s. Wrote sections of the Chassis Service Manual & Owners’ Guide for the 1963,64,& 65 Riveria and other Buicks. Have owned six Rivs: favorites were 1963 willow mist green w/ white leather, 1983 white convertibe w/burgeondy leather, & 1995 supercharged unit. Purchased a new 2006 LaCrosse, a very satisfying Buick. Regret it is not made in America.
I have a 1964 1/2riveria grand sport have been told it dose not exist i have owned this car for 30 yrs. it has the 425 duel carbs duel air intakes large grand sport emblems. i would pay for any help anyone could give me.i am despert to any help
The grand sport did not come out until December of 1964. What you have in your 1964 Riviera is an optional
Super Wildcat engine and a limited slip differential.
(I took the liberty of inserting the word “until” into the comment to avoid confusion — I hope you don’t mind.)
Im 20 years old and just bought a 1964 riv off a freind of the family and love it would take it any day over any other car made in 63 and 64, and Im a ford fan but a thunderbird over a 63-65 Riv Never!!!
It came from the factory with dual quads, when you opened the hood you could not see the ground. 4 large horns if i remember, auto dimming headlights, power windows, etc. think it got 8mpg.
…accompanied by what might possibly be some of the worst photography I have ever seen. If you couldn’t find a halfway decent ’63 to photograph live, couldn’t you have, I don’t know, contacted the Riviera owners’ club?
The reason I’ve retained the photos of what is obviously a rather tatty example is that while I have other photos of better cars (including the cleaner white ’63 of which a front view is included here), I don’t have any that as effectively illustrate the Riviera’s [i]shape[/i], which is something I really wanted to emphasize. I have some shots of a well-kept ’65 Gran Sport, for example, but mediocre lighting conditions (and the inevitable problem of trying to frame shots at crowded car shows) make it look rather flat — you can’t see the crispness of the roofline or the Coke-bottle flare of the fenders.
If at some point I’m able to take some better shots of better examples, I’ll go back and substitute them; I do that all the time.
Yes, I agree, it is hard to get a good picture of the Rivs. Even with the new digital cameras; they tend to distort the image. These beauties deserve the best. Guess we can keep trying for the best shot!
My Dad gave me his 1965 Riviera, which he bought new in 1965. I’m fixing it up to be my daily driver and show and go. Grn/grn it is, the big cat engine but a single quad, (it’ll do a little better on gas). Drove it home from FL to IN by way of New Orleans where we spent a second week on vacation after he gave it to me on my trip to FL to see him, it was a total surprise to me. I think it was 1989. It didn’t even need a quart of oil added after the trip. Garaged it there for four years, moved it to Kansas City area for the next fifteen, garaged it there, retired and moved it back to FL in 2006. Time to get it going again. It’s gone round a bit, IN to FL, FL to IN, IN to KS, KS to FL, and ready almost to keep on going. To bad some one backed into him at Walmart and didn’t stick around. Now I’m looking for hood and right front quarter panel to help complete it and get it back on the road. Oh, I started it a few times along the way, drove it onto the trailer for it’s trip back to FL and drove it off to park it. I’m hoping to drive it before Xmas with a good hood and fender on it. May be a new paint job too.
Where can I find out about the Silver Arrow model. I was thinking it was a 1963 or 1964 vintage. How many were made? What is the value of one today? Was the Silver Arrow a custom model of the Riviera or someother car?
Info would be greatly appreciated.
The original Silver Arrow was not a production model, but a customized Riviera built for the show circuit in 1963. (Bill Mitchell used it for a while as his personal car.) It looked like a standard Riviera, but it had a lower roof, a different grille, and concealed headlamps, à la the 1965 models. According to the Riviera Owners Association, there were two subsequent Silver Arrows, the last of which I believe was in 1972. I don’t recall seeing a picture of the Silver Arrow II, but the Silver Arrow III was based on the boat-tail car.
The Silver Arrow name was only applied to the production cars toward the very end: the last few ’99 Rivs were Silver Arrow limited editions. I don’t remember what the package included, but I imagine the ROA would have more specifics. (It was a paint and trim option, as I remember.)
The original Silver Arrow was custom made for the designer Billy Mitchell in 1963 one car only. The name was again used in 1999 and only 200 were made. Al
i am having problems reading the letters and what the size of the fuse is that goes where can anyone help? i have a 1964 riviera 425 naihead with dualquads. thanks
Hi – we are in the U.K. and have just bought a 65 riviera with Vin 494475H915440 can anyone help us with what engine option it had when it left the factory – it looks like a super wildcat at present – cheers and thanks
I’m afraid the VIN doesn’t indicate the engine type. All that number tells you is that it was a Buick Riviera two-door hardtop (which of course you already knew), that it was built in Flint, Michigan, and the build sequence number. You’d need to find the other information from the Protect-O-Plate to see what the original engine was; the engine code is a two-digit code beginning with the letter L. (The choices for a 1965 Riviera would be LT, LW, and LX, with LX being the dual-carburetor engine.) Good luck!
Wow, impressive piece of writing to be sure. Congrats, rarely have I come across a piece on a classic American car that combines such thorough research with such able writing and a matter-of-fact yet impassioned perspective!
A propos rose-colored glasses, the performance stats you give for the Gran Sport are actually rather optimistic. I know you most likely have them from a magazine article (maybe the C&D road test?), but as a proud owner of a GS-equipped Riv, let me tell you a secret: unless you absolutely trash it to pieces, even with the dual quads 0-60 is closer to 8 seconds than 7. Without manually shifting the gearbox you’re well into the 8 second range.
And with the 3.42 GS axle ratio you won’t be seeing 130mph for long without seriously harming the engine. Revving it over 5000rpm is really something that should only be done in short bursts, if at all. The taller-axled standard Rivieras might see 125mph, but with a GS you’re well advised to back off at 115-120.
And before anyone insinuates otherwise, yes my car is in peak mechanical condition and should perform at least as well as it did when new (I have some upgraded parts in the engine even, chiefly roller rockers and Pertronix electronic ignition). And of course by the standards of the time, it’s definitely an impressive performer, not to mention handsome as all get-out!
Thanks for the kind words. I haven’t seen any contemporary tests that actually reached 130 mph, although a few came very close to that. With the stock tires and the 3.42 axle, 130 mph works out to about 5,500 rpm, which seems within the realm of feasibility given a well-tuned engine and a sufficiently long, straight track. As you note, that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea! (Of course, you could say the same thing about the contemporary Jaguar E-type 4.2 for basically the same reasons.)
The acceleration figure is an approximation based on five contemporary road tests, all but one of which returned 0-60 times in the low 7-second range. In fact, the only one that didn’t crack the 8-second mark was the Motor Trend test, and the editors admitted their results were taken at Willow Springs, which was higher and hotter than their usual venue. Surprisingly, the British testers achieved 0-60 times and quarter mile E.T.s very similar to Car and Driver‘s and Cars‘, which I wouldn’t have expected.
I looked back at the tests just now to see if they were all driving the same car — it wasn’t uncommon in those days for press cars to be ringers, and getting such eye-opening results with a single car would raise the obvious question — but it doesn’t appear so unless someone was getting very creative with license plates. (Motor‘s tester was a RHD conversion and Autocar‘s was a British import offered by a GM dealer in London.) So, my assumption is that the testers were just willing to thrash the living hell out of the car with all the glee of someone given the opportunity wring out a powerful car that isn’t theirs in an environment where they’re not going to get arrested for it…
The “fear factor” certainly comes into play. That and the gear selector really makes quick manual upshifts difficult. There’s no real detent action, so you’d really have to focus to not shift straight into Drive from 1st. Plus for ideal acceleration you have to coax it off the line just so, because limited-slip notwithstanding, the 425 makes for wheelspin galore if floored off the line (the more aggressive ratio of the needle-bearing rocker arms I have installed doesn’t help).
It has to be said, though, that in my opinion the Riviera GS is the closest in overall roadability to a true Grand Tourer that was available from US carmakers at the time and the only car that played in the leagues of European luxury cars. It’s no Mercedes, but in normal driving there’s no perceptible wallow, understeer and body roll are manageable and most importantly it tracks well in a straight line so you don’t have to make constant steering adjustments like in many contemporary American cars.
I live in Germany so I have the chance to legally drive at triple-digit speeds and while I mostly stick to speeds in the 80mph range with the Riv, driving it at 110+ is feasible without turning into a white-knuckle ride as it does in the ’71 Grand Prix a member of my local US car club has – the front end on that thing starts to get unpleasantly light at about 90mph and it is prone to very unnerving pitching motions over uneven pavement. Plus it looks totally gaudy but don’t tell him that…
What’s your feeling about the brakes in those conditions? By U.S. standards, the big Buick finned drums weren’t bad for 1965, but for sustained speeds over 100 mph, I would be uneasy, even with radial tires.
They work well enough. I installed upgraded brake linings and I only drive it that fast when there’s very little traffic – you wouldn’t want to do a panic stop from 100mph but the only time I’ve encountered significant brake fade was going down a steep mountain pass in the French Alps (an environment for which the Buick is generally a poor fit, it must be said).
I actually pondered installing disc brakes, but if you want to register your car as an antique vehicle here, you legally cannot make ANY changes from stock. In practice this means no changes the inspectors will notice and I figured disc brakes would be rather too obvious.
And an antique registration is a must for any classic here. Without it you pay punitively high tax surcharges due to the emissions (not to mention the basic tax on a 7-Liter engine!). With an antique registration you only have to pay a flat tax of 190€ per year, which is about what you’d pay for a modern small car.
Antiques are also exempt from regulations banning high-emission cars from certain parts of many cities. Without the antique plates, I couldn’t legally drive it to and from my very own garage!
That makes sense. The Riviera’s drums certainly can’t be accused of being small, and they are of course finned (and aluminum in front), so they’re certainly better as regards fade than most of their contemporaries. It’s just too bad Buick didn’t fit four-wheel discs à la 1965 Sting Ray.
Tangentially, this brings up something I’d wondered: Is the road tax there based on BOTH displacement and CO2 now? From what you describe, that’s what I’m assuming.
Yes, that’s how it works. Road tax is calculated based on displacement multiplied by a factor determined by a vehicle’s emissions class.
For instance, if your vehicle is compliant with the latest emissions standard, called Euro-3, you pay roughly 6€ per 100ccm displacement. yearly. It’s quickly downhill from there – cars that are only compliant with the early-90s Euro-1 standard pay more than double, and with no emissions controls at all you’re in for just over triple the amount.
What this effectively means is that cars built before the mid-1990s have become essentially unaffordable for middle-class people. It’s also why every classic car owner who isn’t a millionaire runs antique plates. No hot rods or resto-mods here!
My father bought the first Riviera that our dealer in a small Iowa town had on the showroom floor; white, black leather with the air horn option-mounter to the underside of the hood. I turned 16 while we had it and took my drivers license test in the car after which he let me take the car to high school for the day. We used to drive it around without the air cleaner just to hear the whoop on acceleration!
A feature that I think was typical or standard as part of the exclusivity effort was a small chrome plaque attached to the center console noting that the car was “Exclusively built for Sid Bowen”. Certainly got the attention of naive 16 year olds endlessly cruising Federal Avenue on a Friday night, sans air cleaner and burning rubber on very departure from Hasse’s drive in. GTOs had nothing on us!
Its replacement was a ’67 Blue Gran Sport with black leather and the “handle grip” shifter. Then, newer seemed better. Today I realize what a departure and elegant form the ’63 represented and was lost to the sales gods.
Excellent read about one of my favorite Buicks! Thanks!
Hello, I just can not believe that I have not seen a mention of the rear seat lift up center armrest option on this beautiful classic. This option to me completes this classic to the utmost.
Thanks. Dan S
I had a 65 Riv in high school 74-76. Favorite car of my lifetime. Had power widows, antenna, seats, cruise control, trunk release in glove compartment & a counterweight bar in the trunk to put weight over outside wheel in a turn.
Carl, I was given my parent’s ‘65 in 1974 and drove it through High School as well. Loved that car and just bought a ‘65 I found online two weeks ago. It’s in my garage now and I enjoy just looking at it every day!!
Hello Buick lovers out there! Having trouble with my horn. Wondering how to test it, from the battery. Then my taillight they working and have power but their dim . Think its a ground issue????
I’m afraid I can’t help with repair or maintenance issues — sorry!
In 1972 my dad bought a 64 rivi all stock. In 1975 he gave it to my brother and I found a 65 gran sport with 2×4 with a bent frame and the 64 rivi was never the same. My brother lowered the rivi about 3 inches, a new set of radial TAs,new set of 14 inch craigers, sky blue paint, and that bad ass intake off the 65. We live in Roswell NM and going to Albqu. my brother was driving 120 cruising and than told me lets see what the rivie would do. We went from 120mph to 140 and held the rivie at that speed for about 30 seconds. The gas peddel was not to the floor. At that time the rivie was the best looking car in Roswell. Now I (little bro) have owned the rivie for 30 years. the motor is rebuilt bored 40over the 400 trans mission has been rebuilt, shaved door handles,all rivie badges gone, pop trunk, no mirrors, no antanna, custom front end, (bumper gone but looks excellent). But this is the problem I have drove the rivie only a hundred miles in he 30 years that I’ve owned it…I got all seats reupholstered, all the chrome is in excellent condition,new back bumper, If someone who wants one wants mine give me a call at 5758405601 or mail 106 south beech, I do not have the car on the internet. I do not have a email account so call me
Riveras (To me) Always looked like custom cars, right from the factory. I always loved the consoles. A friend by the name of “Shorty” Snyder had a Silver 65, with the twin 4’s Always wanted that car. Question: was there ever a convertible? Say from 63-69?
Nope, there wasn’t a factory-authorized Riviera convertible until the ’80s, although I’m sure there were some custom jobs.
Aaron, wondering if you know anything about the Harley Earl Aftermarket Special Build cars. Im looking at a 1963 version…Its amazing. Thanks
Still one of my favorite cars. My ’63 was bought from a friend in 1970 in midnight blue. Have had 47 cars, including luxury and muscle cars, and that styling still looks good today.
Great article. Only error I found was that the frameless glass was not curved on the 1st gen.
Thanks for the correction! I’ve amended the text.
Aaron I am an investigator with NC DMV. I am trying to determine what the factory rivets are for the 65 Rev. VIN plate attachment. The location is correct-driver door hinge pillar. Most GM vehicles had Rossette, but the one I am looking at has Round. Can you Advise?
I’m afraid that detail is well beyond my area of expertise. I would suggest that you try reaching out to the Riviera Owners Association to see if they can clarify this point for you.
I bought a 63 riv in 1995. Never owned a Buick before. But to this day I think the 63-65 riv’s are the best looking cars GM has produced.
A common view! The Riviera (along with the ’63 Pontiac Grand Prix and the original Corvette Sting Ray) are certainly the purest distillations of the early Bill Mitchell period at GM — that crisp Kennedy-era aesthetic. It goes along perfectly with the formal wear fashions of the time without feeling stodgy or funeral.
The three greatest American masterpieces of car design of the 1960’s:
1963 Buick Riviera, 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, 1967 Cadillac Eldorado.
What, no Sting Ray? (I kid, sort of.)
1964 Ford Mustang, 1968 AMC Rebel, 1967 full size Chevrolet. Anyone else wanna throw gasoline on the fire?. I kid, everybody know they are correct and everybody else is wrong.
Well, there are a lot of “usual suspects” in that category, some of which — like the Riviera and the ’67 Eldorado — are not particularly controversial. To some extent, it comes down to how many “best design” slots one allots. If it’s a matter of choosing ONE best design of the ’60s, it really comes down to individual taste; if it’s a top-10 list, the selections tend to become less controversial. One can, for instance, recognize the Avanti or ’61 Lincoln Continental as designs of particular note even if they aren’t a personal favorite.
It does of course come down somewhat to what values one seeks to recognize. For instance, the ’67 Eldorado is a very clean and unitary design, each element blending into a harmonious whole that reflects (as I’ve said before) a confident understanding of what a Cadillac ought to be. On the other hand, I’m also quite fond of the ’64 to ’66 Thunderbird, which is not what I would term a harmonious expression of tasteful restraint; it is a glitzy, gimmicky jukebox of a car, which is precisely what makes it charming. The ’68 to ’70 Dodge Charger, meanwhile, is, in many respects, a derivative design (it borrows quite heavily from GM’s ’66–’67 A-body hardtops), and its sheer size is not exactly to its credit, but it has such presence and such swagger that it arguably outdoes its stylistic progenitor. As for the Avanti, it’s undoubtedly distinctive, but I personally find it a little too affected, though I love the interior.