ferrari and Rolls inspired original
When you look at Buick’s Riviera, it may seem unlikely that the styling for the original version of this large luxury/personal car came from an edict that the lines of the General Motors brand’s Ford Thunderbird challenger should be a blend of Ferrari and Rolls-Royce.
But that’s what GM’s legendary design chief, Bill Mitchell, who held the job between 1958 and 1977 charged his stylists with achieving.
The notion was a mix of Ferrari sporting prowess with Rolls-Royce’s elegance and luxury presence.
The car finally arrived at by designer Ned Nickles didn’t start life as a Buick, but as a GM concept which could have wound up under any number of badges.
Mitchell favoured using it to revive the La Salle nameplate within the Cadillac division but the guardians of the standard of excellence werenm’t interested.
Nor were the guys at mainstream divisions, Chevrolet and Pontiac.
But it struck a chord with GM’s mid-luxury brand, Buick which fought off a challenge from stablemate Oldsmobile to make the car.
Buick’s ad men revived an old company nameplate, Riviera, ad the car debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1963.
It was a sharply-styled car with pillarless hardtop, reverse-rake grille and bonnet and clean lines that in an American way echoed the front-engined open-topped sports/touring cars Ferrari was building at the time.
There were also echoes of Rolls-Royce’s sweeping side style.
No-one could fail to be impressed and 40,000 were impressed enough to buy a Riviera in its first year on sale.
There was a choice of V8 motors – the top-lining 425 cubic inch developed 340 horsepower, and the Riviera could hot 60mph (96kph) in eight seconds and cut out the standing quarter mile in 16 – creditable numbers for a two-tonne car.
Like Ford’s Thunderbird, the Riviera grew larger as the years went by, and like the T-Bird the Buick retained rear-wheel drive at a time when cars it shared its platform with – Cadillac’s Eldorado and Oldsmobile’s stunning Toronado – drove via their front wheels.
The wildest Riviera arrived in 1971, a massive two-door with fatback roof, a 455 cubic inch V8 and something you probably wouldn’t normally associate with a big American luxury car5 – brakes with excellent stopping power.
The ’71 Riviera could stop from 96kph in 41 metres, a full 12 metre shorted than its rivals could manage.
But the car’s main feature, aside form the by then traditional reverse-raked grille, was the boat-tail rear end, accentuated by the long 3.1-metre wheelbase.
The rear window drew on the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray coupe.
The Riviera still cut out the 0-96kph sprint in a little over eight seconds and had a 201kph top speed.
As the 1970s went on and oil shocks hit, the Riviera got smaller, lost some character and in 1979 went front-wheel drive.
But the glory days were in the 1960s – the Ferrari-esque original and the boat-tails that took the nameplate through the cusp of the 1970s.
Those cars are among the most beautiful and striking American “personal cars” ever built.