COAL Update: 1963 Buick Riviera – A Journey Of A Thousand Miles, Etc.

Wits as diverse as Lao Tzu and Aaron Tippin have long argued that no project is going to start itself, and my new-to-me ’63 Riviera is no exception.  As the list of repairs to be made expands into the “just take it one step at a time” self-encouragement phase, I realize that this car will be fodder for many a COAL update.  This will be the first.

The first thing I tackled was an inoperable power brake booster.  This is not what a Riviera’s booster linkage should look like, so I had to find an original booster and then send it out to be rebuilt.  I decided to use parts that were original to the 1963 models, because a car’s engineers undoubtedly spent more time on these systems than anyone else, past or present, ever will.  As a result, things just seem to go more smoothly and work better when they’re done as the factory intended (in my experience).  The 1963 model has quite a few unique parts; for example, the 1964 models switched to a pedal operated brake light switch (instead of a pressure switch) and the booster gained a check valve mounted on the body rather than a tube on the intake manifold.  Many owners update their ’63s to the later equipment, but I stuck with what the car came with (for now at least).

The Riviera Owner’s Association was very helpful for parts.  I got the booster, a brake pedal, and some other items from one of their members for a very reasonable price.  Even though I’m not a “joiner,” I joined the ROA to support them as thanks for the help I’ve been getting.

The previous owner had bought brake parts from a well-known parts supplier, and they were “almost” parts.  They sort of fit, but they needed some tinkering to make work (and obviously the booster never did – the brake pedal was WAY too high).  The brake line on the newer master cylinder was also on the wrong side (compared to its factory fitment).

This is my rebuilt booster and new master cylinder.  I used Harmon’s Classic Brakes for my booster rebuild, and they have done a nice job for me both times I’ve used their service.  The master cylinder is new, and I used a graphite spray lubricant to keep the rust away (and because it leaves a cast-iron-like finish).

I also got to practice my line bending and flaring skills; this is NiCopp brake line, which is far easier to bend than traditional steel line.

This is how the booster is supposed to mount to the pedal.  I know the firewall insulation is gross, but this isn’t a show car.

The brake pedal is also now at a much more reasonable height (and the power brakes work beautifully).  This is important because the Riviera has surprisingly little front legroom (the factory specifications bear this out), and I’m six feet tall.

Next, I had to move on to the electrical system; almost nothing on the left side of the dashboard worked.  General Motors products of the 1960s, including the Riviera, often used printed circuits for their dashboard lights.  These are not reproduced, and rather than finding a used one, I simply repaired the myriad broken circuits (which are easily found using an ohmmeter) by soldering flexible meter wire over the breaks.  This is a tedious task, but it works perfectly when done correctly.  I used rosin core solder and cleaned up my work with rubbing alcohol afterward.

As a side note, to get the printed circuit out of a ’63 Buick, the entire left side of the dashboard has to be almost completely disassembled.  I was standing on my head for much of the Christmas holiday.

I was rewarded with working dashboard lights and grounds (circuits are also grounded through the printed circuit).  Before this job, the lights were trying to find ground through the gas gauge, which would dip to empty any time the blinkers would flash or the headlights were on.

This is what the panel looks like when everything is assembled.

Before installing all the gauges, however, I had to repair the frozen speedometer.  The plastic gear that runs perpendicular to the speedometer drive was wobbly as if it were bent.  I used a heat gun and a large drift to gently work it back into position; something “popped” back into place and all was well.  Unfortunately, the speedometer cable had long ago snapped (probably when the speedometer froze and somebody later tried to drive the car), and it was rusted into the back of the speedometer.  That took a solid hour of drilling, picking, and cursing to remove.  Then, I was able to find a cable on the ROA Facebook page for $15, which was just as cheap as cutting my own.

My lovely bride cleaned the gauges up, and I reinstalled everything.  The speedometer now works, but it is a little bouncy (not too much).  We’ll see how it works when it’s not 35 degrees outside, and I’ll also clean out the cable sheath when I get around to disconnecting the cable at the transmission.

The horn was also out of order, so I used my Power Probe to isolate the problem to the steering column/wheel (a Power Probe can feed battery voltage to circuits for test purposes).  I removed the steering wheel and horn wire, which uses this contact at the head.  I disassembled it, cleaned it, and did a little soldering to make for a better connection between the ground ring and the wire.

With everything cleaned up, including the ground plates on the steering wheel, the horn now works as a big old Buick’s horn should.  Not pictured (because I forgot to take a picture) is the door switch (to turn on the dome lights) I had to disassemble and clean.  They are a problem on Rivieras, and new ones are not to be easily found.

After assembling the steering wheel, I noticed a clunk when moving the wheel back and forth, and I was able to isolate it to the center link.  These are a Riviera-only part and are not reproduced, so it is now on its way to Rare Parts in California for a rebuild.  God speed, little buddy!  There’s a six-to-eight week turnaround, so it’s a good thing the car needs a lot more work.

Finally (for now), it was impossible to not notice that the Riviera left the contents of its power steering system on the garage floor over the course of a couple weeks.  It appeared to be leaking from the input shaft of the steering box, so my plan was to reseal it.  Unfortunately (a common word with this car), the spool valve must have brought the worm shaft with it at some point when I removed it to replace the o-ring (certainly my fault, I’ve never had one of these apart).  Whatever happened, a few of the 22 ball bearings ended up where they shouldn’t have, and the steering box is now mostly disassembled.  Considering that there is quite a bit of metal in the fluid, I decided to buy a new one (yes, they make new Saginaw steering boxes).  It’s in the mail now, and it was just another expense in a long line of expenses.  Oh well.

*On the other hand, I HATE giving up on something like this, but learning how to rebuild a Saginaw steering gear is something I can learn later when I’m not trying to get an old car on the road.  And I most likely will reseal this one eventually, just to learn how to do it.

Those who say that there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap (in relative terms) car are probably right, but I have fun doing this stuff and it’s unlikely that I’ll change my stripes if I haven’t already.

I need to replace the timing set, repair the exhaust crossover in the intake manifold, change the driveline fluids, get an exhaust system bent up, install new u-joints and a center bearing (a one-year-only part, by the way), and buy a new set of tires.  Oh yeah, a new radiator is also in the mail right now.  The exhaust crossover is first, because it sounds like a valve train noise and I want to rule that out (exhaust leaks often mimic a noisy valve).

Then it might be ready for a few miles down the road, even if it’s not quite ready for a thousand.

Postscript: The steering box came in and I installed it today.

It’s leak free and seems to work correctly (after bleeding out the trapped air in the system), but I won’t be able to really test it until the center link comes back.