COAL: 1963 Buick Riviera – “Here’s Where Man And Riviera Get To Know Each Other”

Aside from the day I was married, I can’t think of a time in my life when I was more certain that I’ve done the right thing than I am right now.  Take a picture.  This is possibly the happiest I’ll ever be from this point on, and everything else will pale in comparison to the relief I feel from not dying without ever owning an early Riviera.  I’m not goal-oriented, and people may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m a weird guy who’s been Riviera shopping since 2001, I finally bought one, and it’s almost exactly what I’ve been looking for.  With that being said, what have I done?

I’ve bought a Fawn Mist (which is light dependent, a sort of green, gold, gray color) 1963 Buick Riviera that needs quite a bit of work, that’s what.  It was listed on Bring a Trailer of all places; bidding was slow because the car has the obvious hallmarks of long-term inactivity, so I was able to snag it for $12,750 plus the 5% fee that BaT charges to keep the lights on.  That may seem high to anyone who is unfamiliar with first-gen Rivieras, but these things have appreciated steadily for quite some time.  Additionally, it’s one of the rare “in-between” Rivieras I’ve seen for sale, in price and condition: They are invariably almost pristine or recently extracted from a cave.  The paint on mine is old and there are blemishes galore, but it will clean up and be perfect for me (which is not perfect at all).

I bought the car from a family member of the original owner, who included most of the car’s documentation going back to its original build date of December 26th, 1962.  The original owner’s name is still on the console plaque (Built expressly for…), and it matches the original title from North Carolina, which is where the car spent most of its life until recently (the last owner lived in Connecticut).  Unfortunately, it must have spent some time in damp storage, because almost every electrical connector is corroded.  On the other hand, the undercarriage is mostly solid, including the floors, rockers, and the often ruined trunk floor.  Fun fact: This might be the first time the car has returned to Michigan since it rolled off the line in Flint in 1962.

According to the paperwork, the original owner likely kept the car until his passing in 1988.  It then found its way to another family member before ending up with the guy I bought it from, who was apparently a nephew of a previous owner.  That makes me the fourth or fifth owner, and the first who wasn’t related to the guy who first bought it.

One of the car’s first insurance policies is still in the glove compartment, and it’s a win for the “we’ve always been illiterate” boosters that the insurance agent couldn’t correctly spell “Riviera” back in 1963.

This program is also in the glove box; the original owner (who was nearly 60 in 1963 from what I can glean from the internet) and his wife (who was a member of the Motor Club) were ostensibly fans of motorsports.  They must have decided to take the new Riviera on a road trip to Daytona Beach soon after they bought it; I hope they were as cool an older couple as their paperwork makes them out to be.

A little research on the original owner tells me he owned an auto parts store, and considering his impeccable taste in cars, I’m assuming he was a “car guy” who maintained his stuff (at least I hope so).  With that being said, my fingers are crossed that he replaced the original nylon cam gear at some point.  I’ll have to add that to my list of items to check. (Edit: I checked it.  It has 12 crankshaft degrees of play; therefore, it is probably original.  Add a timing set to the list.)

The car’s documentation also includes this “Glove Box Copy,” which lists the date of production and the original options, which are thankfully few.  They include electric windows (boo!), Sonomatic radio, and the custom interior package in black leather/vinyl.

The interior is actually in fairly nice condition, aside from that sitting around in a barn forever smell (shout out to my mom for doing a preliminary cleaning).  It has had some work done, as evidenced by the use of Weatherhead screws in places where the factory used pins to hold things together.  Side note: Riviera power windows always have power (i.e., you can operate the windows with the key switched to “off”), which I don’t really like.  

The previous owner did a lot of the work I would normally have to do, such as replacing the wheel cylinders, fuel tank, brake hoses, master cylinder, and the power booster.  Unfortunately, he bought a bad booster that’s also the incorrect one for the car.  I have made friends with some members of the Riviera Owners Association, however, and have procured the correct booster for rebuilding (it’s out at the rebuilder right now).  The engine seems untouched, but the exhaust crossover plug is rotten, so I’ll have to remove the intake manifold to replace it, which is an easy job on a Buick Nailhead.  The engine even has visible remnants of its original Buick Silver, which was a 1963-only color on Rivieras.  I’ve never been the “numbers matching” type, but the engine number matches the VIN.

I’ve spent some time online studying the various quirks of Buick Nailheads in preparation for the engine work I’ll inevitably have to do (such as replacing the timing set).  One strange thing about the car is that it does not leak any oil, even from the Dynaflow, but that is bound to change as I drive it.

This is my current list of Riviera jobs I have to do over the winter/spring/summer.  It’s a long list, and it’s certain to grow as I peel off the layers, but it’s manageable.

There are a fair number of differences between a 1963 and 1964 Riviera, as I’ve quickly discovered.  The obvious deviation is the Dynaflow transmission, 1963 being the last year for that interesting but ultimately dead-end technology (modern CVTs notwithstanding).  Dynaflow jokes notwithstanding, the Riviera can just flat get it when taking off in low.  It will absolutely leave my T-Bird standing around as if tied to a tree, regardless of what the old Ford filmstrips say about the 390 being competitive.

Another difference between ’63s and ’64s is the “Buick” lettering on the trunk; the “I” often goes missing, as was the case with mine.  Luckily, an old-time salvage yard in the area had a ’63 model that had been stacked on another car since 1979, and it offered up its “I” and a spare wheel that I also needed.   I love old salvage yards.  For those still keeping score, it is easy to identify an early Riviera’s age from the rear: 1964 models had a “Riviera” script on the passenger side of the trunk and a stylized “R” in the taillights instead of a “tri-shield” logo.

Another thing I love about my new Riviera is its stock wheel covers.  So many Rivieras have been air bagged with 20″ wheels or upgraded with Buick rally wheels that it’s refreshing to see one in a manner that many of them were originally equipped.

So far, I’ve only driven the Riviera a few dozen miles, as its electrical system is a mess, its tires are old, and it has no power brakes.  I’ve replaced or rebuilt two of its taillight/front parking light sockets and adjusted the dwell (which is easy on a GM distributor).  It has a noisy lifter/rocker arm, but after an oil change and a half quart of Rislone, I’m hoping it quiets down after some heat cycles and use (next spring, at this point).  I’ll need to examine the instrument cluster to check the bulbs/circuits that are currently inoperable, and I’ll definitely have to clean the corroded fuse holders.  The last time I drove it, the taillights and instrument lights stopped working altogether.  (Edit: I removed the taillight and instrument panel light fuses and reinstalled them, and both began working again, so it’s a corrosion issue.)

Despite all this, the upcoming year promises to be a fun one for me and my new/old dream car.  There WILL be heartbreak, but knowing you’re working on one of your favorite cars ever helps when you’re cursing at something.

By the way, the title of this piece refers to a ’64 Riviera advertisement I hung in my living room a few days after buying this car, and I can’t wait to get to know my new vehicular friend better.

But I already love it.

Postscript: See below for gratuitous Riviera detail shots, because I just think this is a great-looking car.