For no tangible reason, I tend to buy cars in the waning months of autumn. It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve signed the title on something, new or old, in any month that wasn’t October, November, or December. In the case of the ’63 Riviera, that’s good, because the holiday bookends of Christmas and (almost) Easter have seen a lot of cold days in the garage for this intrepid amateur mechanic while the roads are too salty and slushy to drive on. In fact, this car has been such a voracious consumer of my time and money that I have to keep reminding myself that it’s my dream car.
It started innocently enough after my last update. My plan was to replace the timing chain and this exhaust crossover plug that is commonly rotted out on Buick Nailheads. Because it’s held on by two bolts and takes less than a minute, I decided to pull a valve cover to examine a moderate valve noise that I assumed was simply a sticky lifter; after all, it’s as clear as the nose on your face that this car has been long neglected.
Oof, there’s quite a bit of silvery sludge in there. Leaded gas wasn’t much good for anything in an old car, let alone the environment and the health of everybody everywhere. The sludge wasn’t, however, the primary concern.
This broken rocker arm was.
As was this one. They destroyed the two intake valve tips with which they interfaced, so the heads needed to come off. It’s likely that those particular valves were stuck in their guides when someone somewhere tried to start the engine after it had been sitting for a long time. The corresponding pushrods were also damaged: one was bent, the other worn to a pencil tip. It’s also possible that sludge buildup blocked the rocker shafts, as Nailheads don’t seem to have an outstanding method of oiling the valve tips (this is only my opinion based on my six months of getting to know this engine).
So the disassembly began. The exhaust manifolds would go to the machine shop for milling, and for the removal of the frozen head riser valve.
The cylinder heads came off, revealing that the engine had some miles on it, but there was nothing out of the ordinary that I could see. My strategy with old cars, after years of driving them and fixing them and dealing with shoddy new parts, is that I try not to fall into the “while I’m in there” trap too often. Many, many mechanics will think, “You’re this far, Aaron. Why not do the rings and bearings?” This engine ran perfectly except for a slight valve noise. Pulling the block and buying new pistons, boring the cylinders, and grinding the crank would add thousands of dollars and dozens of hours to this already ballooning project. For the thousand miles a year I’ll drive this car, this original lower end might last me until I have a still in the backyard to supply myself with fuel. It’s always a judgment call on the part of the owner/mechanic, but I’ve spent a lot of time under the hood and behind the wheels of these cars, and I mostly trust my gut. Granted, it sometimes steers me wrong.
Here are the heads and manifolds in the trunk of the Focus, being dropped off at the machine shop.
Finding a fair amount of sludge in the heads, I decided to pull the oil pan to clean it. It’s a good thing I did, because 60 years worth of stirred-up gunk had solidified in the sump. This is not uncommon in untouched old engines; it’s amazing how hardy they are.
The parts began to pile up in the garage. A local friend of mine picked up the brackets, pulleys, and fan to sandblast and paint chassis black. I had the radiator recored locally after I found that my new aluminum radiator was too wide to fit in the car’s brackets (I didn’t want to cut the car up just to install a radiator).
The trunk became a parts stash in itself, and I think Rock Auto must have had a few dinners out on me.
As parts began to trickle back into the garage from far and wide, I started to do some cleaning and painting on dry days. By the way, 1963 Riviera engines were painted Buick silver, but they weren’t quite THIS silver. I used high heat Rustoleum, which is close enough for me. The original color was apparently slightly more aluminum in appearance.
There were a million small jobs to be done, such as pulling the distributor and cleaning it up (and replacing the advance weight stop that always falls out over time) and cleaning 60 years of gunk from the valve covers.
Jacking up the engine to remove the oil pan alerted me to a potential disaster: The motor mounts had separated. I added new ones to the list, and I replaced the oil pump because that is an easy job while the oil pan is off.
Note: I just revisited the comments about motor mounts in my original article, and totally forgot about some of the advice I had received in the midst of this flurry of activity. The new ones are indeed new, so we’ll see how long they last.
After giving the piston tops a quick scrubbing and cleaning the cylinder walls with transmission fluid, I began assembly.
It’s not surprising to hear, but new timing chains often stretch very quickly; therefore, I bought a very expensive roller chain from TA Performance. It’s almost too nice to hide behind a timing cover. After drilling a broken water pump bolt about 1/32 of an inch off-center, I also decided to buy a new timing cover. They’re aluminum and are considered a wear item on Nailheads because they’re sometimes corroded, which is why they’ve been reproduced. My old one would have PROBABLY worked, but the sealing area around the water pump is already thin and I didn’t want to take a chance.
In case you were interested in what a Nailhead’s combustion chamber looks like, here you go. A basic valve job was performed, in addition to two new valves to replace the ones that were mangled by the broken rocker arms. You can see in this picture why Nailheads had such small valves – there was no room for anything larger!
As an aside, modern composite head gaskets will lower the compression ratio by up to a half point, so the Riviera will probably not be quite as strong as it was when I took it apart. With that being said, new steel shim gaskets are $200 a pair, and I’ve had bad luck with them on my ’53 Buick anyway.
I masked everything off to paint the visible components before assembling anything further.
It’s worth noting that I used new rocker shafts and collected a bunch of used rocker arms so my machinist could reface the best 16 of them. I also used new Melling pushrods.
I try to run engines with the valve covers off for a bit to make sure the valvetrain is getting oil. Please disregard the squeaking; the passenger exhaust pipe was rubbing on the passenger inner fender shield, most likely because the new motor mounts raised the engine just enough to do so. The exhaust is also a cobble job that is going to need replacing sooner than later. Like in a month or two.
Unfortunately, I have to use a chrome air cleaner with a base for a Carter AFB (the airhorn on an AFB is smaller than those on Edelbrocks and Holleys, for example) for now, because original air filters for ’63 Rivieras are not currently available. Anywhere. As you can see, I installed a new alternator, plug wires, and belts.
At the very least, it looks a little nicer under the hood now. I’ll still clean the rest of the engine compartment when it warms up outside, but once the car is sorted, I rarely open the hood aside from doing basic maintenance.
There were of course other things to accomplish. My rebuilt center link returned from Rare Parts in California, ready to install.
It was also a good time to drain the transmission, whose Johnson-era transmission fluid was not looking like transmission fluid at this late date.
I also cleaned the screen and painted up the pan.
Finally being able to move the car again, I turned it around to remove the driveshaft and suck the factory fill
road tar gear oil from the differential. In the foreground, I’m gluing a plastic dash cover to the old dash pad. A “proper” repair would cost over a thousand dollars and nobody reproduces them.
Before sucking the old fluid out of the differential with a drill-powered fluid pump, I pulled out the driveshaft to drop off at the local driveshaft shop (I’m so glad we still have one of those – thank goodness for the trucking industry!). The ’63 Riviera used a one-year-only driveshaft and center bearing; the ’64 model (and every other full-size Buick in ’63) used CV joints. The shop replaced the u-joints (three of them) and installed the center bearing that I had previously purchased online. Replacing the driveshaft on an X-frame Buick on the floor of the garage is not fun; you have to reach way up into the “X” to install the shims for the center bearing. That was filled with leaves, so I was able to do a little gardening in addition to my wrenching.
There are still plenty of things to do. I got new tires the other day, and found that the rear brake shoes were reversed on the right rear wheel; the primary shoe material was mounted on a secondary shoe (and vice versa), so I had to drill a new hole for the parking brake lever pivot and install the shoes in the right places. The previous owner had replaced the shoes, cylinders, and hardware, but I think he was simply getting it to the point where it fundamentally ran and stopped and was probably disgusted with the number of bad and simply wrong parts he bought. I’ve been there.
Even with all that, I have more work to do. The new steering box I bought online is choppy, for lack of a better term (I just took the original to a local shop that specializes in Saginaw steering boxes – I’ve been relying on my local shops for quite a bit of help on this project). The rebuilt brake booster groans when I let off the brake, which might be due to the original Buick check valve (I haven’t researched brake booster noises yet). I think the original ignition coil is starting to die (a gut feeling based on some driveability weirdness). One of the front brake drums is definitely rusty or out of round. There is a rusty lower fender that I have to eventually repair. And of course, I’ll wheel out the paint this summer. And who knows what fresh hell I can expect once I finally start driving this thing regularly.
For now, however, it’s running, driving, and stopping, and that’s what a car is supposed to do.
But it hasn’t been much of what most people would call a vacation.
Previous Riviera content:
Aaron, Great article about a great car from someone with great patience. Best of luck on your continuous journey.
Thanks! I’m sure my old car patience will continue to be tested. I had the car on the expressway yesterday going 70, and it feels like a two-ton tuning fork; the exhaust is touching the body in at least one place.
Thank you for this update. It tells well how many hours are / can be spent on maintaining and trying to improve an old car, very familiar to me.
Love the Riviera.
Thanks Dion, I look forward to your updates, too.
Thanks for the update. Comparted to my glacial pace, you’re racing through the ‘to do list’
I’m just glad it’s mobile (for now)!
You get a big salute from me. It is a good thing you really love this car – had it been something you picked up just because it was cheap and kind of interesting, I suspect you might not have been so motivated to do all this work.
This story reminds me of that old remark about children – there are days when you would kill them if you didn’t love them so much. I kind of think that if the Dirty Dart had started with all of these problems, it would not have lasted long in your fleet. Also, every time I start to get the itch for another old car, a new installment of this series brings me to my senses. 🙂
You’re totally right…there are some days where I have to dig deep to get out to the garage. But as my wife keeps reminding me, a lot of the fun of old car ownership for me is bringing something back from the brink that’s been forgotten. It’s been almost 10 years since I bought the Dart, and I tend to forget how much I had to do to get that one roadworthy, too. It got a new engine after I drove it about 20 miles. 🙂 I think the only original part of the driveline is the transmission – I even converted the driveshaft to a slip-joint type.
With the compression ratio, wasn’t the actual compression ratio of a new engine typically somewhat lower than advertised (even with a head gasket of stock thickness) to account for carbon buildup in the combustion chambers?
Nailhead guys all say (well, there aren’t that many of them, actually) that the advertised compression ratio was always higher than the actual compression ratio. For example, the ’63 401 was rated at 10.25:1 compression, but everything I’ve read has said that the actual compression ratio is never higher than about 9.5:1. Considering that the original head gaskets were .015 inches compressed thickness, and the composite gaskets I used are .037 inches compressed, I’m probably at 9:1 or maybe even a little below that. I didn’t do the calculations or cc the combustion chambers or measure the deck height, so this is all a very, very rough guess.
FWIW, I ran across a posting in a forum somewhere that said that GM’s advertised compression ratios were even less accurate than their gross hp ratings. Actually, this was specifically about SBC’s, but I suspect it applies to the other divisions too.
It wasn’t just GM, it was a pretty common practice for the day. For instance, Ford also overstated the compression on its engines too. The 351C engine had a lower compression ratio than the advertised numbers. This is based engine builders who have precisely measured combustion chamber volume and pistons reliefs, etc.
My understanding is that the idea of advertising a higher static compression ratio was to account for carbon buildup, which was a fact of life for engines of the fifties and sixties and would have the effect of increasing the compression ratio (and raising the octane requirements) as an engine aged.
Most, if not all, advertised compression ratings are simply the straight mechanical ratios, without taking the camshaft profile into consideration. Duration and overlap have a profound effect on compression; it is usually much lower than “advertised”
You’re talking about two different things. Static compression, is what most people discuss when they are talking about engine compression. This is the advertised compression ratio and is purely a mathematical formula based on bore, stroke, piston dome/relief, combustion chamber volume, head gasket thickness and deck clearance.
The dynamic compression ratio is affected by the camshaft. A longer duration camshaft lowers the dynamic compression ratio because the valves are open longer, hence less time for the piston to compress the fuel/air mixture. Camshaft selection and dynamic compression go hand in hand.
Amazing progress, Aaron! Thanks for the update!
You’re welcome! I’ll keep them coming as long as there’s something to talk about.
Great update, you’re very well connected for getting your obscure parts and repairs.
And of course scope creep is your enemy, so if you think the short block is sound it’s worth leaving it alone.
I’ve had to really widen my search for parts; a surprising number of parts are not reproduced for Rivieras or they’re reproduced poorly enough that they’re not worth using. It’s tough to think of the money I’ve spent so far and realize that I HAVEN’T let mission creep set in. This is all basic driveability/reliability stuff so far.
Congratulations for big progress on several fronts–and for the entertaining and informative writeup. I keep reminding myself that the car’s era was *sixty* years ago, not “just” fifty–time flies! It’s nice that your fixes also included the shine-up under the hood, which must be doubly gratifying.
The warmer weather is coming, and I hope for nice spring-summer-fall adventures for you!
Thanks George! I just made an appointment at the exhaust shop to have some better hangers installed; I’m hoping to put off a new system for a while to let my credit cards cool down a bit. Then, it should be about ready to do car stuff.
BTW, weird CC Effect today: a pro-rebuilt 401-out-to-425 engine on Craiglist. Fingers crossed you won’t be needing it whatsoever! https://www.facebook.com/marketplace/item/545173120360249/?ref=browse_tab&referral_code=marketplace_top_picks&referral_story_type=top_picks
Great job. You’re inspiring me to tackle a job I’ve put off for a few years, replacing my rack and pinion on the LeBaron. It’s either that or get used to Armstrong steering for the summer.
Your comment about parts quality is spot on.
Thanks! No sweat on the rack and pinion – I did that job on my dad’s ’88 Mustang GT last summer. A little Michigan rust got in the way, but in the scheme of things, it wasn’t a bad job.
I’m almost 57, and as of yesterday I officially retired from turning wrenches professionally. There are several reasons why, but the most important one is the dismal quality of parts these days, and I’m not going to be liable for them. Nothing worse the doing the same job the second time for free. For now, I will stick with my part time job selling them for a major auto parts retail chain that shall remain nameless. 🙂
Congratulations on retirement!
I love these updates. I should put together a restoration update on my Q45 and 560 SEL. Maybe that will be a project for this summer!
You absolutely should!
Back in those days, ya opened the hood and could “usually” see the ground!! That motor shot looks like the “1980’s!! All one could see was “motor” and hoses.
Oh, there’s plenty of room under this hood…The ’63 Thunderbird, on the other hand…
In home restoration mission creep is sometimes referred to as the mushroom factor, as new problem areas pop up over night.
I think it’s wise to try to resist the urge to completely rebuild the motor, though you are addressing the areas that need to be repaired. I don’t understand why so many guys are so ready to do a complete rebuild, when in reality, you will not be putting many miles on the car in the future. I bought a ’66 Riv that had been only driven locally for decades, with infrequent maintenance, like regular oil changes. I scraped out a coffee can full of gritty sludge due to that treatment!
All the work you’ve done was pretty common on mid 1960’s cars, which were pretty much worn out after 65-70,000 miles. You should end up with a reliable car for all your efforts.
I agree that you have to forge a bond with your car, in order to provide the enthusiasm to keep working on it. A ’63 Riviera in nice shape like this one, is definitely a keeper. I keep my eyes open for a nice first gen Riv, but they have gotten a bit too expensive for a casual affair.
I keep trying to remind myself that I saved a lot of money upfront in buying this mostly solid car, even if I am putting a lot into it, and I’m glad I was able to get one before they got completely out of reach.
Great write-up on my favourite of your cars Aaron. It was lots of work, but the transformation is amazing. While the cosmetic appearance is much better, I am sure the car will run much better as well. I think you made the right call on the lower end of the engine. It’s a gamble, but if there are no signs of excessive wear or impending failure, I would have done the same. It’s very easy too fall down the rabbit hole with old cars and you have to draw the line somewhere. I am also agree with buying some top end specialized parts, in particular when it comes to more obscure engines like the Nailhead. Then again even common engines have parts issues today. I had quality control issues with a timing chain on a SBC of all things lately.
Thanks Vince…The whole parts situation actually makes me sad. I’ve gotten bad parts out of the box for as long as I can remember, but now it seems like a 50% chance that almost anything you buy will have a problem.
Well Aaron, I would normally start out by telling myself not to buy a 1st Gen Riviera. However, that would be disingenuous. My Parklane had been sitting because of a crack exhaust manifold. No way an exhaust manifold comes off an FE engine without massive difficulty such as broken bolts. So that meant removing the head only to find that manifold was cracked completely in half. Ok, the other manifold has always had a small crack so let’s replace, since I have it, so that head comes off. Well, 153,000 miles so might as well rebuild both heads. Then word comes that one of the heads has a crack running from a valve seat to the spark plug hole.
The next sound you heard is that whoosh as a big rabbit hole opened up in the time continuum. Find head. Rebuild engine now since half the weight is off? Readers will have to wait till years end for the currently on going story. At the same time a 3.0 Vulcan needs to be rebuilt due to a rod knock. Have all excellent standard Ford parts just machine the block, or get the great deal NOS block? Another story to wait on. Then last another car of mine, not seen, getting some strut, transmission update, and intake update by me. Another story in the works with tight pictures to leave the car as a mystery.
Obviously anyone one with more than two cars needs their heads examined. Wonder if there are discounts on group counseling sessions for those of us with that affliction? Especially since I am feeling that itch again.
That’s something to look into, a CC Club discount on learning when to say no! What are you thinking of getting now?
Very nice work so far. Very sensible choices so far in my opinion on not digging into the bottom end without a need (like doing a road trip to Mexico or something).
I am another Rock Auto addict. I have far too many of those magnets one gets each time with an order.
Thanks David! I’m sad to say that I’m contributing to the landfill problem by tossing most of those magnets these days.
Wow, that’s a big, puffer-fish-style constellation of repairs, nicely done!
Oh, are new valve kits available for that engine?
Thanks Daniel! I haven’t looked for a new heat riser valves; as soon as I saw that it was frozen, I planned to eliminate it. The under-carburetor exhaust passages still receive enough heat that cold driveability is acceptable (to me, anyway).
After reading the consumer reports post that re-ran yesterday and reading the comments about how if you thought the late 80s defects in cars were a problem then you should see the 70s defects, well, your Riviera is a 60s car so it’s perhaps very possible that everything you’re finding and messing with is just how they were right off the line and absolutely factory correct. 🙂
In all seriousness though, excellent work and progress. I’m impressed. And after scratching Ford Thunderbird off my very long list of “maybe one day, who knows” cars need to now look in the Buick column to do the same to the Riviera entry…You’re saving me money hand over fist, I probably owe you a few beers at Bell’s!
Thanks Jim! It’s always in the back of my mind that I’m a consumer crusader around here, doing the tough research to save my fellow consumers, weeding out the lemons. 🙂
I like this car and the works you’re doing to bring it back to road worthy .
I see oil puddling below the rocker shafts but none coming out the oil weep holes…..
Looking at the munge you scraped out of the oil pan makes me hope you’ll only run it 500 miles before doing a hot oil and filter change .
? Did you flush the torque converter ? .
Any town that has a radiator shop that can re core and a driveline shop oughta have a B-G machine some wheres, they’re fantastic for flushing the T.C. in situ – it acts like a huge centrifugal sediment trap and retains lots of old nasty ATF too .
I hope this runs as well as you hope it will, nail heads were not my cuppa tea but I well remember riding in new ones and they were quiet and powerful .
“Mission Creep” is real, resistance is futile .
I wish I could take nice pictures like this and write clearly , I’m always working on some old jalopy .
Thanks Nate! I was/am keeping an eye on the upper rocker arm weep holes – that’s the design that I question. The rocker shaft is filled with oil from a passage from the front cam bearing, and there are four holes in the bottom of the rocker shaft that lube the rocker arms. Therefore, oil has to find its way to that top passage as the rocker arm is whizzing up and down, and migrate to the end of the rocker arm. I imagine it’s not meant to be a LOT of oil making its way to the end of the arm, because Nailheads didn’t get valve seals until their last production year (1966). Plus, there’s no real gravity to help the oil except for when the rocker arm is opening the valve, so I imagine it takes some time for oil to get to the valve tip. About half the valves were oiling from those ports after about 10 minutes of running, so I oiled the valve tips along the way (and used a little cam lube) to make sure they were OK until oil got everywhere. You can see that there’s a ton of oil coming to the top end, so I imagine that this is just the way it is. Maybe I’m missing something, but I had the entire setup disassembled and double checked everything.
I did not flush the converter – I’m always scared that some errant particle will get into the valve body somehow. 🙂
Re “Mission creep” Someone on V8Buick has the tag “home of the frame off oil change”
Shhhhh…don’t say that! 🙂 I will have to install new body mounts one of these days. Big surprise – they’re original.
““home of the frame off oil change”
I almost blew coffee all over the keyboard when I read this. I am still giggling.