The Riviera: How This Legendary Car Saved Buick
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it seems to be lost on the automotive world. There’s nary a bigger sin than being a “me-too” model, especially if you’re called out on it — as seen in Bentley’s jab at Ford over the upcoming Lincoln Continental design as Auto News reported. But sometimes the kernel of an idea cribbed from somewhere else can morph into something entirely new. And if anything, that’s what made the post-war American auto industry so great — the era that gave us sports cars like the Nash-Healey and Chevrolet Corvette; luxury cruisers like the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, which put the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to shame; and the personal luxury coupe, which was embodied by the 1963-65 Buick Riviera.
The personal luxury coupe wasn’t born with the Riviera, though; in fact, it had been around for at least a decade. But it needed a spark from the outside world, and even while American luxury still reigned supreme, the Riviera’s restrained, continental looks ushered in a new era of style that was molded by one of the most complex characters in automotive history. It would dominate the American auto industry for a few brief years then quickly fade as the industry sank back into excess.
If there ever was a man that could put the characters of Mad Men to shame, it was GM design chief Bill Mitchell, a difficult, larger-than-life figure who ruled the General’s styling department with an iron fist. He was flamboyant, bigoted, and had an insatiable appetite for call girls and booze, but he knew what the average American wanted in a car more than anyone else in the industry, and between 1958 and 1977 he put his personal stamp on over 72 million GM vehicles. Mitchell hated coming up short just as much as his company did, and as tail fins were reaching their apogee in the late ’50s, he already knew the tide was turning. For Mitchell, that tide was distinctly European.
In 1976, Mitchell recalled the moment inspiration struck for the Riviera in Hemmings Special Interest Autos:
One night … I was over in England for the auto show and I happened to be coming out of the Claridges on a damp, foggy evening. Here was this Rolls parked out front. I looked at those corners and sharp angles and I thought ‘My God, if that car were just a foot lower — there’s our silhouette.’
Mitchell’s big idea couldn’t have come at a better time. In 1958, Ford had redesigned its Thunderbird, enlarging it and putting in a back seat. It wasn’t as sexy as the original coupe, but it was a lot more practical, and as a result, Ford was selling nearly 100,000 of them a year. GM was desperate for a competitor, and in mid-1959, Mitchell tapped designer Ned Nickles to design a Thunderbird competitor for Cadillac.
But there were some guidelines. In Europe, Ferrari 250s, Facel Vegas, Aston Martins, and coach-built Rolls-Royces were symbols of elegance, not tail fins and “Dagmar” bumpers. So while cars like the 1958 Oldsmobile (dubbed the “King of Chrome“) and ’59 Cadillac were considered by millions as the height of American luxury, Mitchell and his team were working to undo it all.
Nickles knew how to play Mitchell to a tee. He dubbed the car the LaSalle II, harkening back to Cadillac’s entry-level sub-brand that was discontinued in 1940. Under GM’s first design chief Harley Earl, Mitchell was a top designer at LaSalle. As icing on the cake, the concept’s turn signal lenses were smaller copies of the 1939-40 LaSalle grille — a car that Mitchell designed. The design, officially designated XP-715, was ready to go by the spring of 1960. The only problem was, Cadillac didn’t want it.
Despite the Cadillac-LaSalle connection, Cadillac brass decided that the coupe would add nothing to its brand image. Mitchell took the car to Chevy next, but the brand had no desire for a direct Thunderbird competitor. Oldsmobile and Pontiac were receptive, but they wanted to alter the design. And with Olds and Pontiac already preparing their respective Starfire and Grand Prix coupes, XP-715 wouldn’t have added much to their lineups. The car then fell to Buick, which was suffering from such a sales slump that execs were beginning to worry about the future of the brand.
Things were so bad at Buick, in fact, that GM’s executive committee refused to give Buick the car outright. Instead, for the first time ever, the committee tasked each brand with giving a presentation on why they felt they needed the XP-715. Knowing the car would be a hit, Buick went outside GM to the McCann-Erickson advertising agency for help in creating a proposal. In spring 1961, GM finally gave Buick the car, and it chose to repurpose the Riviera name (a trim line since 1949) for the new coupe. The car was to be ready for 1963, which gave the brand less than a year to get the car from rolling model to production car, and to make matters worse, Mitchell had some more directives.
In 1961, Buick was dogged with roughly the same reputation it has today: It makes safe, unremarkable cars for older people. So when Mitchell ordered Buick chief Edward Rollert to make the Riviera “a cross between a Ferrari and a Rolls-Royce,” it was no small order. But the brand handled the challenge well, offering both its big 325 horsepower 401 cubic inch Wildcat 445 or 340 horsepower Wildcat 460 as standard, giving the car a notably firmer suspension that most American cars, a tasteful interior with bucket seats, and most importantly, a noticeable lack of excess.
For 1963, Buick advertised that the Riviera would be limited to only 40,000 units, and it sold every single one of them with ease. Compared to the gaudy torpedo-shaped Thunderbird, the Riviera’s subtle coke-bottle shape and general “otherness” made it the elegant alternative, and its reputation did the trick in getting customers back into Buick dealerships. And in the years that followed, echoes of the Riviera began to show up in nearly every American lineup.
Above all, Mitchell’s directives worked. Sir William Lyons, fresh from designing the Jaguar E-Type, praised Mitchell, saying he had done “a very wonderful job” on the car. And Sergio Peninfarina, the man who would go on to design the Ferrari F40, went further, saying the Riviera was “one of the most beautiful American cars ever built; it has marked a very impressive return to simplicity of American car design.” And it could handle, too. With big aluminum-finned brakes, that stiff suspension, and optional 340 horsepower Wildcat 455 V8, a British car magazine had the Riviera’s 6.8 second 0-60 sprint beating the Ferrari 250 GT 2+2, Jensen FF, and Aston Martin DB4 GT.
But 1964 was a different story. As Ford’s Mustang shifted the industry’s focus to smaller, cheaper cars, the Riviera’s sales numbers began to fade, and a facelift for 1965 didn’t help sales either. For 1966, the Riviera began to share its architecture with Oldsmobile’s new Toronado, something it would do until the Olds coupe was discontinued in 1992. As the Olds grew more ornate and baroque, so did the Riviera, which actually helped sales numbers. In 1971, the Riviera set itself apart again with its avant-garde “boat-tail” design, considered by some to be the last great design produced under Mitchell’s watch.
The final Riviera, based on the Oldsmobile Aurora debuted in 1995, was discontinued after 1999. Buick has revived the name for two concepts in the years since, but with the personal coupe segment dead and gone, it’s unlikely that it’ll come back anytime soon. But the ’63-’65 Riviera was bigger than that; it marked a shift in the auto industry from an isolated, self-important design language to a global awareness that never fails to bring out the best in American cars. Today, that line of thinking is the reason the C7 Corvette could be the best sports car to ever come from our shores. Or why Cadillac’s ATS-V and CTS-V can seriously give BMW’s M3 and M5 a run for their money. The echoes of the Riviera aren’t ’60s-era styling tropes; they’re in any car that gives the best the world has to offer in the present, guiding the rest of the pack into the future.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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