COAL: 1970 Buick Riviera — Part 1: Different From Everything Else

A Time of Change

Our goal in moving from Endicott to Vestal, NY in winter of 1974 was recapturing the rural magic of living in Unadilla. While the move was a well-intended attempt, the results were uneven.

I quite liked living in Endicott. Coming from Unadilla, Endicott was like “big city” living to me: sidewalks, street lights, and ice cream trucks (!); corner stores (that sold balsa wood gliders!), parks and school within walking distance. I’d made a couple of good friends at school. Also, the regional food specialty: Spiedies!

Moving meant another mid-school-year change. I was in the middle of second grade and headed to my third school district. Where Unadilla was pastoral and idyllic, our location in Vestal was remote and isolated. There were few surrounding homes and even fewer kids around my age. I resumed riding the bus to school. Both our driveway and our road were steeply graded; “bicycle riding” meant coasting downhill and pushing your bike back uphill. On top of that, the green wagon was getting rustier and rustier every day.

In stocks of local interest, . . .

My father had worked nights at GAF (General Aniline & Film) since we moved to Endicott. Some of you may remember GAF or its predecessor, Ansco. GAF, like Kodak, was in the camera/film/chemistry/paper business. But, unlike Kodak, GAF was much smaller and far less successful. In the late 1920s, Ansco merged with Agfa of Germany to become Agfa-Ansco (A-A). With access to Agfa’s technology and resources, A-A enjoyed record earnings in the late 1930s.

A recently-constructed Binghamton plant during the Agfa-Ansco period. I’d guess mid- to late-1930s, based on the cars. In the upper left, the “Agfa” portion of the sign has been covered with what appears to be ballpoint pen. “Agfa” script appears on the water tower.


However, the U.S. government seized and nationalized A-A as enemy property in 1942 with America’s entry into World War 2. Along the way, the name changed back to Ansco. After 20 plus years of government supervision and limited investment, the company, by then renamed GAF after its parent corporation, was running on fumes when finally sold in the mid-1960s.

The Agfa-Ansco building in the previous photo, the last one left in Binghamton, was recently renovated into a sexy mixed-use commercial/loft apartment complex shown here. It’s called, fittingly, The Ansco.


By the mid-1970s, it was clear that GAF’s consumer filmmaking business was winding down. But like the turmoil of inflation and the energy crisis, GAF’s troubles were invisible to me in early 1976. Looking back, I thought we lived comfortably then, at least comfortably enough for my father to splurge on some real wheels!

Going to Get Some Quality

“Quality Motors” was our destination. It still exists, with the same name and sign, still in Johnson City, just a mile or two from their previous lot.  They often stocked interesting (to an eight-and-change-year-old boy) vehicles, like El Caminos, early ’70s GM A-bodies, and the like.

Different location, same sign.


On the way to see the car, I asked my mother what kind of car we were getting. “A Buick,” she replied. When I asked which model it was, all she would tell me is that, “it starts with an ‘R’.”

Why do parents say things like that to children? Why, why, why? For the rest of the ride,  I bounced my brain around my cranium as I recalled which Buick models started with an R. Roadmaster? No, too old. Regal? Has to be Regal.

“It’s a Regal!” I declared. “Nope,” replied my mother.

“It HAS to be a Regal!” I countered. “No, it’s not a Regal. Keep thinking about it,” she said.

Stumped, I stewed in the back seat of the green wagon. With my “expansive knowledge” of vehicle makes and models, it irked me that I drew a blank on the model.

First impressions

At the lot, I hotfooted over to the car. “Riviera, ohhh . . . .” Immediately, I forgot about the “Great Model Name Irritation Crisis of 1976.” I’d certainly seen Rivieras before, but not like this one.

Some of us like things that are different than what others have. My father was like that and I am, too. The Buick was my first exposure to that philosophy. At the time, I thought it looked customized and fast, with its body side sweepspear trim, fender skirts and fastback roof line. Today, the proportions remind me a bit of Johnny Bravo’s long torso and short legs: looong hood, looong doors, and small rear quarters and trunk. The effect is more pronounced to me on ’70s with the shorter fender skirts. Our car’s full skirts somewhat mitigated that effect but also made the rear quarters look heavy-hipped and formal.

1970 Riviera: Proportionally, the “Johnny Bravo” of personal luxury coupes.


Johnny Bravo: Proportionally the “1970 Riviera” of cartoon characters. From Pinterest.


Bill Mitchell wanted the ’70 to look more “French.” I hope he meant Talbot-Lago and not Citroen DS21. The ‘70 was styled for full fender skirts; shorty skirts, as on the white car above, came later.

The Green Machine

The exterior was Emerald Mist, with the body side sweep spear trim in a complimentary Sherwood Green. I thought the darker color made the trim itself more subtle than if painted in a high contrast color. But, I’ve always had mixed feelings about that trim: one part of me saw it as frivolous gingerbread; the other part thought other ’70s without it were a bit bland. Today, I think the sweet spot might be to keep the trim but paint it body color, allowing the trim’s thin chrome outline to provide contrast as on the vehicle below.

The body-colored sweepspear adds a subtle highlight. Also, no vinyl top. Buick road wheels could make an oxcart look good.


Gloriously, ours evaded the dreaded, trendy vinyl top option. Most of the ’70s I’ve seen have them, and while some top colors are more complimentary than others, I prefer the entire exterior to be the same color.

Meet me in the club room

The interior was the standard pattern in black vinyl, which on sunny days was quite unkind to shorts-clad legs and bare arms. Fake woodgrain trim and numerous brushed or chrome accents on the doors and dashboard provided a fitting contrast. I still prefer this interior over the optional ones — it’s more “1960s” while the upgraded interiors are more “1970s” and “proto-brougham.”

The twin to the interior in our ’70. To me, the interior had a strong “man’s car/club room” vibe.


Even its power window switches were impressive: a big chrome switch surrounded by a big chrome bezel, or four big chrome switches in a giant chrome bezel on the driver’s door. I half expected to see the lights dim throughout Broome County when I pushed the button.

I had the back seat and center speaker all to myself.

A Work of Art. “Art who?” I wondered.

But the pièce de résistance was the console and shifter. Oh my, the console! If my father had said, “I bought this car just for the console,” I would have replied, “Of course you did. All ’70 Riviera owners did.” It was a piece of mid-century art to me: shapely, lean, with a strip of chrome molding that separated the smooth matte black finish from the black textured plastic.

Few gauges; lots of lights. I guess speedometer and fuel gauge are all you really need. Alternator idiot light lens says “GEN” — if they haven’t changed it by 1969, no need to change it for 1970.


In front of the shifter, the wood-grained area with the Riviera “R” stencil covered a small storage area that held the obligatory pack or two of cigarettes. Behind the shifter, with the lockable button on top, was the door to a larger storage area.

Details count: Stylized silver “R” on the front storage door; thin silver stencil running parallel to the wood-grain’s perimeter; shift pattern in black on an arch of chrome.


But, the shifter itself, with its cantilevered, pushbutton handle and arched, chrome shift pattern plate; the pattern cast into the plate and highlighted in black . . . . My, my, my. I didn’t have any words then and I don’t have any now. It’s the most elegant feature on the car. I’ve rarely seen other ’70 Rivieras with the console/shifter, but while working on this installment I found a couple of ’69s with it. Push in the button and the handle slides with a heavy, well-oiled motion that implied “ready for flight” when it chunked into D and the whole car did the “Turbo 400 Squat.”

Cleared for takeoff

To me, it was ready for flight. It’s hard to avoid romanticizing sensations from so long ago; I choose my words cautiously now as I write this. But, the Buick just flat-out moved. In its time with us, and for many years afterward, I considered its 455 V8/Turbo-Hydramatic 400 combination to be peak “classic” General Motors drivetrain excellence. The engine and transmission were perfectly matched. The 455 had that muscular, slightly ominous “blub-ub-ub-ub-ub-blub-ub-ub-ub” at idle. But, this was an upscale “gentleman’s car” — no lumpy/lopey idle and droning exhaust here. This sled had dual exhaust with mufflers and resonators (!) even, to keep that tone audible but never coarse.

The co-pilot’s view. Not much to do; enjoy the ride and periodically watch the scenery pass very quickly.


My father was not a “hot dog” driver, at least not with me in the car. But, I considered him to be an excellent driver: smooth control inputs, situationally aware, focused on the road, and kept a good pace. Thankfully, he was certainly not averse to “blowing the carbon out” periodically. Passing other cars was a glorious treat for the senses, and so easy to do. Just push the accelerator to the floor: The Quadrajet’s hungry secondaries immediately snapped open—AIRR! MOREAIRRRMOREMOREMORE!!—the Turbo 400 smartly downshifted RIGHTNOW!!—and, in full afterburner mode, we shot past the slower vehicle. And the soundtrack, even muted by the resonators, was 100% muscle car to my ears.

On a two-lane road, waiting for a straightaway to make a multi-car pass? This is the car. If Wheaties cereal put cars instead of athletes on the front of the box, the Buick would be there, rendered in a glorious illustration with lots of speed lines.

Buick 455 looks modest in enormous engine compartment with standard gratuitous front overhang. What it lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in torque, drivability, and durability.


A quick learner

The Riviera’s arrival gave me quite an education. A few things I learned right off the bat:

  • I liked the “squished into the seat” sensation from the Buick’s 510 lb.-ft. of torque. I liked it a lot. It seemed like we had enough torque to reverse the Earth’s rotation if needed.
  • It was good that we sold the white ’66 Ford wagon (a.k.a. “my car”)–I’d found “my car” for real this time. Problem solved.
  • On paper, a 10.3 cu.-ft. trunk on a car this size was hilariously inadequate. But the Riviera was a personal car, not a family car, unless you were a family of three, like us.
  • Dad really hit it out of the park with this car, as far as I was concerned. I loved it and never wanted it to go away. Ever.

Length: 215.5 in. Width: 79.3 in. Curb weight: 4,216 lb. Trunk capacity: 10.3 cu.-ft. Wait . . . 10.3 cu.-ft.? That’s it? Note that trunk depth tapers from “kiddie pool” to “nearly two-dimensional.”


Vacation motoring

Our big vacation for 1976 was Hershey Park and Gettysburg for the Bicentennial. Naturally, we took the Buick.

Fourth of July, 1976: My father at our motel in Gettysburg, PA. If you’ve read my other COAL installments, you’ve noticed the admittedly poor image quality of our family photos. I blame it primarily on low-end 110- and 126-film cameras, with a small side of GAF film.


My mother and I get our turn next to the car. I hope I quickly outgrew those rust-colored pants.


I remember a lot of walking on the various battlefields, the parade on July 4th, and a group of Civil War re-enactors “camped” on the grounds of the restaurant where we had dinner. A few of them played Civil War-era songs on period instruments as they cooked over a fire, and the restaurant got real quiet while they played. I think the patrons were reflecting on what it must have been like during the actual battle.

On the road again

Speaking of Bicentennial spirit, autumn of 1976 brought some spirited conversation around the house about “exploring new careers,” shall we say. My mother enlightened my father to the fact that, as I approached 10 years of age, he and I barely knew each other. She was right. (Not for the first time, not for the last time.) Other than the first couple of years after I was born, he had been either on the road booking bands or working nights at GAF.

Her point received, he hit the want ads and in early 1977 found an opportunity in Rochester, NY. Beginning in February, he stayed in Rochester during the week while my mother and I remained in Vestal. He’d drive home Friday evening, then return to Rochester Sunday evening. By May, the job was going great, everything was falling into place, and we were planning our move to Rochester. I even started summer vacation two weeks early, as we left in early June.

Got Room?

When it was actually time to leave, we had a problem. The moving company had come and gone, and we had set aside various odds and ends in different sizes, as well as Smokey, our beloved gray cat, to take with us. At this point, the green wagon was also gone, sold to a colleague in Rochester. Which left the Buick, with its limited rear seat room and 10.3 cu.-ft. trunk.

In the end, everything fit . . . barely. I half-squatted/half-balanced on the end of the console, my arms resting on the top of the bucket seats. Smokey was next to me in her carrier, propped up on the back seat. At that time, driving from Vestal to Rochester took about three-and-a-half to four hours. For the whole trip, Smokey entertained us with a non-stop performance of her famous hit, “MrrooOWWWW! . . . , MrroOOWWW! . . .  MrrooOWWWW! . . .   MrroOOWWW! . . . MrrooOWWWW! . . . ” in the Buick’s cozy interior.

Ironically, that same summer, GAF withdrew from the consumer photography market and closed the consumer film operation in Binghamton.

Meanwhile, the Buick ferried us around Rochester for several months as we explored the region. Although the Buick’s COAL story is not fully told, it is on temporary hiatus, as in early 1978 a brand new car was on the horizon. Our next COAL installment highlights what I considered the greatest perk of working: a company car! What could it be? A GM B-body? A final-year Mopar C-body? An early production Ford/Mercury Panther platform? One hint: it’s not one of those “foreign” cars. Stay tuned for more.


Related CC reading on the ’66-’70 Riviera:

Curbside Classic: 1966 Buick Riviera – The Ultimate Mitchell Mobile?