Bill Mitchell, styling chief of General Motors from 1958 to 1977, presided over quite a few hits and a number of duds in his long career. Some of those designs still spark controversy — few as much as this one. Critics were divided on this design when it first appeared and even today, there’s a love-it-or-hate-it attitude toward it. This week, the history of Buick’s infamous 1971–1973 “boattail Riviera.”
NOTE: This article, originally written in 2007, was revised extensively in November 2010 to correct a number of factual errors.
BUICK RIVIERA ROOTS
As we have seen, the first four-seat Ford Thunderbird, launched in 1958, revealed a lucrative market for stylish “personal cars” aimed at buyers looking for something with more dash and distinction than a normal sedan or coupe. Mechanically, the “Square Bird” was unexceptional, but it struck a chord and many affluent buyers clutched the new T-Bird to their collective breasts.
Given the Thunderbird’s great popularity, it took GM and Chrysler a surprisingly long time to respond in kind. GM had dabbled with personal cars back in the early fifties, with the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Fiesta, and early Cadillac Eldorado, but those were limited-edition image-builders and were far less profitable than the Thunderbird.
The early sixties brought a number of dressed-up versions of standard bodies, like the Oldsmobile Starfire and the first Pontiac Grand Prix, but GM’s first direct response to the T-Bird was the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera. Swift, elegant, and reasonably agile for a big American car, the Riviera made a credible effort to blend luxury and genuine sporting flair. Although it failed to outsell the Thunderbird, the Riviera accounted for over 100,000 sales in three years, enough to earn it a permanent place in the Buick line-up.
FROM CORVETTE STING RAY TO BOATTAIL RIVIERA
As is often the case with both cars and people, as the Riviera aged, it began to show signs of middle-age spread. The 1966-1967 Riviera, designed by Buick chief stylist Dave Holls, was still quite sporty-looking, but it was bigger in every dimension. By the 1970 model year, however, greater weight, softer suspension tuning, and fussy, conservative touches like rear fender skirts were starting to give the Riviera a matronly air.
Bill Mitchell had a different direction in mind for the next-generation Riviera, slated for the 1971 model year. Mitchell, who had begun his GM career in 1935, was fond of the rakish “boat-tail” speedsters of the twenties and thirties, cars like the elegant Auburn Speedster. Those themes had previously appeared on the designs that became the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray; now, Mitchell wanted to apply them to the Riviera.
As with most of the cars developed during his tenure as VP of styling, Mitchell set the tone for the new Riviera, but he did not design it himself. According to former Buick stylist John Houlihan, the initial concept came from designer Don DaHarsh, then working in Mitchell’s “Studio X.” A 3/8th-scale model of DaHarsh’s concept passed to Buick Studio 2, then led by Gerald Hirshberg (later head of design for Nissan).
Hirshberg and his team further refined the concept with considerable input from Mitchell, eventually producing a full-size clay model with a Sting Ray-like boat-tail and a prominent V windshield. We’ve never seen a photo of that model; Houlihan says it was quite striking, although he admitted it was not to every taste. The production car it spawned would be even more controversial.
A QUESTION OF SCALE
If it had been up to Bill Mitchell and the designer team, the 1971 Buick Riviera would have been considerably smaller than the outgoing model, which by 1970 was up to 215.5 inches (5,474 mm) overall on a 119-inch (3,023mm) wheelbase, weighing nearly 4,700 lb (2,130 kg). According to Jerry Hirschberg, the boattail was originally intended to use the A-body platform of the Buick Special/Skylark intermediate line, which was some 14.8 inches (376 mm) shorter and roughly half a ton lighter than the Riviera.
Pontiac had just “downsized” its Grand Prix in a similar manner, switching it from the full-size B-body platform of the Pontiac Catalina to a modified version of the A-body Tempest/Le Mans platform. According to Houlihan, the boat-tail Riviera was originally slated to be somewhat bigger than the Skylark, which leads us to wonder if it was intended as another “A-Special” like the Grand Prix or 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, combining the body shell of the two-door A-body with the four-door’s longer wheelbase to produce a close-coupled hardtop with a heroically long hood. We don’t know if that was the plan, but it would have been an interesting approach.
Unfortunately, cost considerations intruded. By Detroit standards, the sales volume of specialty cars like the Buick Riviera was modest; they made far more business sense if they shared tooling with other models, which was why the 1966-1970 Riviera had shared the corporate E-body shell with the contemporary Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado.
As originally designed, the boattail Riviera’s commonality with the Skylark would have been limited, requiring a lot of new stampings and entirely new glass. That was a sharp contrast with the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo, which shared a surprising number of body panels with the mundane Le Mans and Chevelle hardtops, and it would have made the boattail expensive to build.
To minimize production costs, GM president Ed Cole ordered the boattail Riviera redesigned to share the chassis and inner body stampings of the full-size (B-body) Buick LeSabre and Centurion, along with the B-body’s conventional windshield and side windows. The only new glass Cole was willing to authorize was the dramatic curved backlight.
Ed Cole and Bill Mitchell had had a similar argument back in 1962 about designer Dave North’s “Flame Red Car,” which became the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. There too, Mitchell had wanted to use the A-body platform, but Cole and then-president Jack Gordon had insisted on the larger E-body shell of the 1966 Riviera. While North’s design had translated surprisingly well to the larger dimensions, the boattail Riviera was not so lucky, losing much of its original dynamism in the process. The Buick design team made the best of it, but Hirshberg later called it a very unhappy experience.
The designers’ discomfort was compounded when Buick management saw the results. Bob Kessler, who had been Buick’s general manager during the boattail Riviera’s development, had apparently liked both the original concept and the final product, but his successor, Lee Mays, definitely did not. Mays had previously been the general sales manager of Chevrolet; he’d been promoted to run Buick in April 1969 after butting heads with newly appointed Chevrolet general manager John DeLorean. Mays had little regard for specialty cars in general (Dave Holls said Mays had disdained the original Chevrolet Monte Carlo on concept) and he strongly disliked the new Riviera. The boattail became the subject of some very contentious exchanges between Mays and Mitchell.
Mays later reiterated his displeasure with the boattail Riviera, claiming that even the designers were unwilling to take responsibility for it. That wasn’t true, but by their own accounts, few of those involved with the design were particularly satisfied with how it turned out. There was little to be done about it in the short term; the new model was too close to production for any substantial changes.
THE BIGGER BOATTAIL
As it finally emerged in the fall of 1970, the 1971 Buick Riviera was not only larger than intended, it was noticeably bigger than its predecessor. Overall length was up to 217.4 inches (5,522 mm), wheelbase to 122 inches (3,099 mm), and overall width from 78.1 to 79.9 inches (1,984 to 2,030 mm). Curb weight rose by about 110 lb (55 kg). The boattail Riviera was about 3 inches (76 mm) shorter than the Centurion with which it shared some of its structure, but was definitely a full-size car.
As before, the Riviera’s standard engine was Buick’s 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc) V8, introduced the previous year. A lower compression ratio reduced its output to 315 gross horsepower (235 kW), down from 370 hp (276 kW) in 1970; the optional Gran Sport package included a different camshaft, giving 330 gross horsepower (246 kW). In the new SAE net rating system, which GM was starting to phase in, Buick quoted a lower but more realistic 255 net horsepower (190 kW) for the standard engine, 265 hp (198 kW) for the GS. Sole transmission was again the ubiquitous three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic.
Previous Buick Rivieras had used a self-supporting cruciform frame — one of the last in Detroit — but the boattail Riviera now had a full-length perimeter frame and a new four-link rear suspension, similar in principle to the one used by the new Eldorado and Toronado. Front disc brakes, previously optional, were now standard.
Although Buick didn’t offer the rear anti-lock braking system available on Eldorados and Toronados, the boattail Riviera boasted a different technical novelty: an early electronic traction control system, dubbed “Max Trac.” The Max Trac system, which initially listed for $91.57, used wheel and driveshaft sensors to detect rear wheelspin, and then retarded the engine’s ignition timing to reduce power. Testers found it helpful on slippery surfaces, although they were dubious about its benefit on dry pavement; it could be deactivated with a dashboard switch. Max Trac was apparently not very popular and it was dropped after 1974. (Authors Terry Dunham and Lawrence Gustin suggest that the real reason for its cancellation was that its ignition retardation conflicted with federal emissions rules. Given the proliferation of conceptually similar traction control devices on modern cars, we’re skeptical about that, but we can see that it may have made EPA certification problematic in the absence of electronic fuel injection and computerized engine controls.)
Despite its greater bulk, the boattail Riviera was still fairly athletic for a personal luxury car. The enthusiast press inevitably favored the optional Gran Sport package, which had slightly more power, a shorter (higher numerical) axle ratio, a firmer suspension, and fast-ratio steering, but testers found the base suspension reasonably satisfactory, offering a reasonably firm ride and decent cornering response. Even with the GS package, the Riviera wasn’t exactly agile, but its road manners put it among the first rank of American luxury cars.
The new Riviera was really too heavy for Supercar performance, but it was brisk enough: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the mid-8-second range and quarter mile (402-meter) ETs of less than 16 seconds, which was a bit quicker than either the 1971 Thunderbird or the 1971 Toronado. We found no recorded tests of its top speed, but it was probably over 120 mph (193 km/h). Testers also found the Riviera’s stopping power superior to that of the nose-heavy Toronado.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
Press response to the boattail Riviera was cautious. Reviewers admitted it was a love-it-or-hate-it design, but most carefully avoided offering any judgment, although Road Test had a few choice words about rear visibility and the tail’s potential to wreak havoc in parallel parking situations.
Public response was similarly guarded. The 1971 Buick Riviera was hardly a commercial disaster, but first-year sales were down about 10% from 1970, which had been a facelift of a five-year-old body. A price hike of close to $400 probably didn’t help, although buyers in this class were less price-sensitive than most; a lot of personal luxury cars were ordered fully loaded, which took the Riviera’s tab to around $7,500.
Production of the 1971 models was also affected by the lengthy UAW strike in the fall of 1970, but Riviera sales remained almost unchanged for 1972 and 1973 while the Eldorado and Toronado posted significant gains. The Riviera had previously been the bestseller of the trio, but it had now fallen behind its Oldsmobile and Cadillac rivals.
The 1972 Riviera had only modest changes, including a new grille and the deletion of the ventilation louvers on the rear deck; both engines were down about 5 hp (3 kW). There were more extensive changes the following year, reflecting new federal safety standards and Mays’ dislike of the original design. The former brought a stout new 5 mph (8 km/h) bumper up front; the latter resulted in a reshaped tail that deemphasized the boat-tail “stinger.”
The new bumpers made the 1973 Buick Riviera 6 inches (152 mm) longer than the 1971 and significantly heavier: curb weight now topped 5,000 lb (2,290 kg). The Gran Sport package remained available, but it no longer included the more-powerful engine, which was now a standalone option, dubbed “Stage 1,” like Buick’s hottest intermediate Gran Sports.
Buick managed to hold the line on engine power despite stricter EPA standards, but emissions controls were beginning to affect driveability and fuel economy. Cars‘ February 1973 test of a GS Stage 1 model recorded 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of around 9 seconds, but found that fuel economy could drop as low as 5 mpg (47 L/100 km) in vigorous driving.
Although Lee Mays retired shortly after the 1973 boattail Riviera went on sale, his influence probably contributed to the boat-tail’s short lifespan. The 1974 Riviera was not yet all new, but the curved backlight and boattail stinger were gone, replaced with a sharp-edged new roofline with angular rear quarter windows reminiscent of the intermediate Colonnade coupes. A new 5 mph (8 km/h) rear bumper brought overall length to a daunting 226.4 inches (5,751 mm) — longer than the big Buick Electra 225 of a decade earlier — while the standard engine fell to 230 net horsepower (172 kW).
If Buick had hoped a more conservative look would boost Riviera sales, they were sorely disappointed. The OPEC oil embargo that began shortly after the 1974 Riviera’s introduction undoubtedly played a part in its dismal sales, which fell from more than 33,000 the previous year to just over 20,000. Nevertheless, it appears that buyers found little to love about the new styling; the 1974 Toronado outsold the Riviera by more than 30%, while the much more expensive Eldorado beat the Buick by about 2 to 1.
Even after buyers began to return to big cars in 1975-1976, Riviera sales remained low. The boattail Riviera may have been a polarizing design, but it had a clear-cut identity; the 1974-1976 models sacrificed much of that image without offering a coherent new theme to replace it.
The Riviera underwent several subsequent redesigns: It was downsized with the rest of Buick’s B-body cars in 1977 and in 1979 returned to the corporate E-body, belatedly adopting front-wheel drive like its Eldorado and Toronado siblings. The FWD Riviera was quite successful through 1985, but a further downsizing for 1986 once again sent sales plummeting.
After a brief hiatus in the early nineties, the Riviera received a stylish redesign for 1995, but by then, the growing popularity of SUVs had largely decimated the coupe market. The Riviera expired for good in 1999. Buick has shown a number of styling studies for future Rivieras, but as of this writing, there has been no word of a new production model.
REEVALUATING THE BOATTAIL RIVIERA
The 1971-1973 Buick Riviera has been much maligned over the years, although it has a certain following. We can understand why the designers who worked on it (or saw the original concept) might consider it a disappointment, but we find it rather appealing. It doesn’t quite gel — the nose seems mundane compared to the dramatic tail — and it works better from some angles than others, but it’s fascinating to look at and we think it holds up better than some more popular contemporary designs like the Lincoln Continental Mark IV.
Not having seen the original clay model, we can’t comment on how on the boattail Riviera might have looked, had it followed the initial concept. However, even if the production model was not the classic beauty Bill Mitchell and Jerry Hirshberg intended, we think it stands as an interesting bridge between the sporty themes of the sixties and the rococo formality that characterized luxury cars of the seventies. We also admire its sheer flamboyance — subtle it was not, but it still turns heads, just as it did almost 40 years ago.
Polish Buick enthusiast George Przygoda has (with our permission) translated this article into Polish. You can read the translation on George’s website here: buick-riviera.pl/Historia-ciekawostki-wiesci/Wszystko-co-chcecie-wiedziec-o-Boattailu-od-Bucika-a-boicie-sie-zapytac.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.)
NOTES ON SOURCES
Background information on the boattail Riviera came from “Buick Riviera Boattail 1971 1972 1973,” Buick-Riviera.com, n.d., www.buick-riviera. com/ history.html, last accessed 28 November 2010; a comment from stylist John Houlihan on that site (18 July 2000, www.buick-riviera. com/ houlihan_history.html, accessed 28 November 2010); a letter by John Houlihan to the editors of Collectible Automobile, reprinted with permission by Gary Smith in “Who Designed the ’71 Boattail Riviera?” Dean’s Garage 25 July 2010, deansgarage. com/ 2010/who-designed-the-%E2%80%9971-boattail-riveria/, accessed 28 November 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Dave Crippen, “The Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell” [interview], 8 August 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/Mitchell/ mitchellinterview.htm [transcript], accessed 28 November 2010; 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); 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, “Evolution of the Riviera – 1971,” The Riview Vol. 19, No. 4 (May-June 2003), and “Evolution of the Riviera – 1972,” The Riview Vol. 19, No. 5 (July-August 2003), Riviera Owners Association, rivowners. org/, accessed 27 November 2010; Sean Cahill, “Evolution of the Riviera – 1973,” The Riview Vol. 19, No. 6 (September-October 2003), and “Evolution of the Riviera – 1974,” The Riview Vol. 20, No. 1 (November-December 2003), Riviera Owners Association, rivowners. org, accessed 28 November 2010; Matthew Litwin, “Collector Buyer’s Guide: 1971-1973 Buick Riviera,” Hemmings Classic Car #32 (May 2007), pp. 84–89; and C. Van Tune, “Retrospect: Riviera: 1963–1973 Buick Riviera,” Motor Trend Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1994), reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1968, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).
Additional background information came from Robert C. Ackerson and Beverly Rae Kimes, Chevrolet: A History from 1911, Second Edition (Automobile Quarterly, 1986); Robert Genat and David Newhardt, Chevy SS: 50 Years of Super Sport (St. Paul MN: MBI Publishing Company LLC/Motorbooks, 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. R.M. Clarke (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); 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; and J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980).
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Riviera…A Buick That Lives Up to Its Slogan,” Road Test November 1970; Jim Brokaw, “Almost a Limousine,” Motor Trend December 1970; “One of a Kind,” Road Test April 1972; “The Princely Pachyderm,” Cars February 1973; Jim Brokaw, “Toronado, Thunderbird, Grand Prix and Riviera: You can get cozy with that ‘personal luxury car’ if you’ve got $6000 to $8000,” Motor Trend June 1973; “Buick Riviera: Another Good Year Ahead,” Road Test December 1974; “Buick Riviera: Once big, flashy and unique, it is now simply big,” Road Test July 1976, all of which are reprinted in Buick Riviera Performance Portfolio 1963-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); “Buick Riviera: It creates the grand illusion of a 1949 vintage dream car meant to depict the Seventies,” Car and Driver October 1969 and “’71 Buick Centurion: Floating ride Buicks are no more,” Road Test January 1971, reprinted in Buick Muscle Cars 1963-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2001); and Jim Brokaw, “Three for the Money,” Motor Trend December 1971 and “The Personal Luxury Cars,” Motor Trend March 1974, reprinted in Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).
This article’s title was suggested by the German submarine film Das Boot (produced by Günter Rohrbach, written and directed by Wolfgang Peterson, based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, West Germany, Bavaria Film/Columbia Pictures, 1981). In German, of course, “das Boot” simply means “the Boat.”