Curbside Classic: 1964 Buick Riviera – The Peak GM Experience

(first posted 11/28/2013. I have long wanted to shoot a better example than the red one I found back then, as well as perhaps write a totally new tribute to this landmark car. When I saw this gold example posted by Jonathan Erling at the Cohort, I decided it was an improvement, and along with some other updates and revisions, it is now worthy of a rerun. Curiously, in all these years, it’s our sole CC on the ’63-’65 Riviera.)

GM gave us some genuine peak experiences before its long fall. Their post-war summit was the mid sixties; its stock peaked at just over $400 (adjusted) in 1965, and profits crested in 1966 at over $17 billion (adjusted). What about the best year for its cars? That would have to be 1963, with the trio of Corvette Sting Ray, Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera. And which one gets the nod as number one? I keep changing my mind; can’t we just have a little four-way love fest? How about serial monogamy, starting with the Riviera?

These three cars are of course the first all-new products of the Bill Mitchell era at GM, and he made sure it got off to a memorable start. It’s debatable as the whether anything from his reign thereafter was their equal, or better.

The dramatic sweep and purity of the ’63 Riviera’s lines still work their magic. I don’t know of another car that works so well from any angle; it simply doesn’t have a bad line on it.

It was a brilliant synthesis of old and new; the hard edged roof from Hooper’s 1951 Bentley Mark VI with the bulging, organic fender peaks and rear hips from his shark-inspired Corvette.

The front end is brilliant, with its deep contours, the taper of the hood’s leading edge, and the bladed fenders, whose front ends had parking lights that became the covers for the hidden headlights in 1965.

I prefer the ’63-’64 front end, as I love the way those headlights are set into the classic egg crate grille. I can look at this for a long time, and I never get tired of seeing it again. One of the all-time best front ends.

In 1964, as an eleven-year old GM acolyte, I started riding my bike all over Iowa City visiting dealerships, and spent a lot of time at the Chevrolet-Buick-Cadillac store, the biggest dealership in town by a healthy margin. I would sit in devotion for hours in the Riviera, that sacred chapel of St. Mark of Excellence. I had never been so enthralled by an interior, other than the new Sting Ray’s.

And it was the only car worthy of back seat equal time in that beautiful bucket seat. What a revelation, to put in the same seat there as in the front; I’d never seen anyone be so bold before, at least in Detroit. Whichever seat I was in, I held the expensive heavy-stock Book of Buicks, memorizing the sacred texts: “standard engine: Wildcat 465 (named for its torque output; it took me a while to figure that out), 340 horsepower, four-barrel carburetor. Optional: Super Wildcat, 360 horsepower, dual four-barrel carburetors…”

If a genuine potential customer came in and wanted to see under the Riviera’s deeply sculpted hood, I’d bolt out to join the admiration for the big nailhead 401 or 425 sitting there. I didn’t really know or understand the details, but I could tell that the Buick engine’s distinctive vertical valve covers implied something special (the mystery of the nailhead’s unusual valve arrangement revealed here in detail), so unlike any other Detroit V8. Except old Chrysler hemis, that is; you just knew that a Firepower or Firedome was in another league altogether, even if you didn’t know exactly why.

I would have lit votive candles for Bill Mitchell on that dramatic sweep of chrome instrument altar if I thought the salesmen wouldn’t throw me out. In retrospect, I’m surprised they didn’t anyway. Salesmen were more patient with potential far-future customers then. And when I eventually got restless in the showroom, I’d walk back into the service area, roam around under the cars on the lifts, and hang out with the mechanics. Many a summer day in the pre-litigation era well spent.

As a kid, I intuitively knew the Riviera was very special. But I didn’t fully appreciate the impact it had on the enthusiast/sporty buyers, until I came across a 1964 Car and Driver with an in-depth “Research Report” (5,000 mile extended test). The Riviera is compared favorably with the road-worthy classic Bentley Continental, despite the Buick being less than half the price.

The Buick engineers didn’t just slap that gorgeous body on a shortened Electra frame; a fair amount of effort went into chassis tuning and refinement. And C/D spends pages in highly analytical language and charts comparing roll angles, spring rates, camber, weight distribution, etc. of a very diverse group of “competitors”: the Jaguar Mark X, the Corvette, and the Volvo P-1800(!), and ponders their various effects on the Riviera’s handling. Buff mags have changed as much over the decades as the cars.

The distillation of several arcane pages is this: the Riviera isn’t a true sports car, but can hustle, even through curves, as long as the road is smooth: “We sometimes amused ourselves catching TR-4s and big Healeys on fast bends…(but) the absolute worst was experienced when negotiating a winding road with a succession of dips and rises at a fast clip, when the Riviera moved forward in a series of enormous lurches”. That kind of sums up American cars back then, even the very best of them.

The steering was a bit compromised too: “the muscular effort required to turn the car is very low…[but] the amount of twirling that has to be done with the wheel feels excessive…if you try to throw the Riviera into a sudden turn, you may find yourself halfway into it, with a sudden, if momentary, loss of power assist, and lacking the strength to turn the wheel enough to get through in clean style”. This was a problem that plagued many American power steering assists until…well, it seems that by the mid seventies GM had this problem pretty well licked.

The Riviera was GM’s very belated response to that seminal four-passenger personal luxury coupe, the 1958 Thunderbird. That it took so long is inexcusable. The T-Bird had built up a formidable momentum that the Riviera could never properly dent, despite its good looks. Based on some drawings by Ned Nickles for a possible La Salle revival at Cadillac, the future Riviera was rejected by that division and others until Buick adopted it. Buick was in a slump, and the Riviera was seen as the free agent to turn its game around.

Regardless of Car and Driver’s detailed analysis, In my childhood memory, the Riviera was just a rocket, and a damn elegant one. It’s encapsulated in this one crystal clear image of a Riviera on the go: we were on the mountainous western part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1964, jammed into our hot, black Fairlane, headed home from New York. A silver Riviera flashed by us at what seemed twice our speed. I watched in awe and envy, as those distinctive rectangular red taillights faded, then disappeared into the tunnel ahead. All of my combined Riviera fantasies I’d created and stored while sitting in it now whooshed by me. It was like watching a ninth-grade girl you had stared at and fantasized about driving off with an upper classman in his new car. I never sat in the Riviera again.

The Riviera, like so many childhood loves, has eluded me. But thanks for the fantasy-memories of sitting in your lap; I’m glad I was there, and that my brain cells felt it worth keeping them so fresh and clear, spiced by the tang of regret. And you still look so damn beautiful after all these years; how do you do it?


Related reading:

Car and Driver 1964 Riviera Research Report

Buick Nailhead V8: The Possible Source of its Unusual Valve Arrangement