Curbside Classic: 1968 Buick Riviera – Riding The Curve

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(first posted 3/21/2014)     It’s become obvious that I like white cars more than most people, but even I’m getting an excessive share.  A good portion majority of the CCs I’ve captured have been white: the ’66 Newport, the ’84 190E, the ’68 Electra 225 and now, this ’68 Riviera.  The color tends to work well on cars that have sharply defined ridges and upright styling, but tends to wash out the contours of more full-figured models, and the Electra in particular looked bad in white.  This Riviera earns a passing grade, and although different color would be vastly more appealing, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show off this find.

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Paul wrote up this very nice black 1966, a very fine example of its designer’s intentions, but this car is itself quite attractive, even though it helps illustrate the watering down of the original shape.  That is, at least, what I’m led to believe by those who follow GM history closely.  While not as clean and uncluttered as the 1966, the overall look is still reasonably aggressive and I’m sure someone was very happy to be seen behind the wheel forty-six years ago.

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Certainly, the newness of its appearance would’ve been a selling point; this was a very ’70s American design, despite its introduction in 1966 and complete redesign for 1971.

GM really set the pace with the sweeping lines seen on the ’66 Riviera (and other cars). It may be hard to remember, especially as memories of the cynical seventies have ingrained themselves in our collective conscience, but these cars were quite fresh when introduced during a time when straight, long lines were all the rage.  Full of curves and lacking vent windows, there were more uninterrupted surfaces than seen on much of the competition.  It’s been said that Bill Mitchell had a smaller car in mind when his studio penned the second-generation Riv, and certainly, the added width in combination with soft contours gives an unintentional impression of mass for such a purportedly sporty conveyance, but compared to what followed, it’s still clean and dynamic.

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From the looks of the 1968 facelift, the public responded positively to the roundness of second generation redesign, because the addition of the loop bumper only exaggerated its somewhat zaftig shape.  Looking back four decades later, we can see this was a quickly passing craze, milked for all it was worth, with the ’69 and ’71 Chrysler C and B bodies, GM’s ‘68 A-bodies and other examples.  Eventually Lincoln’s neoclassical look stole the show, and highly ornamented rectilinear shapes became all the rage, with GM playing catch-up until the debut of the Seville’s sheer look, which in turn influenced the appearance of the K-car, and the famed Ford Panthers. Interestingly enough, the next time organic styling was in fashion, during the early ’90s, it similarly coincided with a nebulous liberal ethos, only to be rapidly purged in favor of a more clearly defined aesthetic by the end of the decade, just as during the latter half of the ’70s.  That’s reform and reaction for you; go figure.

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It’s said that Buick was always the doctor’s or the banker’s car.  If that’s the case, this Riviera might have belonged to a slightly unscrupulous plastic surgeon, or a broker who’d begun loosening lending criteria. GM was certainly getting loose with their definition of what a Riviera should or shouldn’t be, as this Strato-Bench seat shows.  Earlier analysis at CC contends that Bill Mitchell was fenced in by a number of factors in designing succeeding Rivieras, including the energy crisis, a dwindling budget, and five mph bumpers. I would argue that the need to expand volume is what led to a vulgarization of the original concept, and one can’t ignore the significant influence of buyers who had more of an eye for fads and impressing neighbors than for good taste.

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A styling studio has to take preferences of their audience into consideration, and to put it bluntly, I can think of more inspiring company than a gaggle of upper middle class suburbanites who, after years of hard work, have ignored their own creative impulse in favor of more practical and/or superficial concerns.  Given such a context, Buick fulfilled its design mandate very well, with the Riviera achieving record breaking sales for 1968, marking the car’s second-best year (1969 being most successful).  Regardless of expert opinion, the Riv was always second place in sales next to the Thunderbird, and as that car gained size and ornamentation, so did the Buick.  Mitchell’s studio must ultimately be remembered for coming up with a solution for the Buick more elegant than either of its E-body stablemates or any contemporary rival from Dearborn.

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Looks aside, there were other reasons to go with the Riviera over its corporate siblings or other domestic competitors.  For one thing, the Buick didn’t complicate an already ponderous experience by burdening the front tires with the task of transferring an enormous V8’s torque.  While GM had by this time begun earning a reputation for better handling than Ford at the same time Chryslers were beginning to lose their dynamic edge, Car and Driver’s ample (and highly qualified) praise for the Riv’s dynamic abilities wasn’t shared with the Toronado.  In an August ’66 test, they praised the Buick’s handling and drivetrain, commending its quick steering and stability, while in an April ’68 test, they lambasted the Toronado for its alarming understeer when driven with any verve.  The criticism of the gigantic V8 perched atop the Olds’s front wheels is predictable, but praise given to the Riviera still comes as somewhat of a surprise to those who primarily remember its later incarnations.  For all the effort involved in engineering the Toronado and Eldorado, it was the old cruciform frame which most effectively met the demands serious drivers had of a full-size sport sedan.

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Despite its competence and exclusivity with its unique frame and substantially different body, however, the Riviera failed to close the gap with the Thunderbird, which continued to sell in larger numbers (except in 1969, when Buick moved 3,000 more units).  This remained the case throughout the second-generation Riviera’s model run, even though Ford famously missed the mark with the 1967 redesign.

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For all the theories about the rot setting in at GM beginning around this period, it doesn’t seem that the engineering was bad.  People may have chosen cars like the Thunderbird over the Riviera because of all the glitz and gadgetry, but the Buick had it all over the Ford when it came to performance, being a genuinely athletic large American car.  That’s another important thing to remember, especially as such qualities became increasingly uncommon by the ’70s.

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The final verdict on this car, as always, is up to our readers.  You can choose to dismiss the ’68 Riviera for its poorly judged facelift and underwhelming interior, or you can embrace it for offering a rare, performance-oriented option in the personal luxury class.

Related reading: 1968 Thunderbird and 1972 Riviera