Curbside Classic: 1964 Buick Riviera – The Peak GM Experience

GM gave us some genuine peak experiences before its long fall. Their post-war summit was the mid sixties;  its stock hit $358 (adjusted) in 1965, and profits crested in 1966 at $15 billion (adjusted). What about the best year for its cars? That would have to be 1963, with the trio of Corvette Sting Ray, Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera. And which one gets the nod as number one? I keep changing my mind; can’t we just have a little four-way love fest? But this Riviera happened to be sitting along the road on the way home from the lumber yard, so for today anyway, it’s got the nod. Lucky me.

I can accept the fickle finger of fate making the call, but I do have some mixed feelings about this particular example that beckoned me. I envisioned an original specimen in white, with tan interior. I’m not sure what name to give this re-paint,but its clearly in tune with the matte phase.  And I’ve never seen wheel covers like these which remind me of Messala’s spoke-eating chariot hubs in Ben-Hur.

But despite, or maybe because of the removal of some of the Riviera’s chrome accents and door handles, the dramatic sweep and purity of its lines are still very much intact. I don’t know of another car that works so well from any angle. It simply doesn’t have a bad line on it. Well, except for the gaps from those ill-fitting doors. I can feel it working that old Bill Mitchell magic on me and transport me right back to 1963 and the Buick dealer’s showroom in Iowa City.

As a ten-year old GM acolyte, I would sit in devotion for hours in the Riviera, that sacred chapel of St. Mark of Excellence.

And it was the only car worthy of back seat equal time in that beautiful bucket seat. What a revelation, to put in the same seat there as in the front; I’d never seen anyone be so bold before, at least in Detroit. Whichever seat I was in, I held the expensive heavy-stock Buick hymnal memorizing the sacred texts: “standard engine: Wildcat 465 (named for its torque output; it took me a while to figure that out), 340 horsepower, four-barrel carburetor. Optional: Super Wildcat, 360 horsepower, dual four-barrel carburetors…”

If a genuine potential customer came in and wanted to see under the Riviera’s deeply sculpted hood, I’d bolt out to join the admiration for the big nailhead 401 or 425 sitting there. I didn’t really know or understand the details, but I could tell that the Buick engine’s distinctive vertical valve covers implied something special, so unlike any other Detroit V8. Except old Chryler hemis, that is; you just knew that a Firepower or Firedome was in another league altogether, even if you didn’t know exactly why.

I would have lit votive candles for Bill Mitchell on that dramatic sweep of chrome instrument altar if I thought the salesmen wouldn’t throw me out. In retrospect, I’m surprised they didn’t anyway. Salesmen were more patient with potential far-future customers then. And when I eventually got restless in the showroom, I’d walk back into the service area, roam around under the cars on the lifts, and hang out with the mechanics. Many a summer day in the pre-litigation era well spent.

As a kid, I intuitively knew the Riviera was very special. But I didn’t fully appreciate the impact it had on the enthusiast/sporty buyers, until I came across a 1964 Car and Driver with an in-depth “Research Report” (5,000 mile extended test). The Riviera is compared favorably with the road-worthy classic Bentley Continental, despite the Buick being less than half the price.

The Buick engineers didn’t just slap that gorgeous body on a shortened Electra frame; a fair amount of effort went into chassis tuning and refinement. And C/D spends pages in highly analytical language and charts comparing roll angles, spring rates, camber, weight distribution, etc. of a very diverse group of “competitors”: the Jaguar Mark X, the Corvette, and the Volvo P-1800(!), and ponders their various effects on the Riviera’s handling. Buff mags have changed as much over the decades as the cars.

The distillation of several arcane pages is this: the Riviera isn’t a true sports car, but can hustle, even through curves, as long as the road is smooth: “We sometimes amused ourselves catching TR-4s and big Healeys on fast bends…(but) the absolute worst was experienced when negotiating a winding road with a succession of dips and rises at a fast clip, when the Riviera moved forward in a series of enormous lurches”. That kind of sums up American cars back then, even the very best of them.

The steering was a bit compromised too: “the muscular effort required to turn the car is very low…[but] the amount of twirling that has to be done with the wheel feels excessive…if you try to throw the Riviera into a sudden turn, you may find yourself halfway into it, with a sudden, if momentary, loss of power assist, and lacking the strength to turn the wheel enough to get through in clean style”. This was a problem that plagued many American power steering assists until…well, it seems that by the mid seventies GM had this problem pretty well licked.

The Riviera was GM’s very belated response to that seminal four-passenger personal luxury coupe, the 1958 Thunderbird. That it took so long is inexcusable. The T-Bird had built up a formidable momentum that the Riviera could never properly dent, despite its good looks. Based on some drawings by Ned Nickles for a possible La Salle revival at Cadillac, the future Riviera was rejected by that division and others until Buick adopted it. Buick was in a slump, and the Riviera was seen as the free agent to turn its game around.

Regardless of Car and Driver’s detailed analysis, In my childhood memory, the Riviera was just a rocket, and a damn elegant one. It’s encapsulated in this one crystal clear image of a Riviera on the go: we were on the mountainous western part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1964, jammed into our hot, black Fairlane. A silver Riviera flashed by us at what seemed twice our speed. I watched in awe and envy, as those distinctive rectangular red taillights faded, then disappeared into the tunnel ahead. All of my combined Riviera fantasies I’d created and stored while sitting in it now whooshed by me. It was like watching a ninth-grade girl you had been staring at and fantasizing about driving off with a senior in his car. I never sat in the Riviera again.

The Riviera, like so many childhood loves, has eluded me. But thanks for the fantasy-memories of sitting in your lap; I’m glad I was there, and that my brain cells felt it worth keeping them so fresh and clear, spiced by the tang of regret. And you still looks so damn beautiful after all these years; how do you do it?