Curbside Classic: 1986 Buick Riviera – GM’s Deadly Sin #1

(first posted at TTAC in 2009, on 3/21/2011 at CC. Please note that the GMDS series is not numbered according to any ranking of greater or lesser deadliness. The numbering is random)

Good morning, class, and welcome to GM’s Deadly Sins 101. In this seminar we will review and analyze some of the most critical blunders GM made over the decades, focusing on the ill-conceived, unreliable, ugly, and just plain mediocre products that destroyed the company. I struggled mightily with the decision as to the first example, given all the many boners available to me. But here it is, GM’s Deadly Sin #1: The 1986 Buick Riviera.

Please take a close look at the image above on the overhead projector. You see two very similar looking cars, both Buick coupes from the year 1986. They are very close in size, concept, shape, and even surface details. They share the same basic engine. There’s only one really material difference: the price. One of these two cars cost more than twice as much than the other one.

The car on top is a Somerset Regal coupe, which appeared in 1985 and competed with such other august GM compact products like the Pontiac Grand Am and the Olds Cutlass Calais in the popular priced segment (approx. $9k; $20K adjusted)). The fact that it was fairly difficult to distinguish these N-Body cars from one another will undoubtedly be the subject of another GMDS.

The car below it is the Riviera, which GM released in this form one year after(!) the much cheaper Somerset. Its list price started at $20,000 ($45,000 adjusted). Since all of you spent $249 to buy my mandatory Curbside Classics textbook and DVD, you undoubtedly remember the chapter on the 1963-1964 Riviera.

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It was one of the finest, if not the ultimate, post-war American cars. The Riviera and its later stable mates Olds Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado were a belated response to the category that the 1958 Thunderbird first defined: the premium personal coupe.

While the T-Bird eventually lost its way and morphed (several times) into something else, the GM coupes came to own that market segment and generated healthy profits as well as the halo effect for the premium divisions. The success of the Riviera, Toronado and Eldorado were one of the key vital signs of health in GM’s far-distant profitable past.

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges presented by the changing times, especially the energy crises. While the Riviera started out a reasonable sized 208″ length, it suffered the same obesity crisis along with all of GM’s cars. By 1973, the boat-tailed Riviera was up to 223″.

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But the successful downsizing of 1979 resulted in a fairly handsome coupe, now with FWD and an available turbocharged 3.8 V6. It wasn’t as stunning as the original, but stunning is hard to replicate. But it was back to the original size, at 206″ overall, and substantially more efficient.

It sold well, too. In its final year, 1985, Buick moved 65k Rivieras, the all-time high. And then, disaster arrived. The downsized E-body coupes for 1986 were the knock-out punch after the set up of the 1985 C-body sedans, shriveled shadows of the former DeVille, Electra and 98.

All three of GM’s former cash cows suddenly developed cold cow syndrome, with the Riviera’s udders drying up the most. In its first year, 1986, sales were down a stunning 70%. And the drop didn’t stop; by 1988, unit sales were a mere 8,500, an 87% reduction from 1985. I challenge all of you students to find a comparable or worse drop in sales in direct response to a restyle, not economic conditions. Keep in mind that these years were during an economic growth cycle.

(I forgot to mention the Riviera’s new all-electronic IP display – how many are still working?)

The Eldorado gave the Riviera a good run for the money in the first year sales drop, with a 69% reduction. But after another small drop in ’87, Eldo stabilized, for a while anyway. And Toronado came in third, with a mere 62% drop in ’86.

But all three models were mortally wounded by the mummified 1986 re-design, and the ludicrous efforts in subsequent restyles to add overhang to the front and rear of these automotive midgets became ever-more embarrassing. Bill Mitchell must have been mortified in his retirement.

Buick made a last-ditch attempt to revive the Riviera with the dramatic 1995 model. The G-platform was shared with Olds’ Aurora, but they were one-year mini-wonders, at best. After a brief wave of interest, their auto-pilots were programmed to terminal dive mode. The 1999 model managed just 1,956 units, before the breathing tube was finally pulled on the Riviera.

It wasn’t only the loss of sales of these once glorious coupes that was such a mortal blow. It was what these cars once represented: GM as a purveyor of excellent design, desirable image, decent build quality, and a stranglehold on the mid-upper premium market segment. All these were utterly destroyed. Olds is long gone, Buicks are driven once a day to the senior special at God’s Waiting Room Café, and Cadillac is trying to start from scratch. (Note: this was written in 2009)

We’ll see you again for GM’s Deadly Sin #2. Any questions or comments? Class dismissed.