THE EXECUTIVE PONY CAR: 1966 BUICK RIVIERA
The 1966 Buick Riviera made its public debut on September 22, 1965, and went on sale on October 14. By then, it had rather large shoes to fill: While it had not threatened the sales dominance of the Thunderbird (which had outsold the Buick by more than 2 to 1 in 1964 and 1965), the first-generation Riviera had been the clear favorite of the motoring press. The Riviera, particularly with the optional Gran Sport package introduced for 1965, fit perfectly into an automotive journalist’s fantasies of the good life: It was sharp-looking, luxurious, fast, and (at least with the optional heavy-duty suspension) reasonably nimble.
The new Riviera was inevitably overshadowed by the Toronado, whose novel engineering captured a stack of press awards, but critical response to the Buick was nonetheless positive. The press was not thrilled with the new Riviera’s larger dimensions or 150-odd pounds (67 kg) of extra weight, but the revamped Riviera garnered much praise for its handsome styling.
Contemporary reviews of the 1966 Riviera’s performance must be carefully qualified because it appears that most, if not all, of Buick’s press fleet had the $176.82 Gran Sport package (which included stiffer suspension, a limited-slip differential, and a shorter 3.42 axle ratio), the optional quick-ratio steering (a nominal $15.79 extra), and the dealer-installed Super Wildcat engine with two four-barrel Carter AFB carburetors and 360 gross horsepower (269 kW), 20 hp (15 kW) more than the standard four-barrel engine setup. Those options were really rather rare in the wild (fewer than 15% of buyers ordered the GS option) and the Riviera’s performance and handling in standard form were somewhat less impressive. The standard springs, for example, were about 40% softer than those of the GS, with a predictable effect on body control and handling.
Even with all the performance options installed, the new Riviera’s acceleration and braking suffered a bit — the 1966 Riviera was heavier than the ’65 and had the same powertrain, brakes, and tires. Nonetheless, the Riviera remained quite quick, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 8 seconds and a top speed of more than 120 mph (193 km/h). From the few tests of cars with the standard engine, it appears the second carburetor did little for performance at lower speeds, but added about 3 mph (2 km/h) to the Riviera’s quarter mile trap speeds, bringing them to 86–87 mph (138–140 km/h).
On the road, the fast-ratio steering and GS suspension made the 1966 Riviera reasonably agile for its size, although some critics complained that shock damping still left something to be desired and the turning radius was rather ponderous. The Riviera also had decent brakes. While the performance of its finned drums couldn’t match that of the 1966 Thunderbird’s front discs, the Riviera had decent stopping distances and better-than-average fade resistance for an American car of this era.
In sum, the Riviera was a sort of Establishment pony car: It was similar in concept to sporty specialty cars like the Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro (then still a year away), but big enough and plush enough to be driven by and in polite society. If you could adjust to the Riviera’s sheer size, its road manners weren’t far off the pony cars’ and its straight-line performance was as good or better. In fact, in a stoplight drag race, a Riviera owner stood a fair chance of beating a Mustang with the 271 hp (202 kW) 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8 and four-speed manual transmission — and of course the big Nailhead engine and Super Turbine transmission had none of the sturm und drang of Ford’s high-strung K-code 289.
RIVIERA VS. TORONADO
Inevitably, there were comparisons between the 1966 Buick Riviera and its Oldsmobile cousin, which was logical enough, since the two E-cars were not only nearly identical in size, but also competed for the same market.
Surprisingly, despite the Riviera’s comparative lack of sophistication, the Buick came out on top in many respects. The Toronado’s standard V8 had more rated horsepower and torque than even the dual-carb Super Wildcat engine, but less weight, better weight distribution, and (with the GS package) a shorter axle ratio made the Riviera quicker at any legal speed, and the Buick’s stopping power was clearly superior. The Toronado had an obvious edge in wet-weather traction, however, and while the Riviera at least theoretically had more dry-pavement cornering power, reviewers who drove the two cars back to back found little to choose between them in the dry, at least without pushing far harder than any buyer was ever likely to.
Inside, the Toronado had the advantage of a flat floor, but this was more a novelty than a real advantage in this class. Some critics preferred the Riviera’s interior treatment; Car Life speculated that Oldsmobile had cut corners on trim to make up for the higher cost of the Toronado’s drivetrain. To top it off, the Riviera cost at least $160 less than the Toronado, although neither was cheap. With every available option, either car was close to $6,000, enough to buy two decently equipped Mustangs.
It was no great surprise, then, that in late 1965, Buick general sales manager Rollie Withers sent an open letter to the press emphatically denying rumors that the Riviera would adopt front-wheel drive. As if to emphasize the point, the Riviera outsold the Toronado, although the margin was fewer than 5,000 units. The Thunderbird still beat them both, but the numbers suggest that Ed Rollert (who had been promoted and replaced as general manager about six months before the Riviera went on sale) had made the right choice in sticking with rear-wheel drive — particularly since some sources suggest each Riviera cost as much as $400 less to build than a Toronado.
The 1966 Buick Riviera outsold its immediate predecessor by around 30%, but that amounted to only about 10,000 units, which was no great feat for an all-new design in a primarily style-driven market segment. The real test came the following year: Although the 1967 Riviera looked almost identical to the ’66 model, sales slipped only 2,549 units. By contrast, sales of the Toronado dropped nearly 50% in its second year.
While the only obvious visual changes to the 1967 Riviera were a new grille and different upholstery patterns, there were several significant mechanical changes. The biggest was an all-new 430 cu. in. (7,041 cc) engine, shared with other full-size Buicks. Developed in part to reduce exhaust emissions, the 430 also had larger valves and better breathing than the old Nailhead, allowing the new engine to match the departed Super Wildcat’s 360 gross horsepower (269 kW) with a single Rochester Quadrajet carburetor. Since the standard Riviera now had a taller 3.07 axle ratio, the average owner was unlikely to notice any difference in performance, although the standard drum brakes were slightly improved to match the bigger engine.
The other big change was that big four-piston front discs were now optional for an extra $78.94, although very few buyers ordered them, probably in part because the disc brakes were not compatible with Buick’s popular and attractive chromed steel wheels. Riviera GS buyers could now order H70-15 Firestone Wide Oval tires or, from early 1967, 225R15 radials. Either choice was a great improvement over the standard 8.45 x 15 tires.
For 1968, the Riviera (and the Toronado) received a more substantial facelift. It was again the work of Dave Holls, although Donald Lasky replaced Holls as Buick chief stylist before the ’68 models debuted.
Like the 1968 Toronado, the revamped Riviera featured a new front-end treatment with a big (and to our eyes, somewhat ungainly looking) wraparound bumper, a split grille, and a longer hood that concealed the windshield wipers. Except for new bodyside moldings, the new Riviera’s profile was largely unchanged, but the nose job and new rear bumper left the 1968 car 4.3 inches (109 mm) longer and noticeably heavier than its predecessor. (Factory shipping weight rose only 33 lb (15 kg), but publications that actually weighed their test cars found curb weights up by more than 100 lb (45 kg).)
The GS package remained available, although as before, it appealed to only 10-11% of Riviera buyers. Buick also offered nothing to match the Toronado’s 400 hp (298 kW) W34 option. Otherwise, the 1968 Riviera had few mechanical changes beyond some minor geometry changes to the rear suspension and of course the various safety features required by new federal regulations. Still, buyers apparently liked the Riviera’s new look, as 1968 sales rose almost by 6,500 units.
Changes to the 1969 Riviera were against modest, including a slightly different grille and a new steering wheel. The big engineering news was minor features buyers were unlikely to notice, such as an electric fuel pump. Most of the new features were shared by Buick’s full-size cars, including variable-rate power steering and revised front suspension geometry that Buick proudly christened Accu-Drive. Accu-Drive allowed the front wheels to lose a little bit of camber in response to bumps, improving stability at the cost of a slight increase in the Riviera’s already-heavy understeer.
Car Life editors, who were deeply skeptical, admitted that Accu-Drive performed as advertised, but judged the handling of their (non-GS) Riviera test car somewhat inferior to that of the 1969 Thunderbird tested in the same issue. Admittedly, that conclusion had less to do with any deficiency of the Riviera than it did with recent suspension improvements for the two-door Thunderbird, which had long been notorious for its marshmallow-like body control.
Even so, the 1969 Riviera’s handling suggested that the model’s executive hot rod days were fast disappearing. An extra 60 lb (27 kg) or so of curb weight didn’t help low-speed performance either. Although the factory shipping weight claimed that the 1969 Riviera was only 19 lb (9 kg) heavier than the 1966 model, Car Life‘s 1969 test car was a hefty 235 lb (107 kg) heavier than their similarly equipped 1966 Riviera GS.
Predictably, most buyers cared not a whit. However much critics (or GM styling executives) may have liked the idea of an oversize luxury pony car or a high-tech engineering showcase, customers seemed more interested in flashy styling, a quiet ride, and pillow-soft suspension. The 1969 Riviera was the first to sell more than 50,000 units — model year production reached 52,872, only 10% of which had the GS option — and the first to outpace the Thunderbird, albeit by only about 3,500 units. The Riviera also left the Toronado for dead, outselling the Oldsmobile by 46%.
THE FINAL FACELIFT
The Riviera and Toronado received a second major facelift for 1970. The styling revamp was fairly extensive and somewhat puzzling, because it would also be short-lived: A third-generation Riviera, designed by Jerry Hirshberg of Buick Studio 2, was already in the works for the 1971 model year, as were a second-generation Toronado and FWD Eldorado.
The rationale for the 1970 makeover is unclear, but we have a lingering suspicion that it was a late decision and that the 1966 E-body shell was originally intended to run for four years, not five. It’s possible that the corporation decided to continue the existing Riviera and Toronado an extra year to make up for disappointing Toronado sales or to allow a four-year run for the Eldorado, which debuted a year later than the others, but if that was the case, why make such a substantial investment in new styling with all-new models only a year away? We have yet to find an authoritative explanation.
In any case, the design for the 1970 Buick Riviera was developed around 1967 under new Buick styling chief Donald Lasky. However, as with the 1963 and 1971 cars, the 1970 reflected the strong influence of Bill Mitchell. Mitchell’s idea was to borrow cues from a prewar Delage, most likely Letourner et Marchand’s spectacular D8-120 Aérosport fastback coupe, an Art Moderne streamliner with a dramatic side sweep that presaged Buick’s later “sweepspear” side trim.
Striking as Marcel Letourner’s original was, its styling themes seemed ill at ease with the Riviera’s flush fenders, serving mainly to make the 1970 Riviera look bulkier than before. The new nose treatment was more successful, wearing its newly exposed quad headlamps far more gracefully than the rather awkward 1970 Toronado, but was also rather anonymous, looking a good deal like Buick’s smaller A-body intermediates.
Under the hood, the 430 cu. in. (7,041 cc) engine was replaced with Buick’s latest 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc) V-8, which superseded both the 430 and the de-bored 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) V8 previously used on the intermediate GS400. Superficially, the new engine was a 430 with a wider 4 5/16-inch (109.5mm) cylinder bore, but the 455 also had many internal changes, including improved oiling, better water pump seals, and a new coolant recovery system. Gross output rose to 370 horsepower (276 kW) and a whopping 510 lb-ft (691 N-m) of torque, but a taller 2.78 axle ratio on the non-GS model dispelled any illusion that the new Riviera was intended as a performance car. The GS option remained available, but take-up was lower than ever, amounting to only 3,505 cars. (Some sources suggest that the Riviera GS could be ordered with the hotter Stage 1 engine package from the GS455, but even if that was true, we doubt many buyers did so.)
The latest Riviera rated only cursory mention by the automotive press, which seems to have concluded that the Riv was no longer their kind of car. In a 1970 Popular Mechanics survey, even some owners agreed the Riviera wasn’t what it once was, saying they preferred the styling of the 1966–1967 cars. Tellingly, though, most buyer complaints were about the mediocre cargo room and rear seat space. As the Riviera became more of a luxury sedan than a big GT, customers expected it to behave like a sedan as well.
Had Buick known when the 1970 Riviera was designed how well the 1968-1969 cars would sell, the division would probably have stood pat for another year. As it was, sales fell 35%, to 37,366. That was still almost 50% better than the still-struggling Toronado, but it was not a great showing in what was otherwise a decent year for Buick.