Curbside Classic: 1969 Buick Riviera – A Discourse About Awkwardness, Pragmatism, Family Dynamics, and Buicks

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Some cars are so monumental in automotive history that it’s easy to write about them.  While a 1969 Riviera will never have to endure accusations of groundbreaking technology, it also isn’t like we’ve covered the second generation Riviera in such arduous detail that no stone has been left unturned.

Yet this 1969 Riviera proved to be a challenge with my initial literary attempts seeming rather forced.  After some introspection I have concluded why that is.

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There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a ’69 Riviera; it’s rather attractive despite being a slightly fussier iteration of the second generation that came about in 1966.  The original theme I had toyed with for this article was awkwardness, tapping into those wonderful situations in life where a graceful response is a smidgeon more challenging than usual.
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I figured I could tie such a theme into various awkward events, like falling through a deck or going into a job interview with an open fly.  Thankfully, I’ve only experienced one of those.

One awkward memory from my time in second or third grade drove me toward this initial theme.  During a Halloween function at school when I was in second grade, I had observed the sixth grade girls had a lot more variety of shape about them than the girls in my class.  Upon disclosing this observation to my father, his hearty laughing left seven year-old me uncertain about what to think.

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In a sense, that innocent childhood observation falls into line with this Riviera.  It looks just enough like the original 1963, but possessing the curvature of maturity.

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Shortly after starting this article, a much broader thought hit me.  I have zero experience with, and zero exposure to, any second generation Riviera; I can’t recall ever having seen one.  Perhaps this thought about exposure was due to contemplating the perspective of  a New Yorker who graduated the same rural high school a decade after did.  It was at this time our white Riviera started to coalesce into something more workable.

For what it’s worth, her explanation on flight from her small town (somewhat similar to my scenario) is what captured my interest and is the only reason I’ve linked to an article of this persuasion.  She provides a nicely textured description of southern Illinois, a description that shows the downward economic spiral for the area and picking up when I left in 1992.

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Despite the three to four years of life experience this Riviera has over me, this is a car nobody in my rural area would have ever driven.  It would have been viewed as too opulent, too much in initial outlay, and of woefully limited usefulness.  Fuel mileage then, as now, was a secondary consideration despite most people routinely driving well in excess of 20,000 miles per year; yes, I grew up around a lot of pragmatic (but often highly inconsistent) people – pragmatism is a virtue that isn’t a citizen of the Riviera’s wheelhouse.

430 cubic inches of V8 engine?  360 gross horsepower?  I can almost hear the response: That’s entirely too much engine.  A person doesn’t need that much engine…and they sure as hell don’t need that much power.

For that matter, anybody purchasing a vehicle higher on the Sloan Ladder than an Oldsmobile generally needed to tread lightly or risk being accused of getting too big for their britches.  Fords and Chevrolets work just fine, thank you very much – but there were still pitfalls to be cognizant of even with a Ford.

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Old mindsets die hard and can be genetic to some extent.  My paternal grandmother scoffed greatly upon my parents purchasing their lightly used 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria.  Why?  It had power windows, the ultimate symbol of unmitigated sloth; such extravagances were a thoroughly frivolous expenditure ringing hollow in benefit as such a boondoggle only held the potential of catastrophic nightmares for the dope who purchased them.

Plus it had “those fancy wheels”; yes, Ford really shafted their buyers with aluminum turbine wheels.

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My great-uncle James (he who infected me with Mercury poisoning) was teased relentlessly by his brothers upon purchasing a Ford Ranchero in 1974.  Why?  It had “the big engine” under the hood.  Little did anyone care to realize its optional 351 (5.8 liter) V8 was not the top engine offering that year.  A truck(let) should have a six-banger; anything else is wasteful.

In 2007 I purchased a 1987 Dodge D-250 pickup.  It was a great pickup, purchased from a small town in nearby Audrain County.  With a $400 price tag, my outlay wasn’t going to necessitate skipping groceries or a house payment.  Yet I was chastised by my father for purchasing a 3/4 ton pickup.  His assessment was something to the affect of “You don’t do anything to require that much of a pickup.”  My impolite mental retort was how being 34 years old exempted me from seeking permission and, since it’s my money, I would wipe my ass with a $50 bill if I felt like it.

Sometimes remaining polite can be awkward.

The judgmental behavior wasn’t limited to just the paternal side of my family, either, although it was watered down; maybe that quaint little river known as the Mississippi that lay in between my two sides of the family helped with this dilution.

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When my maternal Grandfather Albert purchased a Lincoln Town Car in 2001 or 2002, the snarky comments from his siblings, nieces, and nephews about having dumped all that money on a Lincoln got old for him in short order.  Their unabated critiques soon became a source of contention despite his perpetual “I don’t give a shit what you think so be quiet” demeanor and responses.

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Of course, nobody said anything about Grandpa’s older sister Stella and her husband having multiple Cadillacs.  Perhaps it was due, in a weird way, to their living in St. Louis thus being both out of sight and out of mind.  However, upon Stella and Ed moving back to old home turf, the Sedan deVille promptly went away for a Mercury Grand Marquis.

In my grandfather’s case, maybe it was the raw concern of Stella and his other, overprotective older sisters.  Grandpa is the sixth child, the baby of the family, so he was likely viewed as being incapable of reason (as it seems the youngest child is all too often perceived as having an IQ loss of 45% based solely upon their birth order; Mrs. Jason is another example of this phenomenon).  This babying knew no limits; three of Grandpa’s four older sisters sat him down one day to inform him he was actually the seventh child as one ahead of him had been stillborn.  They had intentionally waited until they thought he was old enough to digest the news.  He was 85 years old when they told him.

I digress.

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As mentioned earlier, some things were grossly inconsistent; when my paternal Aunt Elizabeth and her husband bought a Toyota Corona coupe in the mid- to late-1970s, nary a derogatory word was uttered by anyone of the WWII generation – those one might suppose would be most inflamed about such transgressions.  Keep in mind in this area at the time “foreign car” was interchangeable with “Volkswagen” and nothing else; perhaps my paternal grandfather Ed had greased the skids when he purchased a new VW bus in 1959.

Or maybe the lack of scathing critique was because the Toyota had a four-banger under the hood – and no power windows.

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But to remain consistent in their perpetual inconsistency, never was a word uttered when Elizabeth’s Toyota was dumped for a Fox-body Mustang in 1982, which was followed by a string of Oldsmobiles and Buicks.  There was a Nissan that intermingled in there, but it was a turkey and got jettisoned for another Buick.

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Despite having the same name on the title, and the same tri-shield emblem on the steering wheel, a Riviera was never on the radar for the handful of Buick buyers in the extended family.  Aunt Elizabeth still drives Buicks; Grandpa Albert’s younger half-sister Rose and her husband have owned Buicks since the first Reagan administration, with a G-body Regal leading the charge.

Of the bunch, it might seem Rose, or Stella, would have been the most likely candidates to pilot a Riviera.  Neither had children and both reaped the rewards of shrewd investments.

But neither Stella nor Rose would have ever entertained a Riviera; both were too pragmatic.

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Are these examples a microcosm of a broader spectrum of people?  I certainly hope not although my experiences can be extrapolated to the general population of my old, bucolic stomping grounds.  This litany of personal experiences also played to what the Riviera truly was:  An exclusive car that wasn’t for just anyone.

The goal was to make exactly 40,000 copies during the Riviera’s freshman year of 1963, an intentional move to help cultivate an aura of exclusivity.  Successful with that, this set a general tone for the Riviera as the 52,872 Rivieras produced for 1969 was the highest volume made until 1984 and the third largest in Riviera history.

My apologies if this epiphany has exhausted your senses.  Regardless, it was great to find a car that is truly new to me, an occurrence that has been infrequent – and perhaps this also gives some insight about why my findings over nearly five years at CC are somewhat homogeneous.  The area where I live now is, in a limited number of ways, even more pragmatic than where I grew up.  As an example, this is an area where about every eighth car on the road is either a GM A- or W-body.

Or maybe my automotive findings haven’t been so homogenized.  These were the days when the E-body was unique to each division and the Riviera name still possessed a degree of aspiration for those so inclined.

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Found near Fulton, Missouri, August 2016

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1966 Buick Riviera by PN