Curbside Classic: 1966 Buick Riviera – The Ultimate Bill Mitchell-Mobile?

(first posted 6/9/2013. I still see this Riviera being driven regularly. We saw it at a trail head parking are just the other night. It’s not quite as pristine as it was then)

Before we test our headline hypothesis, let’s clarify what we’re after. The question is not which car was Bill Mitchell’s favorite, or even his best. It’s a stab at determining which car most represents Mitchell’s innate artistic sensibility; the one that might best grace his tombstone: this is Bill Mitchell. And although the 1966 Riviera might not be the obvious answer, or the one that others would pick, he did leave us a hint.

Let’s get one fact out of the way, before others point it out. Bill Mitchell didn’t spend his day designing cars at a drawing table. But unlike his predecessor Harley Earl, Mitchell actually was a designer, and had been a very successful one at GM since 1935. And when he took over as head of GM’s Design Department in December of 1958, he made profound changes in the way things were done, unleashing a dramatic output of designs and creativity.

Unlike Earl, Mitchell was one of the guys, and he knew how to get what he wanted in a more direct manner. And it’s clear that many of the resulting designs more immediately reflect his personal taste. Earl may have picked winners from what was shown him, but Mitchell’s methods were more involved. Might explain why so many GM cars of the early sixties featured red interiors.

This is not a comprehensive review of Mitchell’s vast legacy. But let’s pick just a couple of runners-up to our task. The 1959 Corvette Sting Ray certainly deserves consideration. It reflects Mitchell’s obsession with sharks, and in a highly successful manner. It became the basis for the seminal 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, as well as a distant foreshadowing of its successor, the Mako Shark and the 1968 production Sting Ray. But ultimately, the shark influence was a passing one, and mostly limited to the Corvette.

And the 1963 Riviera is certainly a competitor for the title of Mitchell’s finest work. It represents his true coming-out party, since the 1961-1962 GM cars didn’t quite give him the proper scope for something really bold and totally Mitchell. But the opportunity to create GM’s first personal luxury coupe certainly did, and it is a true winner for its clear and bold lines, classic proportions, and fine details.

The 1963-1965 Riviera has been mentioned as being one of Mitchell’s favorite cars more than once, and no doubt it was. But again, there’s a difference between what one prefers to what most represents one. It’s sometimes hard or even painful to see one’s real self, like looking in the mirror without the rose colored glasses. Not that this applies to the 1966 Riviera (this one with its retractable headlights un-retracted). True, some find it distinctly inferior to the original. Well, sequels to brilliant inspirations are hard. Michelangelo could move unto something quite different after his David. Mitchell didn’t have that luxury. There had to be another Riviera, and another…

And certainly what followed the ’66-’67 became ever less successful. How come? And what’s that got to do with the search for an answer? Freedom; or the lack of it. Mitchell was not one to like constraints to his out-sized exuberance. And within a few years, that’s what came crashing in from all sides: five mile bumpers, downsizing, safety regulations, CAFE. Mitchell’s career with GM ended in 1977, but in some respects it ended well before then. Don’t fence me in.

Before we get to some of those, let’s just say that Mitchell’s interest and inspiration did wander a bit, especially when it came to the Riviera. While the ’66 had the benefit of being a totally new body, and all the possibilities that went with that, the subsequent refreshes got ever less appealing, and less true to the inspiring vision it started with. The ’68s were saddled with the loop bumper that became a corporate mania for a few years beginning in 1968. It seems so decidedly un-Mitchellesque. Were they a warm-up exercise for the five-mile bumpers soon to come?

Let’s just say that the loop bumpers very effectively destroyed the highly sculptural 1966 front end. Love it or not, it was one of the more bold, expressive and unabashed front ends ever, reflecting the Mitchell personality mighty well indeed. And unlike so many of “his” designs, it doesn’t owe as much to classic British cars or fish. I’m not sure who first sketched it, but they must have known he would like it.

Not that it was the only thing to like. Mitchell obviously liked hips. The biggest revolution in American car design of that whole era started with a chaste little bulge on the side of the ’63 Pontiacs, and turned into the Coke-bottle armada of 1965. But the ’66 Riviera synthesizes its sharp edges and crease with the new rotundness in the best way possible.

Yes, the 1967 Eldorado is a study of the more extreme end of one of Mitchell’s two personalities: sharp edged and rounded. And there would be others in that razor-edged vein. But as fascinating and compelling as they can be, it does get a bit old, like sitting in one of those wild artistic chairs one might see at MoMA, but just never gets really comfortable. Or less so, with more seat time.

No, the ’66 Riviera just sits on its generous haunches and everything flows; edges miraculously turn into curves; and vice versa. And planes…look how many there are here. Given that this Riviera and the Eldorado above it share the same basic E-Body shell (along with the ’66 Toronado), it’s truly remarkable how different they are too.

No wonder Mitchell bemoaned the wretched shrunken GM clones in the eighties in his retirement. Not on his watch. No one would mistake a ’66 Riviera for a Buick Special, handsome as it was too.

Let’s talk a bit about the Riviera’s other qualities before we get back to speculations. Obviously, this one’s eyes are a bit droopy, but here’s a video that shows how they’re supposed to work. The Riviera’s E-Body may have been shared with the Toronado and Eldorado, but Buick was having nothing to do with their front wheel drive. The Riviera wisely stayed true to its traditional rwd, which resulted in a dynamically superior vehicle. It’s not like the lack of a central tunnel made any real difference in a four-passenger luxury coupe.

1966 marked the last year for the “nailhead” V8, in 425 cubic inch form (7 L) making 340 (gross) hp. The Buick V8 may have been legendary (full story here), but its odd “half a hemi” pent-roof combustion chamber was ill suited for the coming emission regs. In 1967, Buick went to a completely new engine family. The nailhead’s reign ended up being quite short, a mere fourteen years. Wedge heads were the way to go, for both performance and emissions, as Olds and Chevy showed. Oddballs like the Chrysler poyspheres and the Buick nailhead were quickly shown to be inferior. Not that the 425 inch V8 wasn’t a fine runner. But the 430 inch replacement for 1967 was more powerful and efficient, which helped overcome the couple of hundred pounds the second gen Riviera had put on.

The one place the ’66 Riviera was clearly not superior to its predecessor was in the interior. Starting with this vintage, GM luxury coupes began a long decline in interior quality and ambiance, partly for cost reasons, and also because safety regs and other demands shifted resources. The ’63-’65 Riviera interior was a true gem; the ’66 was more along the lines of rare earth. At least this example has the buckets and console; bench and Astro-seats were now also on tap.

With the optional GS package, which included a heavy duty suspension package, the Riviera could deliver a reasonable facsimile of sporting qualities, given that was not its primary intended role. By 1966, anyone really wanting serious performance and handling knew where to look. The Riviera was realistic about its target buyers’ expectations, and delivered; and then some.

And although the Riviera could never catch its intended target, the Thunderbird, in terms of sales, this second generation did sell a bit better than the first generation, and the sales kept increasing for a couple more years until the wind was knocked out of its sails. Or was it the lack of a stylistic compass?

Let’s get back to testing our hypothesis. For that we need to look at the Riviera in profile. And when I do, and squint a bit, I start to see Bill Mitchell’s soul (looking in its usually-hidden eyes certainly won’t do). Here, the dramatically swept roof line, the long hood, the clean flanks, that crouching posture, the tasteful chrome accents; it just really all comes together here. And not one bit of affected ornamentation, like the ’63’s fake side air inlets.

Purity of line yet dynamic; muscular yet elegant; sporty yet luxurious; flamboyant yet restrained; knife edged yet curvaceous. The ’66 Riviera epitomizes the whole styling trend of that GM era; all the full-size and mid-sized coupes of all the GM brands are distilled here in their most pure essence.

As I said, Mitchell did leave us a clue; a pretty obvious one at that. In 1977, as a parting memorial to his stylistic sensibility and era, he left the Pontiac Phantom as a living remembrance to GM. In his words: “Realizing that with the energy crisis and other considerations, the glamor car would not be around for long. I wanted to leave a memory at General Motors of the kind of cars I love”. And although there are certainly differences, the production car I most see in the Phantom is the 1966 Riviera.

Clearly, the front end of the Phantom reflects the Pontiac style of the Colonnade era, which was also necessitated by aerodynamics and bumper requirements. But when my eyes take in the overall shape and feel of the Phantom’s profile, or follow the lines of its blade fenders and sleek sides to those haunches; well, I’m there, again. The Phantom was a help, but in the end it wasn’t really necessary. We’d gotten to know his sensibilities and preferences pretty well by 1966, actually. The Riviera made that quite obvious.