Reader’s COAL/My Driving Impressions: 1990 Buick Riviera – A Mysterious Buick Fulfilling A Lifelong Dream

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Several months ago, a longtime reader of Curbside Classic, Jeffrey Farias, contacted me about doing an article on his 1990 Buick Riviera. He happens to live nearby and extended the offer of getting some seat time in it, which I gladly accepted. Without further ado, here is the story of Jeffrey’s rather unique 1990 Buick Riviera, as well as my own driving impressions. 

Background:

When the significantly downsized Buick Riviera debuted for 1986, it was total disappointment. Losing nearly twenty inches in length, V8 power, and mostly any distinctive styling, the 1986 Riviera was a catastrophic misstep by General Motors, and enough for Paul to pick it as the first car in his series of GM Deadly Sins. Buyers were not happy either, as 1986 Riviera sales were barely one-third that of the outgoing 1985 model.

1989 would see some changes in attempt to correct some of the 1986-1988 Riviera’s blandness. Eleven inches of length were added to the car, restoring the Riviera’s iconic sloped decklid in the process. A new and more formal roofline was added, with a new landau vinyl roof. These changes gave the Riviera back some distinctiveness and style, but unfortunately didn’t do much to improve sales. The freshened 1989 model would soldier largely unchanged, seeing continuing falling sales, until it was discontinued after a brief run of 1993 models. Today these cars have little collectibility in the mass market, but that hasn’t stopped some people from appreciating these Rivieras for what they are.

This Riviera’s Story:

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Cars have always played a huge role in Jeffrey’s life, and his family has a deep-rooted history with GM products, particularly Buick and Oldsmobile. As a child of the post-Malaise Era, there were an increasing number of interesting cars Jeffrey could have been obsessed over. Above all, there was one car that captured his fascination and made a lasting impression: the 1989-1993 Buick Riviera. Upon first seeing one, it was love at first sight. Neighbors of his owned an ’89 model which he would frequently admire every time he saw it. He told me that around age 3 he’d tell his mother to slow down when they’d drive by to get a longer stare.

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By sheer coincidence, around 2004 and by now a teenager, a 1990 Riviera showed up in the driveway of his grandparents’ elderly neighbor whom he was not acquainted with. One day he decided to take a walk and introduce himself if she was sitting out in her breezeway, with hopes of learning a little more about her car.

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The woman, who introduced herself as Priscilla, was more than happy to talk about her car, as she was very much a car enthusiast herself. It turned out that she had recently acquired the Riviera as replacement for her 1976 Monte Carlo, which faithfully served as her daily-driver for nearly 29 years. Her son-in-law, JR, had actually located the one-owner Riviera for sale while in Florida. JR was a die-hard Buick fan, and having already converted his wife to the brand, knew he could do the same for his mother-in-law with this beautiful Rivera. With her approval, he bought it and had it shipped up to Massachusetts for her.

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Priscilla drove the Riviera for the next eight years, in that time putting little mileage on the car, as she only drove locally and never in the snow or rain. In early 2012, while recovering from a broken hip, Priscilla came to the decision that she no longer felt safe behind the wheel and would not renew her license that June. Through the years, Jeffrey had stayed in contact, and had come to know her daughter and son-in-law, who had actually both gone to school with Jeffrey’s aunt.

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The title to the car was actually in JR’s name, so after discussing it with Priscilla, they agreed to put the car up for sale. Knowing Jeffrey had a deep interest in the Riviera, JR gave him a call, offering him first dibs. Jeffrey willingly accepted this offer, making his childhood dream a reality. Tragically, JR, who was losing his battle with cancer, would pass just three days later. It would be his widow and Priscilla’s daughter, Cynthia whom Jeffrey would ultimately purchase the car from, in June of 2012.

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The Riviera was in decent condition for a 22-year old car with 82,000 miles on it, but it had nonetheless experienced 22 years of weather and human interaction. Upon taking ownership, Jeffrey invested a significant amount of TLC to bring back some of the luster that had been lost over two decades. First up, he had the paint buffed and compounded by a local dealer, which brought back a significant amount of depth and shine to the car’s metallic paint.

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Jeffrey then proceeded to have the center caps of these less-commonly seen alloy wheels sanded and repainted with a new clearcoat. Jeffrey was able to repaint the side mirrors himself, using the paint codes to obtain the matching color to the Riviera’s original.

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When it came to the interior, the leather had a few worn spots and tears from two decades of use. Jeffrey brought it to a trusted auto upholstery shop that was able repair it spot-on. Having seen and felt it in person, I’d never have known the leather wasn’t all-original.

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As of the time of our meeting, the Riviera has been in Jeffrey’s loving ownership for three years now, and in that time he has only put about 4,000 miles on the car. Complementing the car’s time period, he has thoughtfully included several period accessories, such as a vintage Motorola cell phone, TWA brochure, and Filene’s and Jordan Marsh (popular department stores in the area that no longer exist) tote bags in the trunk.

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Jeffrey currently keeps the Riviera garage-stored year round. He doesn’t drive the car in the winter, only pulling it out regularly to let it run for a few minutes during the abusive winter months. Driven only on nice days, and having seen rain only a few times in its recent years, the Riviera is in excellent hands with Jeffrey. He is the ideal type of owner for a classic car, and it is thoroughly refreshing to see someone care so much for a car because he loves it and sees it as a collectible car, not because it has high collector’s status in the car world.

My Driving Impressions:

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Just sliding into the soft leather buckets, and looking out at the Riviera hood ornament was enough to bring a grin to my face. Regardless of how this car handled, I knew I was in for an experience I would never forget. As I reached for the door handle, I was instantly overcome with nostalgia to both of my grandfather’s 1990s Oldsmobiles, as the used the same chrome L-shaped handles. Closing the long, heavy doors led to a securing, solid thud.

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Upon turning the key, the flawless digital dash came to life, proudly displaying its full-instrumentation in that period blue-green color. Shifting into drive instigated the automatic door locking system and its reassuring vault-like click.

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Out of its sheer uniqueness from the type of car I’m used to, driving the Riviera was a blast. By no means is this a fast car, but I didn’t find that a detriment. As we say in the Boston area, it’s “wicked” comfortable and quiet. Once it reaches about thirty, and the engine revs slow, this big Buick glides like a magic carpet on air.

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Had Buick equipped the Riviera with the same supercharged version of the 3800 as in the Park Avenue Ultra, I wouldn’t have had any objections. That being said, the Riviera never felt under powered, with 165 horsepower and 210 pound-foot of torque from its naturally aspirated 3.8L V6 being perfectly capable for this grand tourer, especially at higher speeds.

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Despite its substantial downsizing from past Rivieras and facing sharp criticism as a result, this 1990 Riviera is by no means a “small” car. At 198.3 inches long (up eleven inches from 1986-1988), it’s longer than a current Lacrosse, and within 3.5 inches of an Enclave. For a more timely comparison, the 1990 Riviera’s exterior dimensions are nearly identical to that of the 1978-1987 G-body Regal coupe.

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Behind the wheel, the Riv feels like a bigger, heavier car than its approximately 3,400 pound curb weight would suggest. Its long hood and front overhang, combined with the engine over its drive wheels is likely the reason why. Yet this heaviness isn’t necessarily a bad quality for personal luxury coupe, as it gives the car a commanding, solid feel that many modern front-wheel drive cars I’ve driven lack.

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Even with this heaviness and a softer suspension than I’m used to, I always felt in full control. I found the car remarkably agile, delivering power when needed, and maneuvering easy through traffic and turns. Pulling a U-turn on a narrow side street proved a simple task.

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Jeffrey was kind enough to let me drive his beautiful Riviera for nearly two hours. In that time, he gave me a wonderful tour that included plentiful curbside classic sightings through several Massachusetts towns. My lasting impression of his Riviera is that it is the perfect personal luxury coupe. It’s tastefully styled, easily maneuverable, and has all the luxury features one could have ever wanted in for its time.

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I can understand why seasoned personal luxury car buyers would have balked at the Riviera’s downsizing in 1986, and still wouldn’t have been totally satisfied with the 1989-1993’s improvements. Not a member of that crowd or age group, I find the 1990 Riviera’s size perfect for a “personal” car.

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I can’t thank Jeffery enough for providing me with the opportunity to drive a vehicle I would likely never have the chance to. It was a fantastic day, and will go down as one of my most memorable driving experiences to date.

The Mystery:

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The most interesting and unique aspect to this particular car lies in its mysterious first eight months of existence. Produced in November of 1989, this Riviera wasn’t sold until June 1990 at a dealer in Florida, with 21 miles on the clock. Is eight months unheard of for a new car to sit on a dealer lot? No, but to go that long in Florida, arguably prime real estate for a car like this, as well as only accumulate 21 miles in that time does strike it as a bit odd.

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But here’s where it gets real intriguing. This Riviera is finished in Medium Slate Gray (color code 9235), a color never officially offered on any Buick. Medium Slate Gray was a newly introduced color for 1990, available on several Cadillac and Oldsmobile models though 1992, but never on any Buick. Coincidently, this was also the same color of my grandfather’s 1992 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight.

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The Riviera’s vinyl top also does not correspond to any listed Buick colors for 1990. The possibility of the car having been repainted can be ruled out, as the service parts identification sticker reveals that indeed 9235 is the original color.

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Upon researching this, Jeffrey found out that exactly five 1990 Buick Rivieras of the 22,526 produced for that year were painted in this color. Further digging revealed this picture from the 1990 Chicago Auto Show. It’s hard to clearly make out, but the Riviera in the far back left does appear to be match. The auto show season always begins right around late-November with Los Angeles, and runs until early-April with New York. Could this Riviera and the four others have been originally trucked around for the auto show circuit before being given to preferred Buick dealerships for sale?

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This is Jeffrey’s theory, although he unfortunately hasn’t been able to find any definitive evidence supporting this. It really isn’t all that far-fetched, and would certainly be an interesting tidbit if true. Can any one else out there shed any light on this matter?

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Regardless of this 1990 Buick Riviera’s past, Jeffrey loves this car all the same, and has fulfilled a lifelong dream in owning it for the past three years. Unfortunately, during our test drive, Jeffrey informed me that his time with this car might be coming to an end.

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Jeffrey also owns another classic, this 1930 Ford Model A Deluxe Sport Coupe he inherited, and with work ramping up on its restoration, he would only have room for one of these cars. He had actually listed it for sale several times in recent months, but like any responsible owner, wanted to make sure the Riviera would fall into the hands of another collector, and not someone who would use the car as a winter beater.

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Just this past weekend, Jeffrey and I met up again at the Bay State Antique Auto Club Car Show, where he proudly brought the Riviera to display, as well as list for sale. Towards the end of the day, Jeffrey indeed found an enthusiastic buyer, all set with a deposit in hand.

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Although Jeffrey’s relationship with the Riviera has now come to an end, the car will live on, as will all of his memories with it, as he moves on with his next project car. Personally, I can’t thank him enough for offering me up his beautiful Riviera to take for a spin and share its story. It’s a car and experience I shall never forget!