By 1977, the Cadillac Eldorado and related Oldsmobile Toronado were looking pretty old-hat. Sure, the front-wheel-drive format was rapidly gaining in popularity, being perceived as more modern and efficient, but these FWD barges dated back to 1971. Now, they were occupying showroom space next to neat, downsized DeVilles and Delta 88s. Their days were numbered, but a new, smaller E-Body platform wouldn’t arrive until 1979. However, although Buick’s Riviera dated back to the same year and a new FWD model being scheduled for 1979, the Big Riv would be replaced for 1977.
Sales of Buick’s flagship personal luxury coupe had been skidding all through the 1970s, despite the personal luxury genre enjoying record growth. The 1971-73 “boat-tail” Rivs were striking, but they weren’t what buyers wanted. Buick dramatically revised their exterior for 1974, removing the controversial boat-tail, but that didn’t help sales either. By 1976, the Riviera was even being outsold by the traditionally less popular Toronado. The ’79 Riviera couldn’t come soon enough, but circumstances forced Buick to introduce a replacement sooner.
The 1971-76 Rivieras had been classified as E-Bodies despite their power being sent to the rear wheels instead of the front, as with the Eldorado and Toronado. They did share a lot of componentry with the big B-Bodies, though, which meant for 1977 they had to find a new platform. That platform would be the new, downsized B-Body, which effectively meant they were even more closely related to the LeSabre than ever before.
Shifting to the smaller B-Body had no negative impact on interior space, and these smaller Rivs had more space-efficient interiors. Wheelbase was 6.1 inches shorter at 115.9 in, and overall length was down 4.8 inches to 218.2 in. Weight savings were considerable: the Riviera shed 660 pounds. It was leaner, more nimble and more space-efficient, as well as better to drive.
But it wasn’t all good news. As these interregnum Rivieras were only to be sold for two years, there was little in the way of differentiation from more humble Buicks. The interior, for example, was almost identical to the Electra. Fortunately, it was an attractive interior, and Rivieras came equipped with power windows, cut-pile carpeting and a large quartz clock. Myriad options were available, including a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control and air-conditioning.
The exterior was distinguished in some aspects from lesser B-Bodies, but it wasn’t necessarily an improvement. The distinctive slanted front of the LeSabre and Electra was replaced with a bluffer front clip with a waterfall grille, an arguably less memorable visual treatment.
There were mild coke-bottle contours evident near the C-pillar, with an attractive upkick, although the opera window design was cribbed from the contemporary Eldorado. The rear had taillights with Riviera insignia on them, but again the look was less distinctive than the large taillight assemblies with amber turn signals seen on the LeSabre, or the bladed edges of the Electra’s derriere. All in all, it wasn’t unattractive, but it was not as visually unique as either the boat-tail or the pending ’79 model. It didn’t help that its cheaper showroom companions were so very handsome.
Although power output was down from 1976 with the demise of the big 455, the Riviera still had three credible engine offerings: the Buick 350, with 155 hp, and the optional Oldsmobile 403 with 185 hp. The third engine was the California-only Oldsmobile 350 with 170 hp. These may have been less powerful engines, but the Riviera’s weight loss meant this generation was quicker than its predecessor and even more importantly for buyers recovering from the shock of the oil crisis, the 1977 Riviera was more fuel-efficient.
The new Riviera may have been quicker and more nimble, but there was no S/R trim or Stage 1 performance package. However, you could still tick a box on the options list to add firmer shocks and springs and a stiffer rear sway bar.
The cost of entry to the Riviera was up for 1977, by $559 to an MSRP of $7,357, but fortunately for Buick its popularity increased too. Sales were up some 30% to 26,138 units, but then slumped to 20,535.
This generation’s sophomore year may have seen sales drop, but there was an appealing option for buyers. A special LXXV package was launched, commemorating Buick’s 75th anniversary.
Just 2,889 of these limited edition models were manufactured, each with an attractive two-tone silver and black paint job, gray leather seats, special name plates and yards of brushed metal trim on the dash.
It had done a credible job as a stopgap model and had stopped the bleeding of sales, but the popularity of the 1977-78 Riviera would pale in comparison to its successor. The 1979 model, Buick’s first front-wheel-drive Riviera, would actually double in sales. Was it the availability of a turbocharged V6? Was it the critical acclaim it was met with? Or, more likely, did it simply offer more distinctive styling in a very fashion-conscious market?
The 1977-78 model may be a forgotten generation of Riviera, but it was by no means bad. All it suffered from was somewhat derivative styling and a lack of meaningful differentiation from its handsome platform-mates. With a price $600 more than the related Electra coupe, some buyers found those deficiencies inexcusable. Still, given the minimal cost in tooling up this generation and the vastly better dynamics and packaging, would buyers really have been better served by a continuation of the 1974-76 model?