COAL: 1963 Buick Riviera – “Wouldn’t You Really…

…Rather Have a Buick?” was one of Buick Motor Division’s memorable advertising slogans. A question posed to me about Buick’s desirability was: John’s looking for a home for his 1963 Riviera, are you interested? 

John was the father of my boss, himself a valued associate and close friend, both Buick lifetimers. When I commenced employment with their company, the elder’s automobile was a brand new double-burgundy Park Avenue. One could never predict what model or year of Buick his son would be driving to the shop; he admired and dabbled in every era of, and all things related to that marque, also enthusiastically participating in a club for owners of classics Buicks.

I started working for the family-run corporation as a part time graphic designer in 1985. Being around their cars, the daughter with a handsome Skylark, I felt at home. My own family had a history of Buick love; as a newborn, I arrived home from the hospital in what was probably my parents’ all-time favorite car, a black 1950 Super sedan.

Soon after reporting for my new position, there was discussion about a contract to produce the mechanical artwork for printing a world-wide Buick periodical. Combining passions for automobiles and publication design? Sounds great, bring it on. A layout proposal was executed using sketches of our family’s 1972 Centurion, which I helped spec for production as a senior in high school, as the subject car,

Sure enough, the job was ours. For many years we prepared the magazine for the out-of-town printer, until also being awarded that contract; not having to allow for transit time of the pre-digital-age layouts afforded us a couple of days leeway on deadlines, always welcome in the world of printing periodicals. The circulation hovered around 10,000 copies per month, with every club member around the world receiving their own personal issue.

Buick Motor Division (BMD) always purchased the outside back cover for a full-color display ad, submitted by McCann-Ericson, it’s highly capable and renown advertising agency. There were other connections between the club membership and Buick, such as being invited to preview new cars before being introduced to the general public and attending private BMD promotional events.

A special edition of the magazine covered the club’s annual meet-up. The editor would furnish photographs of incredible cars and raw editorial content for us to assemble into the much-anticipated issue about the popular event. My friend and I would go to work, drooling over the photos while spreading them out on the floor, as no table was large enough, to view, sort and organize. His expertise was tapped for selecting a good representation of models, years, rarities, and the award winners, mine for getting all the components into one creative, cohesive format, ready to print.

Designing and manufacturing the national meet issue was a mammoth undertaking with lots of moving parts, yet, required meeting the same strict deadline as standard editions. Brimming with colorful photos of magnificent Buicks amidst stories about members and their cars, producing the commemorative edition was a blast, and thoroughly rewarding.

At the time, I was driving an old VW; my friend and I would sometimes trade cars when I’d be making deliveries on the way home that were too large to fit in the bug. A couple of his cars remembered were a 1962 Skylark, and a 1969 Wildcat. He also enjoyed Volkswagens, seeming to enjoy the chance to drive my faithful, rusty, high-mileage Type I.

One fascinating event we were given the opportunity to attend was the technical feasibility demonstration for driverless cars in southern California, in which General Motors participated, a program of the National Automated Highway System Consortium. In the Wildcat, we arrived at the event, being staged on a carpool lane’s overpass that was otherwise closed to traffic, the din of rush hour below. On a multi-mile-long stretch of the high occupancy vehicle lane, magnets/sensors had been imbedded into the pavement every couple of yards. The premise was that a platoon of specially equipped LeSabres, in a tight, single file formation, traveling at high speeds, would be guided electronically by their on-board computers, allowing hands-free, foot-free commuting.

As BMD prepared to launch the Reatta in 1988, we received notice that a pre-production prototype was at our local Buick dealership. Of course, we played hooky from work, and after almost giving up searching, found the Reatta, loaded with test equipment in the rear of it’s cockpit, along the fence at the back of the lot. When Reatta print ads hit, I clearly remember my cohort in crime leafing through a car magazine, coming upon facing page advertisements, one for the Reatta, the other the newly introduced Mazda Miata, a discouraged expression reflective of which of the two he anticipated would achieve sales success.

Another memorable occasion was when the Buick Riviera, amid fanfare, was being introduced for the 1995 model year. This generation was slated to bring the Riviera back as Buick’s halo car after a one-year hiatus. The all-new iteration would be revealed during the locally hosted Buick Open golf tournament, to which a BMD promotions director had extended invitations. Then, when press cars became available, it was pretty cool to have access to a production model; driving the car out to lunch one day, it was noticed and admired. From certain angles, the car sure looked nice.

A sharp Regal Gran Sport was offered one weekend, providing a good opportunity to travel out of town for adventure. The spirited, capable car handled nicely, smooth on the highway and entertaining on twisting back roads; it confirmed that Buick still had the chops to build an understated, luxurious, performance sedan.

Somewhere along the way, the subject car, the family’s ’63 Riv, was offered, no strings attached. John had won it, already decades old, in some sort of club-related contest. The car was in good shape, perfectly drivable, after being fueled with a fresh tank of premium. The Riv, confidently accelerating up to cruising speed on the highway, was reminded of it’s intended mission: a sporty-looking, plush and powerful American personal luxury car responding to the success of Ford’s Thunderbird. Generally driven to work on Fridays, when approaching the car, it seemed like an apparition. Was this uniquely attractive automobile really mine? Hot damn.

The first real exposure to the modern Riviera brand was around 1968; a best friend’s family owned a drop-dead gorgeous ’66, in which I rode several times. Although our family sedan was no slouch, and probably just a few hundred dollars separated the sticker prices of our two cars, his car was miles ahead in luxury and exclusivity: a brash, voluptuously-curved hardtop fastback coupe, with concealed headlamps, wide glamorous tail lamps, ventless side windows, an innovative rotating drum speedometer within a sweeping instrument panel, bucket seats, floor console with shift selector, and power conveniences; a distinctive, desirable, automobile. In case you were wondering, yes, I was green with envy.

GM stylist Ned Nickles, under the direction of Bill Mitchell, penned the 1963 Riviera, a resounding success. Yet, viewed individually, some of the body components were somewhat unusual:

Sharp-edged roof on a curvy body


Bloated pontoon fenders with oversize end-cap louvres.


High front fender line and tall, jutting front.


Fake air intakes


Narrow front grille.


Undersized tail lamps, puffy rear fender blades


Ahhh, but put them all together in the hands of an astonishingly talented design team… The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts (Aristotle).

Referencing Riviera literature for the 1963 model year, there is no mention of an available vinyl roof, or pinstripes, as seen on my car; it was white with a silver, custom-trim, bucket seat interior, and in addition to the standard Riviera luxuries, was generously optioned with power windows, power seat, Sonomatic radio with power antenna, cornering lights, which were cleverly hidden within the under-bumper section of the front fender louvres, remote outside mirror, tinted windshield and tilt steering wheel. And, oh, those spectacular road wheels.



In 1963, if someone would have said to the car crazy me: One day you will own a Buick Riviera, they would have been faced with a smile of intrigue. The car was enjoyed for a few years, but, parked on the street, and like most classics requiring special attention and resources, it deserved more care than was possible for me to give. It was advertised for sale through the club and purchased by a Canadian member, who flew to southern California to take it home.

A genuinely stunning car, I look back, grateful to have owned what some may consider to have been a pinnacle of mid-century American automotive design. Thanks, John.

Specifications: 401 displacement V8, 325 horsepower @ 4400 rpm, maximum torque 445 @ 2800 rpm, compression ratio 10.25 to 1. Four barrel carburetor, dual exhaust, automatic Turbine Drive. All images, except those of my white Riviera, and our family’s 1950 Super and 1972 Centurion, taken from the internet.