COAL Update: 1963 Buick Riviera – Since When Is A Holiday On The Riviera Dark And Cold?

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:


Update #1