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In the late forties, a new body style was introduced at the car shows, and it began to gain popularity very quickly. The "two door hardtop" was said to combine the best features of two different styles, the two door coupe and the convertible, with none of the draw backs of either. People with coupes had to contend with the "B" pillar between the front door glass and the rear quarter window, which blocked vision out of the car and didn't have the sleek appearance of a convertible, which lacked the B pillar.
However, women especially preferred coupes because convertibles with the top down mussed their hair and required frequent make up touch ups. Plus, convertibles were more expensive and not as weather proof as a coupe. With the two door hardtop, people got the best of both worlds: hardtop safety and protection from the elements with no B pillars, which gave it the sleek look of a convertible.
The first mass produced cars with this new body style were the 1949 Cadillac Coupe deVille and the Buick Roadmaster Riviera. This body style would become very popular over the next few decades, until around 1975 when new roll over standards went into place, and public tastes changed to favor opera windows and rooflines with wider B pillars that were as much of a styling element as they were a safety item.
The "Riviera" name was used on various Buick models between 1949 and 1955, and during this time its use usually designated a car with upgraded interior trim. In 1955, GM began offering a pillarless four door hardtop body style as well, due to the immense popularity of its two door hardtops over the last 6 years. Riviera was then used by Buick to designate the hardtop body style, although the name did not actually appear on the cars in most cases. Buick used the name Riviera to denote a hardtop body style for the last time in 1963, with the Buick Electra 225 Riviera four door hardtop, which had a body style number of 4829. That very same year, the name Riviera would be applied to a spectacular new model, a two door hardtop that shared its body with no other car, an unusual move for General Motors at the time.
Built to compete with the very popular Ford Thunderbird [link opens in a new window] in the personal luxury market segment, the Buick Riviera was originally conceived for Cadillac Division under the code name XP-715. During the initial stage of development, thought was given to naming the new car LaSalle, but since the LaSalle represented a smaller, more affordable Cadillac when it was built, it was determined this name would be a poor choice for a car envisioned to compete at the upper end of the market.
It is said that the inspiration for the car originated from a trip to London by GM's styling chief Bill Mitchell, who spotted a custom-bodied Rolls Royce parked in the fog one night. Mitchell was struck by the crisp styling, described as "knife-edged" by Mitchell. GM stylist Ned Nickles came up with the final design, which was sporty and elegant and introduced frameless side glass for the first time. The lack of a bright metal frame around the side windows gave the car a very clean look, one that would become more popular in the seventies.
When the new car was offered to Cadillac, its executives weren't interested, because they were enjoying very robust sales at the time, and lacked the facilities to increase production capacity to handle a new car. Plus, Cadillac itself was in the early stages of designing its own personal luxury car, working in concert with Oldsmobile Division on a front wheel drive platform to debut around the middle of the decade.
Now that it had a new car with no division to build and market it, GM allowed its interested divisions to compete for the new model. Buick was perhaps hurting the most of all at this time, and it felt this new model might be just the thing to jump start its sales. So Buick Division went all out to make sure it would be awarded the new car. It commissioned its new advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, with the task of creating a spectacular presentation for GM's upper brass. The presentation wowed the executives, and the car was given to Buick.
The new car was introduced pretty much as designed, although Buick shortened it to accommodate its cruciform frame. Shorter, narrower, and lighter than the larger Buicks it shared showroom space with, the new Riviera used the same basic drive train, which meant it was a spectacular performer. The 1963 Riviera was officially introduced to the public on October 4, 1962, and Buick announced that production would be limited to just 40,000 units its first year.
The initial design called for headlights to be concealed behind front fender grilles, but issues involving reliability and cost delayed their introduction for a couple of years.
Changes between 1963 and 1964 were minimal, with a new stylized "R" emblem replacing the Buick Tri-Shield emblems being the most noticeable of them. Sales dropped somewhat as Buick attempted to market the Riviera as a more affordable luxury car, although much of the loss of sales might be attributed to Ford's all-new 1964 Thunderbird, which was also a very beautiful design, and selling in near record numbers.
A new high performance engine was offered in 1964, the "Super Wildcat" V-8 included dual Carter AFB four barrel carburetors and was rated at 360 horsepower. Some confuse this engine option with the Gran Sport option, but they are not the same. The Gran Sport was introduced in 1965, and included other components in addition to an engine upgrade.
The hidden headlights finally appeared for 1965, along with a modest restyle. Hidden behind clamshell doors in the front fenders, the new feature was a bit trouble prone at first. It was soon discovered that a relay was mounted incorrectly, allowing it to seep water inside and corrode. A service bulletin was quickly issued to remove one screw and loosen another, then drill one new hole, and rotate the relay to an angle that would eliminate the moisture problem. Using the removed screw, it was secured in place using the newly drilled hole, and the problem was solved.
Buick highlighted the new headlight feature in advertising, as well as the availability of a new black vinyl roof, which was a popular trend at the time. Taillights were widened to incorporate the back up lights, and were moved down into the newly restyled rear bumper. The "R" emblem was removed, and in its place was a chrome cross-hatch grille. The non-functional side body scoops located between the front door and rear wheel opening were eliminated to give a sleeker profile to the car. 1965 would also be the first year for the coveted Gran Sport package, which included a dual-quad Super Wildcat 425 V-8 engine, along with other performance features such as a dual exhaust system, stiffer heavy duty suspension components, and a numerically higher (3.42:1) rear axle ratio. The Riviera also received a tilt steering wheel as standard equipment, no doubt to better compete with the T-bird which had offered a "Swing-Away Steering Wheel" as part of its standard package since 1962.
Rarely does one design triumph follow another, but in the case of the 1966 Riviera, an exception was certainly made. Longer, wider, and sleeker than previous Rivieras, the 1966 model shared its body with the Oldsmobile Toronado, which also debuted in 1966. The Riviera differed from the Toronado in that it retained its conventional rear wheel drive, while the new Toronado was the first American mass production front wheel drive car since the 1937 Cord. Motor Trend Magazine honored the 1966 Toronado with its "Car of the Year" Award.
The 1966 Riviera body was new from front to rear and top to bottom, and while the fender tops still retained the knife blade sharp lines of the previous design, the rest of the car was rounded and had lost much of its squared off appearance. The sloping roofline was very sporty, and emphasized the Riv's newly-gained length. Both the front and rear sheet metal were shaped like an inverted "W." The hidden headlights were now concealed behind a full-width grille, which swung down to expose the beams when the lights were turned on. Since the lights came on immediately and then rotated into position, as they rotated down, they temporarily blinded oncoming motorists, which generated complaints from consumers. This in part led to new motor vehicle laws for 1970 which regulated concealed headlights, and is likely partially responsible for their being dropped by many models, including the Riviera, after 1969. Sharply angled turn signal lights at each end framed the grille. Vent windows became a thing of the past, and larger linear taillights appeared out back.
Inside, a new instrument panel was straight forward in its functionality and good looks. A new full-width front seat appeared, making it possible for six passengers to travel in a Riviera if necessary. An optional Strato-bench front seat featured a fold-down center armrest, or a Strato-bucket seat interior could be specified with either a short consolette or a full-length console and floor shift.
A new line of engines was introduced by Buick for 1967, including the 430 cubic inch V-8, which developed 360 horsepower and 475 ft. lbs. of torque, which was standard on the Riviera. The new engine was smoother and quieter than the one it replaced. A Power Front Disc Brake option appeared for the first time, utilizing Bendix 4 piston calipers. Outward appearance was almost identical to 1966, but 1967 models can be easily identified by the presence of a horizontal chrome bar that ran from fender to fender, dissecting the top of the grille and parking lights from the bottom. Body color appeared around the taillights as well, instead of the silver color used on all '66 models.
The 1968 Rivieras received new front and rear treatments, concealed windshield wipers, and all-new interiors. The instrument panel was identical to that used in other full-size Buicks, so the Riviera wasn't quite as unique as it had been in the past in this respect. This was done to cut costs, as new safety standards required additional instrument panel padding and safety features for 1968, all of which required new tooling, and the Riviera's sales volume didn't justify maintaining a unique instrument panel for the line. Front and rear side marker lights also appeared for the first time.
The 1969 Riviera was substantially the same as the 1968, although the ignition key was moved to the steering column, and the back-up lights were relocated from the rear bumper to the inboard area of the taillights. 1969 would be the only year in its history that the Riviera would outsell its biggest rival, the Ford Thunderbird.
A considerable restyle occurred for 1970, in which the Riviera became somewhat heavy looking. Hidden headlights were gone, replaced by stationary exposed lights in the front fenders. New rectangular taillights incorporated dual back-up lights in their centers, and a thick body side molding ran full-length down the side of the car, dipping behind the doors and tapering at each end. Rear fender skirts were available as an option for the first and only time. A new 455 cubic inch V-8 engine—the largest displacement engine offered by Buick to date—was provided at no additional charge. It was rated at 370 horsepower gross, 245 horsepower net, and had over 500 ft. lbs. of torque. Sales dropped off considerably from 1969, but a major change was on the way.
The 1971 Rivieras were most unconventional in appearance, especially when viewed from the rear. New "boat-tail" styling featured a center bumper and deck section that jutted out abruptly, in contrast to the rear quarter panel ends. This was truly a "love it or hate it" design. Conceived under Bill Mitchell's guidance, it combined the fastback-style inverted "U" rear window glass design that was used on the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette.
The 1971 cars gained 3 inches in wheelbase, over 2 inches in length, and more than 120 pounds in weight. Compression on the 455 V-8 engine was also dropped to accommodate EPA emissions requirements, resulting in a loss of horsepower. The Rivieras were still fast, but not as sporting as they had been in the past. Completely new interiors with a dramatically curved instrument panel set the stage inside the car. New options included an AM/FM/stereo tape system all in one unit and Max Trac, an electronic traction control system that prevented rear wheel spin on slick surfaces. A control on the instrument panel allowed the driver to turn it on or off at will. Sales for 1971 dropped again, unusual for a new body style, and this caused great concern at Buick Division. This was the low point to date for Riviera sales, and the pressure was on Buick to turn things around.
Not much changed for 1972, even sales were in the same neighborhood as before, dropping by just 82 units. Not known to many at the time, Buick stylists were in the process of redesigning the tail of the Riviera for 1973, fearing the boat tail design was too radical for its customers. Since replacing the rear glass would have meant a lot of additional tooling, only the deck lid and bumper ultimately were changed. For 1973, the massive protruding area that was present in the center of the deck and bumper the previous two years became little more than a crease, which did much to minimize the visual impact of the original design. Sales for 1973 rebounded somewhat - up to 34,080, unusual in the third year of a body style, but the best showing to date for this particular Riviera design. The instrument panel inside also received a major redesign, which again was shared with the full-size Buick line.
The Riviera for 1974 used the same platform, mechanicals, and most of the body panels from 1973, but received a restyled roofline which eliminated the rakishly curved rear window, replacing it with one that had a more traditional look. The rear quarter windows vanished, replaced by a new GM Colonnade-style roof, which would be used on many GM makes and models over the next few years. Featuring a wide B pillar with stationary glass behind, it was GM's alternative to the opera window. Modifications to the shape and size of the sail panel glass from one car to another gave each a distinct look, and the Riviera's design in this area was shared with no other car.
A new instrument panel appeared, once again shared with other full-sized Buicks. Genuine leather upholstery officially returned to the list of options for the first time since 1963, and the Stage One engine option was offered for the final time in 1974.
Buick made sure that there was no hint of the boat tail rear styling of the previous 3 years, and perhaps went overboard (pardon the pun) in doing so. The rear appearance of the 1974 Riviera bordered on bland, as it lost almost all of its distinction with the only unique feature being the additional taillamps mounted up under the rear window, mimicking the ones in the rear panel above the new impact-absorbing rear bumper. Oldsmobile's Toronado had utilized a similar design in its newly restyled 1971 version, and the 1968-1971 Ford Thunderbird had offered a similar option, although its lights were placed in the outboard edges of the rear glass, instead of being a standard styling feature, but the overall effect on the Olds was more aesthetically pleasing to most. It's almost as if the once trend setting Riviera was now borrowing styling ideas from other makes instead of leading the field as it had in the past. Sales once again dropped rather dramatically, setting a new record low at just 20,129 cars. The drop in sales indicates the boat tail styling alone was not responsible for the Riv's poor sales performance over the past three years, and of course 1974 was not a great year for any large car due to the oil crisis that was responsible for long lines at gas stations around the country.
The 1975 Riviera sported an updated front end cap with new rectangular headlights and parking light/turn signal assemblies that curved around the edge of the front fenders. The forward-jutting grille of the 1971-1974 era was replaced with one that had a classic appearance, but was very tame compared to earlier versions. Sales declined again in 1975, to just 17,306 cars, setting another record low for the second year in a row. To say that Buick was concerned about the Riviera's future at this point is an understatement.
Changes were few for 1976. A new cross-hatch grille appeared, but the rest of the car was pretty much the same. Sales oddly enough rebounded slightly for 1976, up to 20,082 units, but the powers that be at Buick had already decided they had to ditch this body before originally planned. The Buick Riviera/Oldsmobile Toronado/Cadillac Eldorado all shared the same platform and as such spread out the design and tooling costs, but Buick had decided to abandon this body 2 years ahead of schedule, and down size the Riviera with the hope of returning some luster and distinction to the Riviera nameplate. Their attempts didn't succeed, as sales of the much smaller 1977 and 1978 Rivieras remained in the mid- to low-twenty thousands.
There is little doubt that the early Rivieras had a big influence on the personal luxury market, but by the seventies, this market was quite crowded. Even cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Mercury Cougar were claiming their slice of the pie. For a specialty market such as this, there was a limited number of customers to go around, so competition was quite strong.
The Riviera continued on past 1978, with a beautifully redesigned body for 1979-1985, which introduced front wheel drive to the line, and would set repeated new high sales records. Another down sizing occurred for 1986, which would result in reduced sales again, with a new record low of just 8,625 for 1988. An emergency restyle for 1989 added 11 inches in length, but it did little to increase sales. In a move that some had seen coming for some time, Buick ended the 1993 Riviera model year early, with the final car rolling off the assembly line on December 10, 1992.
There was no 1994 Riviera, but a new larger Riviera appeared for 1995. This body style would be built through 1999, when again the model year would be cut short after just 1,956 cars had been built. The last Riviera made to date was completed on November 25, 1998. The final 200 cars were all labeled as "Silver Arrow" models, which was the name given to the first Riviera show cars back in the sixties. The market for two door specialty "personal" coupes had declined over the years, with sport utility vehicles and pick up trucks taking the top spots in popularity. No one knows for certain which direction the market may turn next, but it's certain that the Riviera has earned a place of honor in automotive history, and if we're fortunate enough, a car bearing the honored Riviera name may once again travel our highways.
From 1963-1999, Buick Division built 1,127,261 Rivieras.
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