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).