Das Boattail: The 1971–1973 Buick Riviera

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.

1972 Buick Riviera tail


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.

1963 Buick Riviera side
The 1963 Buick Riviera was based on a design by stylist Ned Nickles, although the sharp-edged roofline was suggested by a Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce that GM styling VP Bill Mitchell once saw through a London fog. Bill Mitchell later said the original Riviera was one of his favorite designs.

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.


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.

Replica of 1935 Auburn 851 Speedster rear 3q © Luc106 PD
A replica of a 1935 Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster demonstrates the dramatic shape that inspired the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and 1971 Buick Riviera. (Photo: “Replica of Auburn 851-Boattail-Speedster Rear-view” © 2008 Luc106; released into the public domain by the photographer, resized 2009 by Aaron Severson)
1972 Buick boattail Riviera backlight
The tail of a 1972 boattail Riviera. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a stress line down the center of the backlight to keep the glass from snapping as the body flexes over bumps — or when it was originally installed in the car. Stylist John Houlihan, who was involved with the design of the boattail Riviera, said the backlight was a major manufacturing headache.

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.


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.

1972 Buick Riviera side view
The boattail Riviera was at least a foot (305 mm) longer and about 3 inches (76 mm) wider than Jerry Hirshberg and Bill Mitchell originally intended. Mitchell was particularly bothered by the greater width, but John Houlihan felt the most unfortunate change was the use of the windshield and side windows of the B-body LeSabre/Centurion. We tend to agree; from some angles, the side windows don’t seem to quite match the overall proportions. More successful are the chromed steel wheels, a popular option on Buicks of this vintage, priced at around $70.

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.

1971 Buick Riviera side - copyright © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
The boattail Riviera’s best angles are ones that show off the car’s dramatic curves. (Photo: “Riviera Side” © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)

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.

1971 Buick Riviera trunk - copyright © 2016 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
The 1971 Buick Riviera’s boattail rear deck is hardly less dramatic than that of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray it evokes. The decklid louvers on either side of the “spine” were a one-year feature, deleted for 1972. (Photo: “CIMG0542” © 2016 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)


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.

1971 Buick Riviera 455 engine - copyright © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
The 1971 Buick Riviera’s 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc) engine had 316 gross horsepower (235 kW), 255 hp (190 kW) under the newly adopted, more conservative SAE net system. (Photo: “Buick 455” © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)

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.)

 1971 Buick Riviera front - copyright © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
Cars of this period often look best in their initial form, before the enactment of the U.S. 5 mph (8 km/h) bumper standards, and the Riviera is no exception. The 1971 Buick Riviera’s blade-like original front bumper recalls that of the 1970½ Camaro (without the RS package’s split ‘bumperettes’). (Photo: “Riviera Front” © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)
1972 or 73 Buick Riviera front view
We believe the silver photo car is actually a 1972 Riviera, but it has the front bumper and grille of a 1973 model; the 1972 Riviera had an eggcrate grille and a smaller bumper with under-bumper parking lamps. There was little mechanical difference between the two. While the 1973 bumper repeats the original bumper’s peak, much of the effect is lost with the heavier bumper and its rubber insert.

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.


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.

1971 Buick Riviera interior - copyright © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
The interior of the 1971 Buick Riviera continued the Riviera line’s traditional buckets-and-console theme. (Photo: “Buick Interior” © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)

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.”

1971 Buick Riviera grille - copyright © 2016 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission
The 1971 Riviera’s jutting nose provides visual balance for the dramatic boattail rear end. (Photo: “Riviera Nose” © 2014 Steve Tkacs (Blue_Boattail@aol.com); used with permission)

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.

1973 Buick Riviera front bumper
From this angle, you can see the exaggerated length of the boattail Riviera’s 5 mph (8 km/h) bumper. This car is missing the standard bumper guards — if you look closely at the front edge of the bumper, you can see their attachment points.

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.


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.

1972 Buick Riviera rear 3q
John Houlihan said the boattail Riviera’s side sweep, similar to that of fifties Buicks, was another touch dictated by Bill Mitchell himself; it certainly adds drama to the rear three-quarter angle. Although the front clip of the photo car is from a 1973 Riviera, the shape of the rear bumper and taillights (and the lack of decklid louvers) are definitely those of a ’72. The 1973 Riviera had a less peaked tail, with the the tail lamps integrated into the bumper rather than above it.

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.)


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.”


Add a Comment
  1. hi, my dad has a 1970 riviera that his mother had and he wants to fix somethings on it. a outside passenger side mirror, and also the front fender passenger side crome mold. can u help? i don’t know anything about this and can find it on the internet. got any ideas that could help my dad.. thanks vince

  2. The Riviera unfortunately had two things against it when it was decided to do it off of the larger platform. That destroyed the original great proportions, but even worse was the interpretation of the original design
    done by Gerry Hirshberg. The original was one of the most beautiful and sculptural designs that many of us had seen to that point.

    The wheel oriented theme lent itself very well to sculptural interpretation.
    The final designs execution was very poorly done, straight lines and flat surfaces were in contrast to the very sensitive and curvacous side theme.

    The biggest problem was the very poor and insensitive execution of the original cars theme.

    Dick Ruzzin

  3. I have trouble understanding what is “backlight” on the rear windscreen. I do not understand this concept.

    Can you point out or explain what is this exactly?

    1. In automotive design and coachbuilding, windows are sometimes called “lights” — for example, a car with three windows on each side (like some modern Audis) is sometimes called a six-light (or six-window) body, and vent windows are sometimes called quarterlights. The backlight is the rear glass.

      I find the term rear windscreen (or rear windshield) imprecise, since blocking the wind is not really its purpose. Saying “backlight” also makes it clear that you’re not referring to the windows of the rear doors.

  4. Some good journalism here on a difficult subject. One follow-up question: I’m wondering whether there is more to the decision to put the Riviera on the full-sized B-Body than cost, as Houlihan suggests.

    For one thing, at that point in time GM was pouring money into niche cars. As a case in point, the 1970 the Riviera was given a substantial reskinning – an expensive undertaking – that was produced only one year. I’m hard pressed to recall another time that has happened in the post-war US auto industry. Clearly GM was willing to throw substantial resources into outselling Ford’s still-dominant Thunderbird.

    But even if cost considerations were paramount, the Riviera need not have cost any more on the A-Body if, like the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix, it shared the usual components such as windshields and doors. That may have compromised the original Riviera design, but so did moving it to the B-Body.

    This leads me to wonder whether other considerations played a role in the decision. For example, a 1971 introduction would arguably have been too late in the A-Body’s life cycle to be adequately amortized before a new one was to be introduced. The A-Body was originally scheduled for a complete makeover in 1972, but that was delayed a year.

    Was the 1970 reskinning a stop-gap measure resulting from extended internal debates about the Riviera’s future?

    1. To your last question, I don’t know, but I think probably not. I suspect that extending the E-body through 1970 was done to give GM a better shot at amortizing its tooling costs, either because (a) the Eldorado appeared a year later than the other two (it was originally supposed to debut for ’66), (b) the Toronado was selling well below its projected level, or (c) both. The cost of the UPP for the Toronado and Eldorado was apparently quite high; even with an extra year of sales, I don’t think Olds broke even, although I would think failing to pay off the body tooling costs would have made it worse.

      It’s worth noting that the Toronado also got an extensive redesign for 1970. If extending the E-bodies an extra year was a late decision, Buick may have decided to follow suit, to avoid losing ground to the others. Again, I’m speculating, but that would make sense.

    2. One of the reasons the ’70 Riviera received such a major facelift is that the headlights were changed from “hidden” to “exposed”, as were all other GM cars that had them in ’69 except Corvette. Don’t know why the sweepspear trim and fender skirts were added, however. The tail section was probably changed due to the fact that 66-67 and 68-69 had run in two-year cycles with the only difference between years 1 and 2 being the tailight lenses.

      Some sources back in the late 1960s reported that new Rivieras and Toronados were planned for 1970 though that was likely just speculation, but delayed until 1971. In any case, the ’71 E-body cars were much more like the full-sized B-body cars due to design changes to the big-car full-perimeter from the X-frame of previous Rivieras and the semi-unibody of Toro and Eldo (subframe with rear suspension, opposite of front subframe found in Chrysler products and ’67 and later Camaro/Firebird). Riviera had always had full-coil suspension, but Toro and Eldo switched to coils from multi-leafs in the rear but continued the torsion bars up front.

      Also, the instrument panels of the ’71 E-body cars were similar to that of their respective B- and C-body counterparts.

  5. Being an owner of a 1971 and having done much research in its restoration, I’m disappointed in the lack of correct photos within this article. Having one example, and a Frankenstein at that, to provide visual reference to the changes between the three model years, and especially the ’73, seems just plain lazy.

    For example, exterior changes between ’71 and’72 include new grille, decklid louver delete, added front and rear bumper rubber strips, and most egregiously, riveted-on body side molding in ’72. Changes were even more drastic for ’73.

    1. This is not a restoration guide, and as with all these articles, I’m limited by the photos available to me at the time of writing. While I do sometimes go back and add updated photos if I get the chance to take better ones, that opportunity doesn’t always present itself. In fact, I haven’t seen another boattail Riviera in the metal, correct or otherwise, in over two years. The last one I did see, which was not in a position to be photographed, was in considerably poorer condition than this one.

  6. I happen to really like the design in concept,very original. I also love the way GM did their ‘wrap-around’ dashboards in the early 70’s. I took my driver’s test in our ’71 Electra. ( I learned to drive in 51 Studebaker Commander on my uncle’s lap when I was 7 ;-) ). I do believe, tho, Buick, GM, should have applied this design to their intermediates for a much better proportioned car.

  7. Having owned a boattail since 71, I can provide pictures of an unmolested original. It is correct in every detail and a more accurate reference source than the silver one pictured.
    ROA #716

    1. Stephen,

      Send me a note via the contact form — I would be more than happy to update the images in this article! (Last year, I tried to take some photos of a nice ’72, most of which turned out really badly due to unfortunate lighting conditions.)

  8. I own a very nice all original white 1972 Boat Tail Riviera. The white color (unlike several odd colors available) gives the car a clean look, especially at night. However, like most people think, the car looks great from one or two angles but “just not right” from other angles. From an angle looking at the side rear of the car from the front of the car, the rear fenders seem to get rather small as compared to the front and cabin part of the car. Compounded by the tapering in of the rear window, which can not be seen from this angle. On my car, I corrected this, to some extent, by adding fender skirts. The front of the car has too many vertical line and a general vertical theme, compounded by the too-high windshield. I custom fabricated new headlight panels, moved the bumper guards outward, and reduced the width of the grill molding as on the Silver Arrow III. In the rear, I reduced the height of the tail lights and increased the width (4 lamps per side vs 2 lamps per side), and added a wind split to the rear window. I did drill one hole for a rear antenna like the 1963 Corvette SingRay. It ads to the black space on the rear fenders as viewed from the front, and gives an interesting and perpendicular line to the slop of the rear window – it just looks right in my eye. I also installed rear wire wheels, of the design used on the Silver Arrow III, and larger tires, so as to bring the wheel size more inline with the large size of the car. These modifications took me almost 3 months to fabricate and install, however they are all reversible. I call my car the Silver Arrow IV. It will be shown in the Nov-Dec 2014 (vol. 30, no. 6) issue of the Riview, the magazine of the ROA (Riviera Owners Association). You can see photos of my car in the Riview. I think that my modifications drastically improve the look of the car without requiring any major changes. I transformed my car to one which I only liked to look at it from one or two angles to one which I enjoy looking at from all angles! The one thing I wish I could do, would be to lower the front of the roof – but that would be a major non-reversible modification. You can email me for more photos of my Silver Arrow IV. I am thinking of fabricating the twin brake lights on the rear of the roof ahead of the rear window, as on the Silver Arrow III, however I will have to use Velcro since I don’t want to make permanent changes and don’t want to harm the vinyl top. Other than that, it is as complete as I will make it. I even had the new larger white wall tires custom shaved to 1.5 inches wide. Center caps also have the Buick tri-shield and gear look as per the Silver Arrow III. If anyone sees this article and the car itself in the Review – I hope they will enjoy it. It represents more than 300 hrs of work!

    1. Hi Bill, I was wondering if you send me photos, please! I´m a big fan of Buick Boattail.



    2. Hi Bill.
      It will be a pleasure for me to have a look at your Silver Arrow IV. From your descriptions it seems to me you added character and personality to your Boat Tail 72!

  9. I met John Houlihan at the Scottsdale Arizona “Buik,Olds,Pontiac – BOP’ show. He is one of the nicest and knowlegeable people I have ever met when it comes to the history of the boattail Riv. I have had my 71 for almost 30 years, and have no intentions of selling it. It gives me a new sense of pride meeting one of the primary desighners on such a historic GM car.

  10. I have owned many of Boatail’s and really enjoyed them for the last 40 years. I’m down to just 1 now. It’s a 72 and owned it for the last 35 years. I now am in the process of taking the car apart to change the color from brown to black. It’s a Great car. My 1st car was a 73 Riviera GS Stage 1

    1. I’ve just acquired a 73 Riviera GS Stage 1. Rare bird here in the UK!

      1. I imagine so! Probably quite expensive to feed there as well.

  11. I would like to know what the 1970/1/2 Riviera rear axle and rear suspension are out of, are they Toranado, El Dorado, E body, B body or is it unique to the Riviera? I have a 72 Riv with 71 trunk lid, split front bumper and and a few custom features The motor is 470 inches/ aluminum heads/ SA cam/ long tube headers etc. I want to install a Ford 9 inch rear. I need to know what the 4 link rear suspension is so I can duplicate the brackets. Yea I know its heavy and I have faster cars it just seems like a good idea to have a fast beautiful luxury car.Thanks Butch — To see the car go to http://www.butchshotrods.com

    1. I can’t help you with modifying or repairing your car. I can tell you that because the E-body Toronado and Eldorado were both FWD, their rear axles and rear suspension are substantially different than the Riviera’s. I think the Riviera’s rear suspension and axle are substantially similar in design to the ones used in full-size Buicks of the same year, but I don’t know to what extent components are actually interchangeable. Also note that both the Riviera and B-body Buicks were redesigned for 1971, so there are also some differences between 1970 and 1971.

  12. Can you put a four speed in a 71 boattail riviera?

    1. I assume so, if one had the money and inclination. However, it would raise complicated legal questions about whether such a swap would violate federal or state emissions laws, since Buick’s emissions certifications for the ’71 Riviera were achieved with Turbo Hydra-Matic. I’m not a lawyer or a mechanic, so I really can’t say, just as I can’t advise you on how — or whether — to modify or repair any car. This is a history site, so stuff like that is beyond my scope and certainly beyond my skill.

  13. Great article…I am looking at buying a 1972 Riviera. I have to say that I love the design, but it is not without its flaws. My intent is to do a very, very light restomod on mine, keeping the car as original looking, without going for the sports/muscle look. The Riv looks amazing from 2 or 3 angles, but one of the previous commenters is right…the front roofline is too high. The car also sits slightly high and needs bigger wheels. I do love the idea of the split front bumper, and will try to figure out a way to gently highlight the ridgeline. Overall, it is an amazing design that still turns heads…though I can only image how much better it would have looked if it were a little smaller, lower and lighter, and not so 1970’s looking. Great article…thanks!

  14. I have owned and driven my Boattail since 71.This gleaming sky blue work of art draws stares and smiles every time I drive it. When parked, the rear quarter bulge reminds one of a lion haunch just before it springs on an unsuspecting prey.
    The upside to the larger size is evident in the smooth and stable ride. Anyone who owns a 71 will relate to the feeling of safety and control balanced with performance. The power to weight ratio is enough to satisfy any critic. Control is easily enhanced with the installation of heavy duty front shocks coupled with Monroe load-levelers in the rear. This brings the ordinary suspension real close to GS performance.
    Many thanks for a very detailed look at automotive history.

  15. Dear Aaron,
    It’s in the Netherlands. Still it could be the same car but the one overhere is (very) light blue.

    1. Very curious. I have no idea!

  16. The same discussion on barnfinds.com which started on Dec 29, 2014

  17. Great article! Always admired the daring of the design even though it is severely flawed by the compromised proportions.

    One memory from the time of when it came out was a column by Bob Brown the then editor of Car and Driver whose piece one month consisted of coming up with his own automotive awards and profusely lauded the Riviera for being the most unique, daring and standout design for 1971.

    For Ugliest Car of 1971, he awarded that too to the 1971 Riviera.

  18. Great article…came back several times to review it already. I’m a boattail owner “72 and love the car. Would love to see a photo or rendering of the original design. I am surprised no one has tried to recreate it, or ever did a drawing of what the riv would have looked like on the smaller body…Monte Carlo base size. It is a beautiful car, but the proportions are off…sidelights, rear shell…something. It always looks good but never perfect from any angle. Still, I love the design.

  19. Lots of great information in this article.I own a 1972 Riviera GS and its very hard to find any information or parts for my car here is Canada.My car is a beauty and drives like a dream.I would never think of modifying it in any way.I love the design and uniqueness of the look.

  20. The silver Riviera in the photos is definitely a 1973. A proper search will turn up that it has the entire correct front end clip which includes the hood and fenders which were changed from the 1972 versions. Also, not all 1973 models had vertical bumper guards. Also, no photos of 1973 models feature a stand up hood ornament. The only emblem was flush mounted to the header panel ahead of the hood above the grille. Searching 1974 shows evidence of the first stand-up hood ornament.

    1. I can’t imagine why anyone would replace the ’72 front with an uglier and heavier ’73 (would it even support it?), but that means they stuck a ’72 trunk lid and bumper on a ’73. Whichever, Dr. Frankenstein sent Igor out for the parts and he got Abby Normal’s. I’d rather have the rakish ’72 front (and engine) with a more normal and less dangerous ’73 rear.

      Dad and I test drove one in ’72, and he got it up to 80 mph without either of us noticing until the speed alert went off. Our ’73 Century wagon with 350 4 bbl had terrible driveability, especially when cold. Even warm, it felt congested.

  21. what is the difference in a 71 base Riviera & a GS model & are there any GS emblems on that model ?

    1. In 1971, the GS was an option, not a separate model. It included a more powerful engine, a shorter axle ratio (3.42 versus 2.93), a limited-slip differential, and a stiffer suspension. It did have emblems: “Riviera GS” on the front fenders, behind the wheel wells. I don’t believe it had a tail badge standard, but I wouldn’t swear to that.

  22. I have recently purchased a nice 1973 Riviera, I was looking for a 71, but found a very well kept 73. I want to change the front end out to look like the 71 bumper, etc. What would be necessary to make this change?

    1. I’m really, really not qualified to give advice on modifying cars. Sorry!

    2. You will need all the sheet metal forward of the doors. Also the radiator supports and associated brackets….If you decide to do this, I would suggest using the 1972 Front bumper. It has a rubber strip like the rear of the 73..therefore will match better.

  23. At this point the cars are 50 years old. I have a 72 and loved or hated when new, very few cars garner the same attention the boat tail gets in public. Its design is different enough from other vehicles of the time (or since) that it stands out. I often tell people that for car this old it drives well and runs fine with modern traffic. The only shame is that the youngest generation now has little interest in the car hobby. Happy motoring.

  24. I am not an expert on design or proportions and such but I do know what I like. I first saw the boattail Riv at the 1971 New York international Auto Show. I was 19 and immediately fell in love with it. I am glad to see in recent years the car is starting to get its due respect and more people are coming to appreciate it. I noticed you do not spend any time critiquing the interior design. I always found this Riv’s interior to be just as beautiful as the exterior and I wonder what you think on that. As an avid amateur photographer I notice that all your photos are in 4×3 aspect ratio. I would suggest you get a camera that offers multiple aspect ratios as the 16×9 ratio is much better for photographing the exterior car shots. Very much enjoy your website, especially the historical design data.

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