COAL: Hobby Car Of A Lifetime #4 — 1966 Riviera Part 1 — Clackety Clack, Don’t Talk Back!

These photos were taken for the CL ad when I put it up for sale. I love the California Rake. The car looked the best that it ever would.  Photos by author.


1966 Buick Riviera. Backsliding, poor decisions, and good money thrown after bad… Lots of good money thrown after bad! But even with all that, I truly loved this car!

Flawed, but oh so beautiful.


I don’t think that there has ever been a more beautiful car. You’ll notice my menagerie of vehicles in the background. It was the last Riv standing by this time.


My ’71 Riviera had been a very nice car in really good condition. Straight body, nice shiny paint, a clean immaculate interior, and in good running condition.

So what should I do with it? How about I sell it, and start over again with something really rough?

Yeah, that’s the ticket!

I had developed an idea that I wanted an example of all three early generation models; a ’63-’65,’66-’70, to go along with a ’71.

Not my ’66, but my ’67. This had a body in better shape, why didn’t I choose this one? My ’66 was parked right behind it.


For some reason, I forgot all the lessons that I’d learned with my old ’66 Lincoln. I should have known better than to buy a car with a lot of problems that were clearly apparent. While the body was straight, and all the trim was complete, the paint was badly faded. There were areas of light surface rust on the top surfaces of the car. It didn’t have a vinyl top –I’d insisted on that– but it was apparent that there were rust issues around the windshield and back window flanges. Those were swollen with rust and allowed water to leak inside. The interior wasn’t that great either. The front seat, an Astro Bench, was cracked and had split seams, and so did the rear. It was a highly optioned car; with a custom level interior, long armrests and dual door release handles. The cruise control and a/c didn’t work, but all the power windows and the AM/FM radio did.

The dash was untouched, while the ’67’s had been crudely hacked up.


Both side door panels were in great shape. I repaired them and the power windows.


To top it off, it didn’t run very well either. It was hard to start, ran poorly when cold, and there was an audible clicking sound from at least one lifter.

So why did I buy the thing? I’m guessing that with what I could sell the ’71 for, I could buy this scruffy ’66 and an equally scruffy ’63. I liked the ’66 style better than the ’71, or even the ’63. I thought that I could always find another Boat Tail later on.

Of course, a reasonable person would think that it is more important to have a single example in the best shape possible, instead of the specific model year style that you preferred. (This was the reasoning that led me to my recent purchase of my ’97. Maybe not the most beautiful model, but a car in good condition at a good price).

This car led me down a tortuous rabbit hole of repair, replacement, expensive shop labor, engine rebuilding, and more. Inquiring minds might ask, “Why didn’t you just walk away?” I’ll answer in the words of the Jackson Five who had a hit entitled “I Never Can Say Goodbye!”

Another trite saying is, “In for a dime, in for a dollar!”  In this case, several thousand dollars, but why get ahead of the story?!

When I brought the ’66 home, my young son took a look at it and exclaimed. “Dad! Not another fixer upper!” Out of the mouths of babes!

After I fiddled with the choke mechanism and replaced the exhaust manifold heat pipe with the choke, I got the car to start and run much better. What about that lifter click? I blindly hoped that it was due to the lack of use, that the lifters were “gummed up” and it would work itself out after I started driving it more. Gummed up? Oh, it was due to a lot more than gum, as I would soon learn. Maybe I just needed to replace a lifter. So I pulled the rocker arm covers to take a look. What I discovered would chill the heart of any sane mechanic!

Just a representative picture of sludge. My Riviera was much, much, worse!

What follows is a grimy account of the problems associated with trying to repair an old car with an equally neglected old engine. I’m going to go into some detail, because it is an integral part of the decisions that I made. Part two of this post will deal with my experiences once the car was restored to driving condition.

The rocker arm shaft mechanism was encrusted in a thick coating of baked on oil sludge and the drain channels were half choked up with more sludge. This was the filthiest motor that I had, or would ever see. Did the previous owner ever change the oil?

I would have to remove the intake manifold and the sheet metal valley cover under it, to access the lifter valley so that I could replace the lifters. Next, I would have to pull the rocker shafts and push rods to be able to remove them. Once I pulled that cover and looked into the valley, I realized that there was no way that my halfway measures would be of any use. Sludge, sludge, and more sludge! I would eventually scrape more than a small coffee can’s worth of sludge off the internal surfaces and components of the engine upon its eventual teardown.

I removed the heads and dropped them off at an untried and un-recommended machine shop for a rebuild. They were returned, cleaned, and repainted and I thought they would be ready to bolt on. I didn’t know that this machine shop had never worked on old American V8s, as their primary experience was on small import four cylinder engines. This point will be important later in the story…

I found the problem for the clicking lifters when I tore the engine down. A couple of valves were burned and stuck partially open, this extra clearance resulted in the noise as the valve train took up the excessive clearance.

The nailhead in all its glory! This is why I chose the ’66 over the ’67 which had a 455 swapped in. Photo source:


I decided that I would strip the block and see if I could clean it up satisfactorily. On any old V8 engine the timing chain and sprockets would likely be worn out. I decided to check, and that required removing the water pump, and under that, the timing case cover. The water pump was held on with good sized bolts and though they were rusty, they yielded without too much trouble. The timing case cover is made of aluminum and held on with many smaller bolts. As I removed them, one snapped off, then another, and then another. I finally removed the cover and discovered that two had broken off below the surface of the block. I removed the broken bolts that were sticking out, but could not get access to drill out the broken bolts. I used penetrating oil and every trick that I could think of without success.

I went to the local auto store and bought an engine hoist so that I could pull the engine. Looking at the rusty, sludgy mess lying on the garage floor, I knew that a full rebuild would be needed.

This time I asked the crew at my local independent auto parts store for a recommendation, and found a good nearby machine shop. I cleaned the exterior of the block off as well as I could. I wrapped it in rags and put it inside a large trash bag. I had laid some cardboard in the back of my new Honda Civic hatchback and loaded the motor for its trip to the machine shop. The shop would disassemble the block, remove the crankshaft, cam, and would boil out the block and remove the broken bolts. They would also bore out the block, refinish the crankshaft, and replace the camshaft bearings. In short, a total rebuild.

When it was finished, I carefully reassembled the engine, including the rebuilt heads. I used the hoist to set the motor back in the chassis and tied up all the loose ends. Then it was time for the moment of truth!

If you’ve ever rebuilt, or done extensive repair to an engine, you know there is a lot of apprehension when starting it up for the first time. You didn’t forget any parts did you? You didn’t forget to torque everything down properly, did you?

I primed the carb and turned the key and the engine fired up to life. I nursed the throttle to keep it running until it warmed up. Clack, clack, clack clack! Maybe the lifters just needed to fill up with oil. Give it a little more time. The engine came to operating temperature and settled into a steady ideal. Clack, clack, clack, clack!

Wasn’t this the problem that I tore down the engine to fix? What could be the problem? I decided to pull the lifters to confirm that they were full of oil. They were all full. I “soaked” them in an oil bath then reinstalled them. The rocker arm assemblies had been thoroughly cleaned and didn’t appear to be worn out. All the push rods looked nice and straight, I re-assembled all the parts and fired it up again. Clack, clack, clack, clack! Argh!!! Channeling an old Peanuts special Charlie Brown response! There may have been other less family friendly responses that escaped my lips. !!!###@@@@****!!!! What could it be? The engine ran and idled fine.

Days passed and I wondered if it was the rocker assemblies. So I decided to buy a new, not rebuilt set. More time and money passed. When they arrived I changed those parts out.

Crossing my fingers I fired it up. It started right away. Clack, clack, clack, clack! Argh!!! I turned the engine off, closed the hood and walked away. Time to mull over my options. Could this be a problem with the internal engine components?  I did not want to to pull the engine and tear it down, again. But something had to done, but not today.

Ye Olde Evergreen Garage.


There was an old established garage housed in a converted horse stable a mile down the road from my house. The Evergreen garage had been in that spot for over seventy five years and their mechanics were quite familiar with American V8s. Like many shops, the people were friendly, but they could only spend a limited time dispensing free advice. “Bring it in and we’ll take a look at it when we’re not busy with other jobs.” That was their concession on giving me a break on the expense.

A couple of days later I fired up the Riv and clackety clacked my way down to the garage. I left it there and walked home. They would call me when they found something out. I got a call a few days later and they asked me to come by. They hadn’t found anything wrong with the rocker arm assemblies and asked if they could pull the heads. I told them to go ahead.

Days passed and I got another call to drop by. They had found the problem.

They had pulled the heads, and wouldn’t you know it? Some of the valve heads were hitting the tops of the pistons! Clackety, clack! He showed me the tops of the pistons and there were clearly visible marks.

“How could this be happening? The heads had been rebuilt?”

The mechanic led me to a workbench where the heads were sitting. He held a straight edge along the top of the valve tips. Some were standing higher than the others. This resulted in the rocker arms forcing the valves far enough down to strike the pistons. Clackety, clack!

When the prior shop had ground the valve seats this caused the valves to be recessed further in the head, resulting in the improper height. The shop should have trimmed the valve stems length to compensate. This was a common procedure with old time valve jobs, but the shop that I had chosen was unfamiliar with the process. They would simply have replaced the valve seats in the engine they were familiar with. The mechanic told me that the heads were pretty much toast, as they also had been excessively machined to ensure a flat surface. A set of rebuildable heads would have to be sourced, then everything could be properly rebuilt and assembled. Where are you going to find thirty year old heads?

They were willing to locate the heads and finish up the job, but I’d already spent close to a grand on their labor and assessment. I told them that I was going to locate another set of heads and I would get back to them. I had driven the Riv to the shop, but I had to have it towed home in shame, with the disassembled components in the trunk!

Could things get any worse? Tune in for part Two.