1957 Buick Roadmaster Riviera: Master Of The Road, And Of My Memories

The place is Chihuahua, Mexico. The year is 1967, and there are only a few thousand cars on the local roads. It’s no wonder this one in particular left an indelible impression on my young mind and heart.

I was a first-grader in elementary school, and every day my school teacher, Miss Chabela (María Isabel García de Legarreta) would arrive at school driving a fabulous two-tone Roadmaster. Its exterior colors, white ivory and red brick, seemed to meld seamlessly into the similar hues of the interior. The first time I saw the Buick, I was mesmerized by its dimensions as much as by the shape of its body, which was so completely different from anything else I’d seen in my six years. The picture of my beloved and dear Miss Chabela driving her Buick has lingered in my mind ever since. It’s something hard to forget: You see, she was the very image of class and elegance, and had somehow bequeathed those qualities to the Roadmaster, which enhanced its magnificent looks, opulence and quiet stance all the more.

this and other black Roadmaster images by: bsabarnowl

The car’s subtle fins nicely integrated the back-up lights and tail lights in a sculpture extending into the rear bumper.

The square fuel cover on top of the bumper spelled out “F U E L” in embossed letters. It was good camouflage, and very practical as well.

 

The styling from this view really appealed to me. That back window was a magnet that instantly attracted my sight every time. The fine-looking “basket handle” treatment added definition around the C-pillar. Each side wore a molding that started at the middle of the front-wheel opening and ran up and back to the rear wheel opening behind a downward curve at the rear door. The side moldings made the car look longer and lower than it actually was.

Up front, a pair of round housings framed a fine-tooth, whale-like grille that contained the Buick logo. I considered the grille’s smile a daily greeting; always, the beautiful automobile was already parked at school when my mother dropped me off, waiting once again to subjugate my mind to its spell.

In the center of the long hood sat the the focal point: The famous gunsight that had distinguished Buicks for over a decade. The single headlights were complemented by two lower driving lights, an arrangement that would later be seen on future Pontiacs, including the Aztek.

The front fenders harbored Buick’s trademark portholes; four were found on Roadmasters and Supers, but the lower-series Century and Super got only three. The very thin and low roof topped four huge side windows and equally large windshield and backlight . The reverse-slant side window at the C-pillar was also splendid, as was the rear-door medallion with its two chromed stripes. I so loved these things that I spent hour after hour looking at them!

I still can picture the interior of the car quite clearly–the electric window switches, the remote control rear side mirror, the petite yet hefty shifter and PNDLR selector down the dashboard. The huge brake pedal that resembles a barber-chair’s footrest; the cavernous back seat; the radio’s B-U-I-C-K pushbuttons and WonderBar scan control; the jewel-like A/C outlets. I can’t be certain whether it had the floor-mounted radio-station changer behind the brake pedal or the Autronic-Eye sensor that magically and automatically dimmed the high beams for oncoming vehicles.

At the moment, I can’t recall every one of the many things I loved about the ’57 Roadmaster Riviera, but I do remember that they established my preference for GM cars in general, and for this one in particular.

 

Nineteen fifty-seven was an excellent year for most U.S. automakers. Overall, the Big Three enjoyed record sales as most independents struggled with dwindling budgets and changing buyer attitudes.

Without question, GM, Ford and Chrysler were the leaders in style and design, which even the Europeans copied for their stream of new models that would do battle in the North American market. It was the age of a chrome-plated excess that extended to even the most modest Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths.

It’s hard to believe how greatly the passage of time can distort popular perception, but even today people greet cars of this vintage with both astonishment and admiration, appreciating them as the magnificent works of art they are. The compound curves of their huge wraparound windshields and sculpted front grilles recall a time when the economy was robust and gas prices were low–even though their rate of fuel consumption could cause you to sweat and shiver when you pulled up to a gas pump.

The driving characteristics we expect today were absent in these cars, They were awkward and bulky, and often would be junked soon after the next year’s new models hit the showrooms. Nonetheless, they provided comfort, luxury and elegance in abundance–and equally rich memories of times, now gone forever, that linger in the minds of those of us lucky enough to watch them drive the streets of our cities.

The 1957 Buick was offered in four series:

The Series 40 Special was available in seven body styles, a convertible, two- and four-door Rivieras, an Estate Wagon, a Riviera Estate Wagon and two- and-four-door sedans.

The Series 50 Super offered two- and four-door Rivieras and a convertible.

The Series 60 Century lineup comprised a convertible, two- and four-door Rivieras and the Caballero Estate Wagon.

Buyers of the Roadmaster Series 70 could choose among two- and four-door Rivieras and a convertible. It was joined by a Series 75 later that year.

Specials and Centuries shared a 122″ wheelbase, while a 127.5″ wheelbase underpinned Supers and Series 70 and 75 Roadmasters.

Under the hood sat a four-barrel “Nailhead” V-8, whose 300 hp launched the car from 0 to 60 in 10.6 seconds, and was good for a top speed of 120 miles per hour–impressive performance for such a big sedan. In order to achieve it, GM had boosted the engine’s displacement from 322 to 364 cubic inches, and fitted larger intake valves and a higher-performance fan. Obviously, fuel economy wasn’t a big worry at a time when a gallon of gas went for 20 cents. Nevertheless, a nagging conscientiousness seemed to be creeping in; in a press conference, GM Vice President and Buick general manager Ed Ragsdale quipped, “Well, we must keep the gas companies happy.” Imagine what today’s press could do with that statement!

The 1957 Buicks offered not just redesigned bodies and engine improvements, but also a new hybrid chassis. In order to achieve a lower body line, side beams were placed between the front and rear wheels. That allowed the floor pan to be placed under the beams, a design GM engineers referred to as “step-down” (where have I heard that?). In addition, the cars featured a new ball-and-socket front suspension designed to minimize nose dives when the brakes were applied.

Unlike the technically advanced front setup, the rear suspension used a tried-and-true semi-floating axle with coil springs and a radial anti-sway bar.

Buick also stuck with a torque tube, since its engineers held that its superior absorption characteristics improved handling. The Twin-Turbine Variable Pitch Dynaflow transmission received some engineering tweaks aimed at improving shifting and acceleration.

The top-drawer Roadmaster 75 came loaded with everything but air conditioning, which was its only option. Its standard features included six-way power seats, power windows, power steering, WonderBar radio, broadcloth-and-leather seats, deep-pile carpet and a chromed dashboard. While its price was a mere $300 less than a Cadillac Series 62′s, the 75 was nonetheless much better-equipped.

There were obvious similarities among the senior 1957 Buicks and Cadillacs like the one pictured above. The Super Riviera four-door, Roadmaster Riviera and Roadmaster 75 all shared roof lines and rear-door treatments with Cadillac’s Sedan deVille, Fleetwood Sixty Special and Series 62 hardtop. As Buick’s ultimate expression of luxury and elegance in 1957, the Roadmaster 75 was as close as you could come to a Cadillac without buying a Cadillac. But for a Chihuahua, Mexico, teacher? Well, not so much.

 

 (The author is the Business Editor of El Diario de Chihuahua, where this article originally appeared. A special thanks to CC Copy Editor Tony LaHood)