Plutocrat Pony Car: The 1966-1970 Buick Riviera

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

1969 Buick Riviera badge © Aaron Severson


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1966 Buick Riviera Wildcat 465 engine © 2010 Bruce Renfrew (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Buick’s 340 (gross) horsepower Wildcat 465 engine was standard on 1964 Rivieras, optional in 1965, and standard again for the 1966 Riviera pictured here. The “465” referred to the engine’s 465 lb-ft (630 N-m) of torque, not its displacement, which was 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc). Note the headlights, seen here in the closed position. When turned on, an electric motor swiveled the lights downward over the grille. (Photo: “1966 Buick Riviera ‘Naihead’ 425 engine(front view)” © 2010 Bruce Renfrew; resized 2013 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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

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

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


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.

1966 Buick Riviera front © Aaron Severson
Despite its larger dimensions, the 1966 Buick Riviera was still over a foot (315 mm) shorter than an Electra 225, splitting the difference between Buick’s intermediates and its full-size cars. The 1966 Riviera was fractionally taller than the (non Gran Sport) first-generation car, standing 53.4 inches (1,356 mm) high, but it was 3.3 inches (83 mm) wider than before, now 78.8 inches (2,000 mm), with much wider tread with: 63.5 inches (1,613 mm) in front and 63.0 inches (1,600 mm) in back. The 1967 Riviera was the same size, but had a new horizontal chrome bar across the center of the grille. (author photo)

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.

1966 Buick Riviera chromed steel wheel © Aaron Severson
Whitewall tires were standard on the 1966 Buick Riviera, but the chromed steel wheels were not. Visible through the slots in the latter are the big finned aluminum front brakes, similar in principle to the AlFin units used on some 1950s race cars. (author photo)

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.

1966 Buick Riviera side © Aaron Severson
The 1966 Buick Riviera was 2.2 inches (56 mm) longer than the ’65. Overall length was now 211.2 inches (5,364 mm) and wheelbase was up to 119 inches (3,022 mm). Curb weight with a full load of options was 4,375 lb (1,985 kg). Note the enormous size of the doors — the source of some criticism when this car was new — and the lack of vent windows. (author photo)


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.

1966 Buick Riviera rear 3q © Aaron Severson
The 1966 Buick Riviera is not a true fastback, but its sail panels are nonetheless raked substantially more than those of the first-generation car. Note the pronounced kickup of the rear fenders and the vents below the backlight, which are the exhaust vents for the Circulaire flow-through ventilation system. (author photo)


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.

1966 Buick Riviera dashboard @ Aaron Severson
The dashboards of 1966 and 1967 Buick Rivieras are almost identical; this is a 1966 car. Like the contemporary Toronado, the 1966–1967 Riviera has gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, and amperage (although not a tachometer) along with a rolling drum-type speedometer. This car’s three-spoke “banjo” steering wheel is not stock. (author)

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.

1968 Buick Riviera GS front 3q © 2004 Mopar89 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A 1968 Buick Riviera Gran Sport with chromed wheels and the optional padded vinyl top, which became progressively more popular throughout the model run. The quickest way to distinguish the 1968 Riviera from the ’69 is the grille texture: The 1968 Riviera has plain black eggcrate grilles while the ’69 adds three horizontal chrome strips across each grille section. The front bumper, incidentally, is one massive piece. (Photo: “Riviera GS” © 2004 Mopar89; resized 2012 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

1969 Buick Riviera front 3q © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
A 1969 Buick Riviera with its headlights exposed. Although the headlights of the 1968–1969 Rivieras were located in more or less the same place as before, they were now operated by vacuum rather than an electric motor. Note also the horizontal chrome strips on the grille. (Photo: “69 Buick Riviera” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1969 Buick Riviera rear 3q © Aaron Severson
The 1968–1969 Buick Riviera was now 215.2 inches (5,466 mm) long on an unchanged 119-inch (3,022mm) wheelbase with a curb weight of about 4,600 lb (2,090 kg) fully loaded. Note the side marker light on the rear fender, added in 1968 to comply with new federal safety regulations. (author photo)

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%.

1969 Buick Riviera dashboard © Aaron Severson
The 1968 Buick Riviera had a new padded dash, another safety requirement, and discarded the rolling-drum speedometer, which had been somewhat controversial with reviewers. Less happily, the full instrumentation was discarded in favor of warning lights. The dash of the 1969 Riviera, seen here, added a new two-spoke steering wheel and woodgrain trim. This car has a power Strato-Bench seat, although the folding center armrest (not visible here) is raised. (author photo)


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.

1970 Buick Riviera front 3q C1901-0245 - Copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 16977)
The 1970 Buick Riviera looks quite a bit different from its 1969 predecessor, but the major changes are a new one-piece grille, exposed headlights, reshaped rear fenders (blending more smoothly with the sail panels), and of course the rear fender skirts. All 1970 Rivieras had skirts, but they were available in two sizes: short or long (pictured here). H78-15 tires were now standard, although the GS had lower-profile H70-15s. Disc brakes were still optional, but they were now the latest single-piston type, which was cheaper to build than the previous four-piston variety. (Photo copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

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.)

1970 Buick Riviera side C1901-0244 - Copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 16977)
We unfortunately were not able to get a shot of the 1936–1939 Delage D8-120 “Aérosport” coupe to use here, but it’s well worth looking up because the influence on the 1970 Buick Riviera is not difficult to spot. The Aérosport was a semi-custom body designed and built by the French coachbuilder Letourner et Marchand on the Delahaye-based D8-120 chassis, debuting at the 1936 Paris Salon. Only about a half-dozen of the fastback coupes were built through 1939, but it’s likely that Bill Mitchell would have remembered such a car even years later. (Photo copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

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.

1970 Buick Riviera rear 3q C1901-0242 - Copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 16977)
The 1970 Buick Riviera’s reshaped rear fenders, like those of the 1970 Toronado, seem intended to downplay its semi-fastback shape; the trailing edges now evoke the bladed fenders of the contemporary Eldorado. Although the 1970 Riviera looks bigger than before, overall length was up only 0.2 inches (5 mm) and the official specifications show only a 17 lb (8 kg) weight increase. Barely visible in this shot is the thin chrome “sweepspear” that runs just below the body-side rub strip, dipping down below and aft of the door handle and then sweeping up again through the rear fender. That strip, similar to the side trim common on Buicks of the 1950s, was probably inspired by the similarly shaped but more dramatic side trim of the aforementioned Delage Aérosport. (A side sweep like the Delage’s had also popped up on a couple of Brunn-built custom Buicks circa 1940, although we don’t know if the trim was specifically influenced by the Delage or not.) (Photo copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

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.


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. (author photo)

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.



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


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,, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1961-1964-cadillac.htm, accessed 18 June 2012), “1965-1967 Buick Gran Sport” (25 September 2007,, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1965-1967-buick-gran-sport.htm, accessed 12 June 2012), “1966-1970 Buick Riviera” (29 October 2007,, 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;, 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,, www.conceptcarz. com, accessed 24 June 2012); a comment from stylist John Houlihan on “Buick Riviera Boattail 1971 1972 1973” (18 July 2000,, 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).



Add a Comment
  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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. Thanks for the correction!

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

    Please keep up the great work.

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

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

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

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

  14. The 1970 re-style always looked to me like it was Buick’s attempt to better the 1969 Mercury Marauder X-100.

    It is hard to understand making that much of a change for only one model year, especially considering that both the Eldorado and Toronado just got the ordinary grill and tail light refreshings, not major sheet metal changes. And, of course the ’71 was just a year away. I remember back in the day, I didn’t like the ’70 Riviera at all, but over time, I have come to appreciate what they were trying to do.

    On another point, you mention the ‘Toronado’s 400hp (298KW)W30 option’ — actually the 68 – 70 Toronado high performance option was the W34. The W30 was only in the A-body 442.

    1. Thanks for catching the W30/W34 glitch — I’ve corrected it in the text. (The W34 option is discussed in the Toronado articles, so that was just a typographical error.)

      The lead times for new model styling are such that there’s no way a 1969 model could have meaningfully influenced the 1970 facelift, and in any case, Buick’s incentive for copying Mercury would be limited. Buick sold 49,284 Rivieras in 1968 and 52,872 in 1969 while 1969 X-100 sales were 5,635; why imitate a rival you outsell 9:1?

      My suspicion is that the E-body cars were originally supposed to be redesigned for 1970, not 1971. Exactly what occasioned the one-year-only facelift I don’t claim to know, but my guess is that either the late debut of the Eldorado, disappointing sales of the Toronado, or a combination of the two were otherwise going to leave the corporation with an iffy return on their substantial investment in the UPP project. Obviously, Buick didn’t end up sharing that and the Riviera sold quite well, but being tied to the E-body shell meant it couldn’t be economically redesigned without its siblings.

  15. My first car was a beautiful and very fast ‘70 Riv. It was white, with black vinyl roof, and black leather interior. It was maxed out with PW, PL, PS, CCAC, and of course the 455-4bbl. Had the long skirts…and had lots of better than great times cruising and beating many cars! Consistently it averaged 18 mpg, which is why I’m so shocked to read otherwise. Still, her memories have only sweetened. Since then I’ve had several other Buick’s 2 of which were Rivs…a ‘85 & a ‘96. My ‘70 had all of the ones that followed chasing after it, not just in speed, but in design, comfort, and wow!

  16. Dad bought a new ’66 Rivi in Shell Beige with the fawn interior with bucket seats and console. It was beautiful and drew “oohs and ahs” at the local curb-service drive-ins where we kids hung out. Was my favorite car ever, so much so that I now own an identical one, this time a GS, same colors. The sheer simplicity of the black dashboard and off-white interior with console and shifter to me is poetry. Back in the day, rolling the windows down and cruising without the vent windows was a revelation — quiet and buffet-free. Today, my ’66 Rivi sits a couple inches lower than my Lexus LS-460 daily driver.

  17. Hello, my 69 GS Riviera need electric actuator can some one lead me to a good site to purchase this kit?

    1. Sorry, I don’t sell parts, and I can’t advise you on where to buy parts!

  18. I had no idea you could get the ’70 without the side molding and full skirts. They’re so rare, it must have been by special delete order. A commenter at an auction site claimed the small skirts were a late introduction due to the unpopularity of the big ones, but they’re in the Riviera folder at (but it does call them “new”). I sorta like the ’70 Toronado, but what was Buick thinking? Why go retro for one year (not that anything could lead smoothly into the Boattail)? It’s almost as incongruous as the ’71 Eldorado, a major multi-year error. Did Mitchell have a divorce or illness in this period?

    1. I’ve yet to see any definitive explanation for the 1970 E-bodies. My best guess is that sometime in 1966–67, someone higher up the food chain (e.g., Ed Cole) looked at the development costs, sales, and sales projections for the E-bodies and concluded that to meet ROI targets, the cars would have to continue for an extra year, and there was a scramble to come up with an additional variation on the existing shell. I think after the launch of the Toronado and second-generation Riviera, there was also a sense among the styling studios that the big semi-fastback look was not where the market was going: The 1970 Tornado tried to tone it down, while the 1970 Riviera tried to frame it as what we’d now call retro, both constrained by the need to keep the hardpoints of the 1966 body shell. If someone knows of a designer interview or the like that provides a more coherent, less-speculative explanation, I’d love to see it.

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