Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Buick Riviera – Out to Sea

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The final Riviera was a powerful volley fired directly into a battlefield where most soldiers were long dead or mortally wounded. Featuring a unique interior and the most dramatic exterior styling seen on a Riv since the 1971-73 “boat-tail” generation, it ended a long and prestigious legacy in a bold and charismatic way.

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The previous generation had experienced the same shrinking pains suffered by grand personal luxury coupes like Eldorado and Thunderbird. Conveniently sized and well-packaged, the 1986 Riviera grossly underestimated the power of presence in a very style-conscious segment. Its tangible merits, like a solid powertrain offering and futuristic in-car technology, were ignored because it looked too bland for the price charged.

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Much like they had done with the related Oldsmobile Toronado, GM extensively revised the exterior for 1989. Stretched by 11 inches, the Riviera retained the same 108-inch wheelbase and 3.8 V6 engine, so it was no more spacious or powerful. Where the 1989 revision made a huge difference was in visual presence. It’s funny what a longer rear overhang, revised taillights and a thicker C-pillar can do. Consequently, sales more than doubled, but then promptly sunk again. The Riviera would be axed after 1993.

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The historic nameplate didn’t stay gone for long. Relaunched in 1995, the Riviera was now on GM’s G platform, shared with the Oldsmobile Aurora, which was heralded as GM’s stiffest platform yet. It represented a much more earnest effort by GM to differentiate products on the same platform. Inside and out, the big Buick looked completely different to its Aurora platform mate.

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The Riv also boasted a completely different engine. Where the Aurora offered only a 4.0 version of the Cadillac Northstar V8, the Riviera came with a choice of two engines: the 3800 Series II naturally-aspirated V6, with 205 hp and 230 ft-lbs of torque, and a supercharged 3800 with 225 hp and 275 ft-lbs of torque. Transmissions were the four-speed automatic 4T60E and 4T60E-HD, respectively.

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It now weighed a hefty 3800lbs, but the G platform had much more modern underpinnings. There was an independent rear suspension with semi-trailing arms, coil springs and an anti-roll bar, with a strut suspension up front. The new coupe was also bigger in almost every dimension, being 9 inches longer, 1.9 inches wider and on a wheelbase 5.8 inches longer than its predecessor.

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It wasn’t just the old Riviera that was small by comparison. The new Riviera was actually longer than the Eldorado by 7 inches, 5 of those in the wheelbase, and was sized almost identically to the Lincoln Mark VIII. This allowed for quite a spacious and comfortable cabin. You could purchase a Riviera with either a front bench or individual buckets, and although getting into the back was a chore, the shapely coupe sat four adults in comfort.

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Occupants were met by a sweeping, retro-style dash – inspired by the 1963 Riviera’s cabin – with an abundance of air vents and deep circular pods. The seats were comfortable albeit not heavily bolstered, and the trunk was cavernous but with an awkward opening. Material quality was mixed, with some cheap plastics present, but it was arguably one of GM’s better interiors of the 1990s. Initially featuring a monochromatic color scheme, wood trim would be added for 1996.

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Styling was much bolder than its predecessor, both inside and out. The new Riv had been designed under studio chief Bill Porter, and was the last car he designed as well as one of his personal favorites. For inspiration, the designers had looked at the Torpedo-bodied Buicks of the 1940s, as well as the ’66 Riviera and the Jaguar E-Type. They wanted the Riviera to be drop-dead gorgeous but not obnoxiously retro.

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Initially, various different designs were considered but Porter decided to bring the Lucerne concept of 1988 to production as unchanged as possible. Its swoopy roofline cut too much into interior headroom, though, and adjusting for that ended up compromising the design. Porter went back to the drawing board and penned the 1995 Riviera as we know it.

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Bill Porter (left) with Paul Tatseos, Buick Interior Studio Chief

He credits the finished result to a young designer by the name of Eric Clough, who penned the ovoid grille and tapered nose, helping to complete the look they had been seeking.

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The Riv was a big car, but the sloping lines and tapered ends helped reduce visual bulk. It was a polarizing design but it certainly made a statement, which was more than could be said for previous generation’s derivative design.

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On the road, the Riviera made a compelling case for owning a personal luxury coupe. Handling was competent with minimal body roll – although the steering was overly light – but the ride was smooth and compliant. “What pothole?”

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The automatic transmission was one of GM’s smoothest-shifting units. The whole car, indeed, was smooth and refined with an extremely quiet interior. “What road noise?”

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It was no sports car, despite its competent handling and power, but it didn’t aspire to be. Fuel economy was quite good, too: 19/28mpg for the naturally-aspirated V6 and 18/27 for the supercharged variant.

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Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Riviera was its price. With a base price of around $28,000, the Riviera was a whopping $10k cheaper than other coupes like the Acura Legend, Cadillac Eldorado, Lexus SC and Lincoln Mark VIII. It may have been either less dynamic or less powerful than those offerings, but it came fully-loaded. All Rivieras featured power seats, keyless entry, dual airbags and climate-control air-conditioning. Options included a heated driver’s seat and a sunroof, as well as front buckets and a console; the supercharged V6 was an $1100 option. Even fully-loaded, there was a considerable gap in price between the Riv and its rivals. The aging Mercury Cougar XR-7, however, did undercut it by a significant $9k and its 4.6 V8 matched the supercharged V6’s torque although it was down on horsepower.

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Changes were limited during the Riviera’s run. The late-arrival naturally aspirated V6 was dropped after 1997 and the bench seat option was dropped for 1998. Memory settings for the driver’s seat and exterior mirrors, activated by the key fob, would become an option for 1996. A new 4T65E-HD transmission arrived for 1997, as did suspension refinements. For the Riviera’s final year, 1999, a Silver Arrow special edition was offered. Just 200 of these heritage-inspired, silver-painted models were built and all featured numbered dash plates and Silver Arrow logos in the interior.

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The Riviera had been developed to help amortize the costs of the G-Body platform, but GM’s decision to offer only a coupe was somewhat puzzling given market trends. The personal luxury segment had been shrinking for some time, and GM had already learned this the hard way with the launch of the GM-10s as well as flagging sales of the Olds Toronado. Sedans had once been for families and fleets only, but the rise of the sport sedan meant they were now more desirable. Domestic automakers were offering a suite of sporty sedans like the Ford Taurus SHO and Oldsmobile LSS, and the rise of the sport-utility vehicle was also having a significant impact on passenger car sales.

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One by one, the personal luxury soldiers fell. Oldsmobile had axed their Toronado in 1992, and the Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar and Lincoln Mark VIII would all die during 1997-98. This generation of Riviera had seen an uptick in sales initially, with 41,422 units sold in 1995. Around 18k units were sold in both 1996 and 1997, but sales would fall further to 10,953 units in 1998 and then a paltry 1,956 in 1999. In contrast, the Olds Aurora outsold the Riviera by a few thousand units annually during 1995-97, but after that the gap widened considerably: in 1998, the Olds outsold the Buick by more than 2-to-1. Overall, during their identical runs, the Olds sold over 50,000 more units.

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Interestingly, Bill Porter had been certain his pride and joy would fail in the marketplace. He could see the market was shifting to sedans, and pitched a Riviera sedan to management. They declined, probably because the Park Avenue occupied a similar market position and because Oldsmobile had a G-Body sedan. In price, the Riviera ended up slotting between the base Park Avenue and the Ultra.

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The Riviera was gone, but its design legacy lived on. Porter and his team wanted to establish a design vocabulary with the Riviera, and the sweeping curves and ovoid details would remain a part of the Buick design language well into the 2000s.

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It seems appropriate that this Riviera was photographed in the coastal town of Morro Bay, CA. After all, there’s something very aquatic about its styling. From some angles, its tapered tail resembles a speed boat. From other, less flattering angles, the coupe resembles a dugong.

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Angle is everything. This promotional photo reveals the Riv’s best viewing angle, although it’s not one you would often see.

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The Riviera was certainly a striking car, and perhaps one of the best personal luxury cars of the 1990s. But that segment was dying and consumer tastes had changed. A crashing wave of sports sedans and SUVs had washed the Riviera away. At least Bill Porter sent the storied name off with a Viking funeral.

 

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