What really distinguished GM’s initial hardtops from earlier efforts like the Typhoon and Virginian was not their stylistic or conceptual novelty, but GM’s marketing approach. While the Town and Country coupe would have been just another body style (much like the prewar rumble seat sports coupes) and the Typhoon was an expedient improvisation, GM positioned its hardtop coupes as the image leaders of their respective lines. Each would be lavishly trimmed, have names intended to connote wealth and luxury, and carry prices to match.
Although we’ve been unable to pin down precise introduction dates (complicated by the fact that the cars were announced to the press months before production actually began), it appears that Buick’s hardtop was the first to go on sale, midway through the 1949 model year. Dubbed Riviera, it was offered only in the Roadmaster line, with a base price of $3,203. It was not the most expensive 1949 Buick — the woody Estate Wagon listed for over $500 more — but the Riviera was some $1,400 pricier than a Buick Special and $53 more than a Roadmaster convertible.
The Riviera was followed in short order by the Oldsmobile version, bearing the cumbersome moniker of Futuramic 98 Deluxe Holiday Coupe, and Cadillac’s entry, the Series 62 Coupe de Ville. For customers whose budgets couldn’t stretch that far, Chevrolet and Pontiac announced that they would soon have their own editions. While the Chevrolet Bel Air and Pontiac Catalina wouldn’t arrive until the 1950 model year, prototypes were shown to the press in the spring of 1949, around the time the senior hardtops went into production. GM evidently had little doubt that the new style would be a hit with buyers.
That confidence was not misplaced. While the late introduction and high prices limited sales, all three new models were warmly received. Both the Riviera and the Olds Holiday were somewhat overshadowed by the more glamorous Coupe de Ville, but the Buick was the bestseller of the trio with a total of 3,243 units to Cadillac’s 2,150 and Oldsmobile’s 3,006.
The introduction of the Riviera was just one facet of a very good year for Buick. Although the decision to offer carryover bodies the previous year was probably the right decision in the long run, Buick’s 1948 sales had slipped by around 47,000 units, putting it behind both Pontiac and Dodge. Despite some Buick dealers’ trepidation about the new body — even with the last-minute changes — total 1949 sales soared to nearly 400,000 units, a new record, and enough to reclaim fourth place.