(first posted 10/20/2016) Bill Mitchell, GM’s VP of Design from 1959-1977, had a brilliant career. His 1938 Cadillac 60 Special set a design direction that could be seen for decades. His 1963 Corvette, Riviera and Grand Prix were all superb, and were followed by the dynamic new ’65 large cars. And his formal “sheer look” as seen on the ’76 Seville and ’77 B/C bodies ushered in GM’s downsizing with great taste and success as his parting shots.
But in the early 70s, things were a bit uneven at GM design, and Mitchell seemed to lose the way at times, despite his love for big, brash cars. With the 1971 Buick Riviera, Mitchell tried to recapture a theme that had worked so well on the ’63 Corvette Sting Ray. This time he got stung.
Mitchell’s meteoric rise started in 1935 when was hired at GM at the age of 23, on the basis of a portfolio of racing car sketches he made on the side while working at an ad agency in NY. One year later(!) he was made head of the Cadillac studio. And then was turned loose on a design that Mitchell initially saw as a LaSalle, but became the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special. It pioneered with its “suitcase” fenders, an exceptionally long trunk for the time, and a squared-off formal roof with distinctive windows and a B-Pillar that flowed directly from the roof to the belt line. The 60 Special directly opposed the fastback style that was then so in vogue, and was the first real three-box sedan, a format that came to dominate until more recent years.
Like so many important GM designs, the 60 Special’s inspiration came from Europe, where Harley Earl and Bill Knudsen saw the splendid Panhard 6 CS Panoramic at the 1934 Paris Auto Show, like this one I shot at the Lane Motor Museum this summer.
Its distinctive window shape and trim echoed the arched windows seen on certain luxury train cars, like the Orient Express. The Panhard also had a longer than typical trunk. And of course, it had that unusual B-Pillar that became a key signature piece on the 60 Special and would be recapitulated the ’71 Fleetwood 60 Special.
As the designer of the first modern three-box sedan, it’s hard to know what Mitchell’s feelings were about the big fastbacks that would continue to be in GM’s broad production portfolio until 1952 or so. Undoubtedly, as a lover of racing cars and sports racers, especially all the latest coming from Italy, he must have had a healthy appreciation of them, in the right setting. Whether he had any direct involvement with the 1954 Corvette Corvair concept is unknown. That whole roof line and rear side window are tributes to several Pininfarina cars a few years earlier.
But as Earl’s number two, he undoubtedly was involved, indirectly or directly. One really wonders about the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, as its fastback is clearly a split-windowed preview of things to come. But from the beltline down, its smoothly curved and clean flanks are all classic Earl.
As soon as Earl was gone, Mitchell got to work re-envisioning GM’s showcase car, the Corvette. A key first step in that was the 1959 Sting Ray, his own race car built on the 1957 Corvette SS chassis he bought from GM for a song. It spectacularly previewed the ’63 Sting Ray, but no fastback just yet, although its headrest did end in a point near the end of its rear deck.
Mitchell and Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had an epic name-calling spat over the split on the ’63 Sting Ray’s window, which to Mitchell was a crucial extension of the vestigial dorsal fin running the length of the Corvette, starting with its hood bulge and running unbroken to the tip of its tail.
Mitchell’s temper was legendary, and it carried the day, or the year, actually, as the split was gone by 1964. Bill Mitchell made it very clear to his staff that designing the Corvette was reserved for himself. Well of course he had help, especially so in the form of Larry Shinoda in translating the smaller fastback of the 1957 Corvette Q concept into the definitive form. And of course, it’s very familiar.
A bit too much so, when it reappeared eight years later on the Riviera. But we’re getting just a bit ahead of ourselves. Or behind.
1963 also saw the birth of another classic Mitchell-mobile, perhaps his favorite. It was Mitchell’s response to the success of the four-seat Thunderbird, and he gave his designers these directions: “Let’s make it look like a Ferrari-Rolls-Royce”. Ed Nickels synthesized that seemingly incongruous idea on his first sketch, and the final result would come to define the other half of Mitchell’s two favorite (and oft-repeated) design themes: razor-edged formal elegance and curvaceous, organic fast-backy. Initially, the two mostly kept their distance. But as GM moved into the new decade of in the 70s, that began to change. Larger, softer and bulging themes began to predominate.
The new 1966 Riviera clearly exhibited signs of that direction, but in a quite successful way. Its sides were now devoid of the creases, trim and fake air intake of its predecessor, allowing its more fluid lines to predominate, accentuated by the more delicate bright trim on its peripheries. It was a splendid representation of Mitchell’s developing style, perhaps the most faithful one ever.
The new front end and other changes to the ’68 were an unfortunate development, as this was anything but an organic aspect of the original design. The Toronado, which shared much of its body with the Riviera, also had a similarly-painful loop-bumperectomy.
The 1970 version had a most unfortunate chrome spear on its side, as well as other “Broughamizations” that seemed designed to take it in the direction of the yet-to-come 1971 Eldorado. Fortunately, a GS version without that, and without a vinyl top still had some of the old magic. But it was fading fast. As were its sales, which were off some 30% from 1969.
Buick and Mitchell clearly hoped to recapture some of the Riviera’s magic in 1971. But it turned out to be a challenging task.
Like with the origin myths of so many GM cars, it’s a bit difficult to pin down exactly what led to the production 1971 boat tail Riviera. What we can piece together as best as possible is this: Bill Mitchell wanted to see something drastically new for the ’71. Whether he gave some explicit directions is not known, but it’s certainly most likely that he pointed his designers in a direction that evoked some of the classic boat tail speedsters of the 1930s, like this 1936 Amilcar Type G36.
According to several sources, Don DaHarsh came up with a 3/8 scale model in the secret back-room Studio X that Mitchell really took a shine too, as it clearly evoked some of these classic French cars along with a Sting Ray fastback. There are no known images of that model, but there is this sketch by GM designer John Houlihan made in 2000 from memory.
The next step was the transformation into a more workable design by the Buick Advanced Studio, led by Jerry Hirshberg. John Houlihan drew many of the key renderings that were considered; these are clearly the ones that reflect the final design direction.
These models also reflect some of the various directions and ideas being considered.
What was clear in Mitchell’s mind about this whole process was that the Riviera (and presumably the Toronado and Eldorado) were going to have their own new dedicated E Body again for 1971, and that it would be smaller, perhaps closer to the A-Special body of the Grand Prix. But it was not to be.
A unique new E body was deemed too expensive for GM to approve, during a time it was also launching a number of other new platforms, like the Vega. So the order came down that the ’71 E Body would share much of its basic middle body section with the also new B-Bodies. This also meant that the dramatic deeply-vee’d windshield and other key proportions and details had to all be watered down, to create essentially a fastback Buick Centurion.
The result is still a dramatic car, especially from today’s perspective. It’s perhaps the ultimate SUV antithesis, especially hunkered down low like this one. Who would dare criticize this, compared to all the bland, tall boxes?
From certain angles, most of all this one, it really looks ungainly. Like a giant frog, with its bulging hips and thighs. There’s just something about the combination of the two key styling elements, the sweep-spear side trim (not on this car) and the tapering fastback, that creates some challenging views from certain angles. This angle is really hard to take.
Although the front end may have come out a bit flatter than originally conceived, I do find it to be a very handsome face nevertheless. It just screams “Bill Mitchell era”, and in the best way possible. It looks most like the ’71 Cadillac, which is a bit ironic, since the first ’63 Riviera was intended to be a Cadillac/LaSalle. It evokes a number of GM designs during the golden era, and as much as anything about this car, it represents a swan song: by 1973, five mph bumpers ruined it forever, and that whole era of beautiful faces. This face is saying: take a good look, because you’ll never see anything quite like it again. Except in 1972.
This ’72 shows the sweep-spear side trim, that also was the dividing line for two-tone paint jobs. It also has the very popular Buick road wheels.
I first shot our featured car a year ago, but it was backed against the garage, making a proper shoot impossible. I’ve been waiting for it to re-appear ever since. It was worth the wait.
It’s now wearing 18″ steelies, with a little hubcap. I much prefer this over the ubiquitous road wheels or aftermarket “mags”. It’s understated, and draws attention to the car rather than a flashy wheel. And this car does have plenty to catch the eyes.
There’s not a boring angle to be found. It may be flawed, and not up to fulfilling its designers’ original intent, but it’s sculpture on wheels. And with the passing of time, it gets no easier to believe that this was really a mass-market car. Only GM would have had the guts to try this. And be willing to fail. Which they rather did.
Its mission was to bring new life to the Riviera, which was fading fast in 1970, when sales fell from 1969’s 53k to 37k. But the ’71 failed to deliver, and sales dropped further to 34k, and stayed there for the three years of the boat tail’s life. Meanwhile, Ford’s new 1972 “Fat Bird”, which was a Mark IV in slightly cheaper duds, took off on its new wings.
The ’72 sold 58k times; the ’73 upped that to 87k. And the Riviera’s stablemate Toronado also took off with its new but conservative blocky lines: after a slow start in ’71, it sold 49k times in ’72, and 56k units in 1973. Now that must have hurt.
In desperation, the Riviera was rushed in for major surgery, but the result was anything but a success. Wayne Kady’s bustleback butt, a preview of things to come, was rejected by the market, and sales imploded, to a mere 20k. This must have been a very painful thing to watch unfold for Bill Mitchell. The ’63 Riviera was his masterpiece, and now it was a laughingstock.
The very prominent prow and vee’d hood bulge hint at what a corresponding V-shaped windshield might have looked like. Under that expanse of hood sat Buick’s biggest and best 455 cubic inch V8, rated at 315 hp (gross).; 330 hp for the GS version, which also came with a performance rear axle ratio, and up-rated suspension.
Bucket seats and console were optional, as they had been for several years. Frankly, the interior is hard to distinguish from the Centurion, with which it shares many/most of its pieces. Best to stick to the outside.
The rear louvers were part of GM’s ill-fated approach for exhausting cabin air. There were issues, and they were gone on all GM cars in 1972.
Mitchell’s pointy end wasn’t just seen on the Riviera either; the 1973 Pontiac Grand Am’s front end has a lot of similarity to the Riviera’s tail. It too bombed out. Americans are a bit picky and conservative, and these were both just too far out; in front or back.
As much as Bill Mitchell was a “big car” guy, and made no bones about it, GM’s designs during the height of the big car era were just not really all that impressive, and several bombed out. The reality was that Ford’s Mark-inspired blocky and conservative style with blunt upright front ends and formal roofs resonated with Americans considerably better than the sweeping, bulgy-hipped big GM cars that first appeared in 1971. Americans preferred big fat fake tire bulges on their car’s butts rather than pointy little…ones.
So for his next act, Mitchell went the Ford route, and showed them how to really do it right. And the same look went on millions of full-size and intermediate and compact GM cars starting in 1977.
In fact, it so infected GM that it practically killed them. Bill Mitchell left quite a legacy, for better or for worse.
Actually, boxy cars weren’t really what Mitchell wanted to leave behind as his legacy, so he built a car that was specifically designed for that purpose: the 1977 Pontiac Phantom. He knew it was the (temporary) end of the road for his kind of car at the time: “Realizing that with the energy crisis and other considerations, the glamour car would not be around for long. I wanted to leave a memory at General Motors of the kind of cars I love”. It still had a pointy beak, but not a pointy butt. He’d gotten over that.
Back in 1971, Mitchell did have a customized Riviera built for himself, the Silver Arrow. The roof is lowered, presumably in an effort to recapture some of the greater dynamic qualities of what had been the original intent. Whether it really works much better is an open question, but between it and the Silver Arrow, there’s little doubt as to what Mitchell’s real preferences were in his later years.
I rather prefer the younger version of Bill Mitchell.
If he was alive today, he probably won’t believe how homogeneous the design philosophy gets these days ( probably except Chrysler/Dodge-Jeep studios ). It’s necessary to be conservative for survival, but when too many companies stay conservative, it’s really bad for the trend. And there is no space for younger students to practice personal car as a design in the university, every car has a function, thanks to the lean design/manufacturing philosophy. Personal car is a glimpse of design and technology for the future, but the only type on market today is Tesla 4dr. ( which was pioneered by Olds Aurora as a 4dr personal car )
Also, groupthink is really bad for the car companies. It’s probably how they made an ’86 Eldorado II: Cadillac ELR, Lincoln Versailles II: Gen I Lincoln MKZ, Cadillac Cimarron II: ATS. It went wrong right from the design studio. It takes an individual to come up with some good designs, and those failed attempts can be forgotten. ( Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell all did it. Chuck Jordan is probably the last designer of such. ) However, some good designs still surface, like Buick LaCrosse, I see ’91-’96 Park Avenue from it.
If he was alive today, he probably won’t believe how homogeneous the design philosophy gets these days
There was never a more homogenous period than the 80s at GM, when every sedan looked the same, all derivatives of the design the ’76 Seville ushered in.
Oh, the ’80s was really bad in GM and Chrysler though.
It’s a wild piece of styling to be admired for its audacity, even if you don’t like it. To me the way the waistline drops in some views is almost like that on the Citroen SM (http://i0.wp.com/www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/CC-304-057-1200.jpg) though the similarity ends there. Mitchell’s influence obviously rubbed off at Vauxhall though as the front of the 1972 FE range (a car which I remember well from my teenage years) looked somewhat similar, if perhaps a little tamed http://files.uk2sitebuilder.com/uk2group53061/image/25.vauxhallventorafeenginebaypresspicture02.72.jpg
That one’s a nice shade of green inside and out!
It is strange to think that only a year after Woodstock and the swinging sixties, American tastes would suddenly judge a shape like this just too far out. Yet Lincoln was out there proving the more formal the better. At the time there must have really been a sense that the 60s had gone too far. It is hard to picture Nixon in this car. Maybe an aging Hugh Hefner, but I guess there weren’t enough of him to make the car a success. Most people were really just looking at the pictures.
Keep in mind that by 1969 there was a huge backlash to the Sixties developing. Think Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’, all those people who didn’t protest and hated the protesters with a passion. Yeah, McGovern kept the left going three years later, and he won . . . . . . two states?
Don’t blame me. . . I’m from Massachusetts!
I can see a young Donald Trump buying one.
Both Bill Clinton and George W Bush had Gremlins. Clinton while campaigning for McGovern in 72 and GWB when he got the 70s DUI that became public right before the election in 2000.
There was a huge swing in popular design starting in the mid-late 60s, that involved architecture, interior design, fashion and car design. It wasn’t universal, as those designers/architects committed to high-brow design kept on their path. But what brought us shag carpeting, dark paneled walls, and the Great Brougham Epoch with cars, starting with the ’65 LTD, was in essence a counter-revolution, and one that also reflected the coming culture wars.
The more liberal-minded buyers of high end cars were already snapping up Volvos, Saabs, Mercedes, BMWs, VW, and Toyotas.
Cars like this Riviera just didn’t fit in culturally anymore, in the Brougham Epoch and Mercedes Mania.
“…there was a huge backlash…”
True, but then the “protesters” grew up and rejected Broughams, and snapped up Camrys/Accords. Leading to Lexus’ success.
This car still would have failed to hit its target it if had debuted in the fall of 1967. Note that, for the 1967 model year, the much more expensive, but also more formal, Cadillac Eldorado came perilously close to matching the fastback Oldsmobile Toronado in sales.
Wonder how it would have done if this had been the original Riviera in 1963? With the split window Corvette the same year, it might have seemed the next big thing in style.
Like Paul mentioned, Rivieras started going downhill after ’67, but Rivs usually had some charm at least. I’m not much of a fan of the Boattail (although a lot of Buick guys are), but this one somehow looks good dropped to the ground with those steelies. Normally the whole “bagged” look makes me throw up in my mouth a bit, but it works on this one. Nice car and nice analysis.
Agreed – I never liked the Boattail much, but the drop and wheels make this one look really good.
I like the boat tail Riviera, but in the same way that I like Victorian architecture: Too busy for my personal tastes, but I admire its artistic boldness and the way it’s unlike anything else. Oddly, one of my favorite aspects of the design are the pouncing hips, though I completely understand your view that the hips/thighs make the car appear ungainly.
One question I’ve always struggled with regarding the boat tails, is whether I prefer the redesigned 1973 rear end – or not. It’s a cleaner result, eliminating the lump of chrome in the center of the rear bumper that seems a bit unsettling. On the other hand, the sharp pointed rear and the offset license plate are the car’s most distinguishing features, and I sort of miss the design without them. Overall, I think if the ’71 had the toned-down rear like the ’73, then sales might have been somewhat better, but that’s pure speculation… and besides, it wouldn’t be quite as memorable 45 years later!
Victorian architecture is a great analogy! Over-the-top in so many ways, but it certainly draws your eye.
I think the big miss for this car was that it greatly overshot the relatively conservative tastes of its target audience. Even if the look had been applied to a smaller chassis, it still would have been extreme for the Doctor/Lawyer/Professional crowd who bought this type of car. The Cutlass Supreme or Grand Prix were tamer and better looking products on a mid-size chassis, so GM already had that market covered. I don’t think a smaller pointy-back Buick would have sold much better than the big one did.
Probably not, although I think one of the characteristics Mitchell got from working for Harley Earl for so many years was a deep-seated confidence in his organization’s ability to set the style rather than follow it. Everything you say about the riskiness for the audience was also said the Sixty Special before it went on sale, so Mitchell would probably have dismissed those arguments out of hand.
I don’t know that conservative is the right word for the target audience of high-end personal luxury cars at that point. The cars that were successful in that class were not conservative — the tastemaker, of course, had been the four-seat Thunderbird, which was gaudy as hell. (The late ’60s Thunderbird started losing ground because the designers were scrabbling around for a theme, but that’s another matter.)
The key factor is that buyers weren’t looking for what the buff books would have considered sporty; they wanted something that looked “different,” but ostentatious and expensive-looking and that wasn’t a boring sedan. Sporty cars were for teenagers. The Mark III was more on target — no pretense of being sporty, but with all kinds of extravagant luxury cues to make the neighbor kid say, “Gee, mister, is that a Rolls-Royce?”
I agree “conservative” is not the best word choice to describe this audience at the time. These buyers DID want to make a statement. But I do think these customers were looking for a degree of conformity, wanting to be at the flashy end of the spectrum without going too far. The ’58 T-Bird looked like a more rakish version of the prevalent design themes of the era, as did the Sixty Special. Being edgy without being extreme was the right zone for these buyers. The boat-tail went a step too far. Lincoln nailed it with the Mark.
I think “conservative ” is the right word. Liberl-minded buyers were already buying imports. This Riviera didn’t fit into the brougham epoch.
Well said. These cars didn’t look that big back then. The mom of a kid who road the school bus with me had one. Silver with a black vinyl roof. She would drop him off every morning at the stop and what a statement that car made. Like rolling art. She was a smoker and usually had one going pulling up to the stop. One of those elegant smokers like you saw in the movies, in fact she looked like a movie star. The car fit her to a T.
I can’t help thinking that the Phantom is probably closer to how the designers originally envisioned the ’71 Riviera, although the nose is closer to the original Grand Am.
A lot of the impetus for the commonality with the B-body Centurion/Wildcat came from Buick general manager Lee Mays, I think more than the corporation. Mays had been Chevrolet sales chief until getting into it too many times with John DeLorean when he arrived in ’69, so Mays was promoted to running Buick instead. Mays loathed the boattail design and was consequently loath to spend too much of his tooling budget on it.
Mitchell seemed to do two cars well: small sports cars and big elegant cars. The 71 Riviera shows how things went wrong when he tried to translate the design language of one to the other. Whatever else it might be, the boattail is not elegant.
This car could be Mitchell’s 58 Buick – just too much of everything. But unlike Harley Earl, Mitchell came back from the brink with several more successful designs.
I disagree on the wheels, they’re hideous, the stock ones are much nicer.
Count me as an unabashed fan of the boattail Riviera. I usually prefer a more formal design language, but I love how this car is ready to leap. Paul’s comment that it seems like a concept car is spot-on: it’s hard to believe–but utterly wonderful–that GM built this vehicle.
Too bad the interiors were infected with 1970s plasticitis.
we used to joke as kids that you couldn’t tell if the ’71 riviera was coming or going because the tail looked like it should be on the front of the car.
i spent a lot of time in the grand am as a kid. the beak was rubber. you could kick it in and pop it out. endlessly amusing. the interior was great, a very airy greenhouse. the downfall was the rust. it started rusting around the window trim almost from day one.
A man across the street for where I grew up had a ’72 Riv that he bought new. It was Emerald Green. I was 11 in the fall of ’71 when it showed up in his driveway and thought, ‘What is THAT!?!?’
I’ve loved the looks of the Boat-Tail Riviera ever since. A far out design that looked like an old C2 ‘vette in the back and a ’72 Impala in the front, sure… but I still liked it and still do.
And back in the day, amongst the kids, there was the rumor that, “They had a lot of Corvette back windows left over”, thus the styling of the car.
Ludicrous, of course, but a good indication back then of who actually knew about cars, and who were just shooting their mouths off.
Paul, you are thorough as usual. When I saw the straight on rear photo, several late ’60s Pontiacs jumped out at me in the taillight design and positioning, and the overall profile is definitely Bunkie Beak. And, a Pontiac reference you did make.
I actually like this car just because it is dramatically different, and painted and trimmed more to my taste it would look better to a broader audience. The custom wheels on this are awful, but amazingly, for young people that don’t know this car, you could remove a few badges and many could be convinced this is a modern George Barris inspired creation for a Batman movie. Maybe a villan’s car, or even the modern Batmobile.
What happens when you meld the front of a late ’60 Pontiac with the rear……..
I think that the failure of this car in the market place was predictable, but GM failed to see it. In 1967-68, GM built some very attractive fastback coupes on their B body models. The market didn’t want full sized fastbacks. A few years later they tried it again with the Riviera in 71. A soft market for fastbacks, which is really what the 71 Riviera is, plus very bold styling, plus new competition in the form of the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevy Monte Carlo, sealed the fate of the boat tailed Riviera.
“The market didn’t want full sized fastbacks”: On the contrary, I recall the 1967-68 Chevy/Pontiac/Olds/Buick two-door hardtops being rather popular at the time.
I located a few sources showing substantial increases for 1968 versus 1967 large GM fastback hardtop coupes.
For example, 77,932 Pontiac Catalina hardtop coupes were produced for 1967, versus 92,217 for 1968 (www.oldride.com/library/pontiac.html). Likewise, 36,426 Buick LeSabre hardtop coupes (total of base and custom series) were produced for 1967, versus 44,518 for 1968 (www.teambuick.com/reference/years/67.php, http://www.teambuick.com/reference/years/68.php).
These numbers suggest that despite the switch to notchback coupes for 1969-70, GM had no trouble selling the big fastbacks.
When comparing sales figures for 1967 to 1968, remember that 1967 was an off year, while sales for the industry as a whole came roaring back for 1968. Also remember that Ford was closed for a few weeks by a company-wide UAW strike early in the 1968 model year, which probably helped GM and Chrysler.
Thanks, I was unaware of that.
I did enjoy the few months I had driving my grandparents’ former car, a ’67 Bonneville coupe, until wrecking it in a highway hydroplaning chain-reaction crash when I was 17 (hooray, bias-ply tires and drum brakes all around!). It was still drivable but totaled, and ended up being donated to a vo-tech school body repair class.
Mr. Niedermeyer presents an insightful and (mostly) accurate chronicle of Bill Mitchell’s design involvement at GM Styling (as it was known then) and in particular Buick Riviera. Regarding the “Boattail” design, Mr. Niedermeyer characterization of the design as “flawed”, “ungainly” or “bulging” has been leveled by others but he has a point. This has nothing to do with Mitchell or the designers involved in the execution. As is pointed out in the article, the A/E package was changed to the B package by Buick Division management. This also meant the glass (except for the backlight) had to be used. Accordingly, the sleek, trim shark became an Orca if not a whale. The A pillar had to move outboard several inches and the deep V windshield had to be flattened. The seating package dictated the design grew wider, higher and longer. This was an overwhelming design challenge forced by corporate management. It is a tribute to Hirshberg and the designers on his team that the design looks as good as it does.
Thanks for stopping by and adding your additional insights (and wonderful sketches, which I found at dean’sgarage.com and other sites). It must have been painful to see a coherent design be adulterated by corporate edict, but then that’s probably just the reality of the job.
I’d be very happy with a 1970 Riviera with the side spear and all.
I too have always liked the look of the ’71/’73 Riviera and eventually bought a ’72 for my collection. I drove the car very little and sold it after just a few years. It was not as pleasant to drive as another Buick of the era I had – a similar ’72 LeSabre. The Riv was hard to see out of, of course to the rear but also the hood was very long. Mine had a bench seat and the interior felt, as indicated by others, cheap like the LeSabre and certainly nothing special.
The subject car is attractive and the ’70s green on green is appealing to these eyes. It also is one of the few boattails to be seen without some variation of the vinyl roof (mine had a 1/2 vinyl rear). That vinyl application seems to alter the flow of the design. To me it does so in a negative way but after reading comments here maybe the styling themes on the competing T-Bird/Lincoln made Rivieras with contrasting vinyl roofs more palatable to customers back then.
The subject car looks sinister.
The 1963 Riviera was an absolute classic, one of the best designs Bill Mitchell ever conceived, but the ’71 was an absolute abomination. The ’63 was beautifully understated, but the ’71 in my opinion always looked like a ’63 Corvette that had been restyled by Salvador Dali-totally overwrought and ugly.
I actually like the looks of the boat tail Riviera, at least it doesn’t look like one of the cookie cutter blandmobiles we have today. A friend of mine had one of these back in the early eighties that he inherited from his mother. She had not driven the car very much so, for a 10 year old car, it was still in fantastic condition. The Riv was a great road car, if somewhat thirsty. We took the beast on several road trips and it was very comfortable, floating down the road. I have to add that I don’t care for the aftermarket wheels on the featured car, to me they just look wrong, of course YMMV.
In the 90’s my sisters boyfriend had a boat tailed Riv. Apparently when he bought it the car came pre-equipped with a small bag of coke under the seat.
I really like these cars, although they fall into the “I appreciate that these exist but wouldn’t want them” category. I even like the “ungainly hips” photo, where else are you going to get a view like that?
I don’t care if some call it ‘abomination’, I love these Riv’s! And 73 is my favorite, more substantial looking. I know “car guys” are supposed to hate ’73 bumpers, but I don’t care.
But then again, I also love the “plain jane” 70 Monte Carlo.
What a difference a year makes. The Riv has been lowered, polished and received new shoes. Love the steelies. Usually when a car sits outside it heads south pretty quickly.
The paint looks good and so does the interior. I bet it runs great. That car is super desirable.
My God that’s one evil looking machine!
The rear window looks like it was stolen from the 1964-1966 Plymouth Barracuda.
Is there a name or brand for this kind of center-only steelie cap?
Uh, not that I want them…for my own car…or anything crazy like that.
Try Wheel Vintiques, I think that’s what the roadkill guys used on their 66 Buick
“Frankly, the interior is hard to distinguish from the Centurion, with which it shares many/most of its pieces. Best to stick to the outside.”
I’m not as down on GM interiors of this period as some, and Buick tended to have among the better ones, along with Oldsmobile – especially the higher end cars.
The Centurion had a minor upgrade of the LeSabre interior, mostly involving the upper door card and upgraded seats with front armrest.
This Riviera sports a lot of parts from the top-line Electra 225 Custom Limited coupe, in particular the door cards. That’s a carpeted lower section with a full length soft top armrest that includes top rest mounted power window controls, set in a heavy chrome plated metal bezel. The upper card is unique to the Riviera using a decent quality fake wood material that has held up well for 47 years. The surface behind the wood look trim is soft vinyl that has also held up very well. The door pull may be straight from the Electra. The standard seats are also a take on the Electra 225 Custom Limited design.
The ’71 Electra 225, Electra 225 Custom and Electra 225 Custom Limited interiors from the brochure…..
I like the Boattail Riviera, a lot. While I understand that some people can look at the design and see a complete mishmash of various themes that don’t gel together, I for one don’t mind it, because unlike other designs, there does seem to be some sort of uniformity to the Riviera that makes it more successful. I also think that when you compare it to it’s corporate siblings the Eldorado and Toronado, the Riviera wins out, as at least it doesn’t seem like a copy paste of the other designs, more forgettable, designs.
This makes me wonder, we all know how certain model names (particularly from GM) drum up bad unflattering memories, and end up renamed in a cynical move so nobody associates the replacement with the past. Well maybe there’s a case to be made here, when the first is so good that no matter how it’s successors are executed the original will always be used as an impossibly long measuring stick. The 66 Riviera is probably the better example in this instance, since it truly is hard to find a bad line or angle on it (IMO 66 > 63), but it’s hard for me to say a bad thing about the boat tail either, the only criticism I can muster is that it’s incongruous with the badge, and that’s my point. If there wasn’t a 63 or 66 to judge it from I suspect criticism wouldn’t be quite as harsh.
The result is still a dramatic car, especially from today’s perspective. It’s perhaps the ultimate SUV antithesis, especially hunkered down low like this one. Who would dare criticize this, compared to all the bland, tall boxes?
From certain angles, most of all this one, it really looks ungainly.
While I won’t dispute the boattail Riviera being angle dependent, I can’t help but point out that this is the same problem with the vast majority of modern designs as well, due in no small part to those traits.
Excellent job here ! The 63-65 and the 66 Rivieras, my favorite US car designs. Unfortunately, not present at the US car show I visited last month. But there was an Electra 225 and this Wildcat.
I love that car. From the outside, equipped exactly as I’d order it.
Love these, I saw this one for sale a few years back and saved a picture. Enjoy…
And with the proper wheels, too!
Ugh, gross. The boattail is an anachronism, the taillamp and rear bumper concavity makes the car look like it got rear ended (I’m not sure this styling gimmick ever works; it gave the same smashed-in appearance on the ’68 Skylark, for example). And call me weird, but the Riv’s front end reminds me of underpants, and not a sexy kind. It looks saggy and thrown-together.
I do wonder if the Riviera and Corvette backglass interchange; it looks like they almost might.
The Riviera might be my favorite nameplate of all time- my dad owned an ’85, and as a kid I loved the boat-tails (in the early 80s they seemed insanely large and outrageous.)
Generations, ranked (only by my opinion:)
I did own a used 1971. I really liked the automatic climate control. It had a vinyl roof which I though was horrid, but thats they way it was.
The flow through ventilation used the rear deck vents on the 1971 models (all full size GM), but for the 1972 model year the vents were moved to the B (coupe) or C (sedan) lower pillars.
I think the Riviera sales were weak for the 1971 through 1976 model years because of style and size. The 63 Riviera was probably the template for what the Riviera buyer wanted. The 1979 Riviera was much like the 63 for style, and it sold well through the 1985 model year. Then the 86 model bombed. While the 1995 model did well on an extended model year, it was the end. Large Luxury Coupes seem to be out of style.
I think the two clay models indicate that the boat-tail Riviera was intended to be in the same vein as the second-generation Camaro/Firebird F-Body, only even more fluid and organic, with reference to the C2 or Bugatti rear end.
In my mind, the F-Body was GM’s terrible success of the 1970s: the desire to follow its lead set up the big, space-inefficient “colonnade” series, and to a lesser extent the B-C cars such as the Centurion itself. So many of those cars seem to have little curves or lines that look like they’re supposed to inspire you to think, “ah, just like the Camaro I wanted!”
I’m not sure whether the problem for the boat-tail Riviera is mainly a problem of overall size, or more one of relative scale (“you can have a special trunk, but not a special windshield or hood”). Honestly, I’d love to have one of these just to see what it’s like, at least as much as anything else the Big 3 (or AMC) made in 1971.
As PN mentions in the article, GM’s styling problem of the 70s (and 80s) wasn’t a lack of good ideas, it was doing a few chosen ideas (like the 1975 Seville) to death. They shoulda unleashed the talent they had…
Thanks for an interesting analysis that had me convinced that the feature car was not the best Riviera.
All I have to do now is pick a 63 or 66 Riviera as my favourite GM product, save up, and buy one!
I think for the sixties, the 63 through the 67 Riviera’s are best, with the early models better than the last. Then I think the 79 through 85 model years are also good. The 95 models are a mixed bag of being too big, with ugly interior plastics, but an interesting body style.
That is the best looking Riviera of them all. Its perfect. The 75-76 looks awful in comparison.
I think that this gen of Riviera is a great design, and the sculpted sides (also see the Monte Carlos from 1973 to 1980) are probably meant to invoke the fenders of cars in the 30’s. The issue with the ’71 Riv is that it’s just too big a car to really rock the fastback look for it to look graceful…..Paul had an article not too long ago that details the pitfalls of a fastback on a full size car, and it almost never works, because the fastback–when stretched–just never looks pleasing to the eye, whereas on a smaller car, it works, because the fastback slope is much more gentle. One could Photoshop the ’71 Riv to be three quarters of the size (as a two seater), and it would be a tremendous design. I like how the front suggests the car is leaning forward; in motion and at fast speeds, even when parked. The back of the car is also very Pontiac looking; I was thiking that before Paul had mentioned that the back of it looks a lot like the front of a Grand Am.
Despite GM’s insistence on sharing architecture with the B/C body cars, this gen Riviera is not a GM car, it’s a Bill Mitchell car. Its success can’t be measured by its sales but by its presence and by the reaction it continues to evoke 45-years later. IMO, the 71-72 Riviera is a classic in its own right, truly a car for someone who wants to make a bold statement. Only Mitchell could have got this one out the factory door and where else could you have purchased so much beautifully sculpted sheet metal for so (relatively) little money at the time?
All great points! To add to what you’re saying, I think that it’s much better to be a polarizing flavour, than to be vanilla. Give me anything BUT vanilla. Or another old saying goes “it’s better to be shot for being a wolf than for being a sheep”. For example, I like many Virgil Exner designs, but some either fall short of the mark, or are plain weird, but at least he’s left some sort of mark; something that you can distinctively say that was his own thing.
Exactly. One thing about the car designs Mitchell influenced is that they almost always had superb proportions, including the boat tail Riviera (IMO). GM’s best stylists knew how to properly tailor the looks of a car and it is testament to their talent that so many of their designs are highly sought-after as collector cars now. Same will not be said for the many bangled-butt cars of this century.
To see what design elements could have made the design succeed, look at the Silver Arrow III built for Bill Mitchell: the sweeping C-pillar arced quarter window and complimenting backlight form rather than those jarring, discordant verticals abruptly bringing the eye to a stop. Overall size was too large, building on the Grand Prix platform would have been more appropriate. But, Mitchell was trying to recapture the market’s Riviera fancy with flamboyant forms, simply misjudged but still created a memorable car.
At first glance of the Silver Arrow, it almost looked like a low slung station wagon to me…that wrap-over back window gives it that appearance from the side, I guess…?
Bud Lindemann test-drived a 1972 Buick Riviera GS for Car & Truck. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQOpmpTxe1g
Thanks for the link, I am watching the clip right now and loving it, esp the 8.4 sec 0-60 run and the slow-mo through the handling course. Great stuff!
I actually saw one of these on the road a couple of weeks back. Not sure about the year, but no denying its impact. Nothing . . . and I mean NOTHING, looks like a boat tail Riviera. Low, wide, long and curvaceous – it is the diametric opposite of pretty much everything else on the road today.
I’ve always admired the boat tails (except for the big-bumper version).
One of my favorite GM designs, I just find it so unique as to be marvelous. It helps that it has a good-sized role in some of my favorite movies that couldn’t be more different from each other, those being 1997’s “The Ice Storm” and 1999’s “Go!”. And of course 1985’s “Fletch”.
Something about the majesty of the way it moves down the road, I don’t know what it is exactly, but for me it works.
The Riviera also starred in the Canadian tv series “Due South”.
Buick pushed the idea that the Boat tail Riviera was a unique car, not a copy of anything. Like the owner. I had a ’71. It was a good handling and performing car. I bought it in the early 1990’s as my anti yuppie car. Check out this roadtest video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQOpmpTxe1g. I’ll bet most were not driven in that manner.
I used to really dislike the 1970 model, I guess partially because it didn’t have hidden head lights. Later it began to grow on me and it has occurred to me that it is sort of a retro design echoing elements of the memorable 1950 grille design and that 1950’s looking side spear and fender skirt. Here’s a shot of the 70’s front end.
For some reason the grille bars extending into the bumper line remind me of this, even the look of the sides.
If you’re not trying to be different, what’s the point of styling a car?
This Buick may have been a victim of GM corporate decision-making (switching to a different body) but it retained a very individual look. And those rear louvres are a great touch — wasn’t aware of them! But don’t these allow rainwater inside the boot?
Kudos to Buick for having the stones to go down that route, just in time before the 5mph bumpers turned American cars into square-roofed, botox-lipped junk.
Yes, the vents leaked during heavy rainstorms, which is why GM discontinued them for the 1972 model year.
Incredible that no one vetoed those deck vents early on.
GM was sued in the late 60s/early 70s about exhaust fumes getting into the [not very well sealed] trunk. The louvres on the trunk lid were supposed to make this situation better. A corporate legal thing, not a styling decision.
I, for one, absolutely love it. Saw one for the first time this year at the Woodward Dream Cruise. It has great presence and looks very sensual.
Eh, I’ll take the Mark III/IV. Those 70’s (well until the 79’s) Riveria’s never did anything for me. Then or now, not like our next door neighbors 73 T-Bird in Starfire Blue. NOW THAT CAR turned me on!!
When I was a kid living in Los Angeles, CA back in the early 1970s, we had a neighbor who owned a 1971 Riviera with the “boat tail” rear end. At the time I thought that rear window, boat tail and rear fender swoop was a startling design style that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a large coupe. Made it very identifiable and unique style that set it apart from the other 2-door coups. It also grew on me over the years.
Of course that different style came at a price. I recall the rear window was difficult to see out of when it rained. It was also very expensive to replace. The “boat tail” was also offered little rear end collision protection and was difficult to repair.
Here’s an bizarre thought: I wonder how that 1971 Buick Riveria would look if it had the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix or 1970-71 Ford Thunderbird front end “beak” to “balance” that boat tail.
Had a buddy who had a Boat tail Riv when I lived in Arizona. Strong running machine and a/c if you were riding shotgun but that sloping rear end glass was a heat sink for the sun’s rays, making the back seat “no ocupado.”
They looked good with the half vinyl tops, but I saw a few with a full vinyl roof that extended all the way to the “point” by the rear bumper. Really ugly. And those cabin air extractor grilles don`t do it any favors.
A gorgeous car in my opinion.
I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in my high school cafeteria talking about this car with some friends when it came out. It seemed odd to us that GM would recycle the “old” Sting Ray rear styling, especially on something as big and unsporty as a Riv. General consensus was “yuck”. 40-something years later, at least this example looks pretty good to me. And I like the wheels, especially with the dark green. My only close encounter with one was a few years later, running out of gas in my Vega on US-101 going to Laguna Seca, and being helped by a boat tail Riviera driver. I guess one GM fastback owner helping another. Thanks Paul for once again bringing out some long-dormant memories, and a balanced and detailed study of a true CC.
Personally, I have loved boat tails since I was a kid in the 80s. Make it an old school lowrider and I’m in love. That’s my plan on my 1973 that I picked up for $1200. Sure it had brake and transmission issues,but the presence is amazing. Plans include doing something with the front bumper and 14×7 reversed Astro Supremes and white walls.
Great discussion. There’s another Curbside Classic on a white ’72 with fender skirts that gets into these Rivieras too. I posted a work-up there that I’d like to show here, explores three changes: skirts, smaller backlight and front bumper positioned further forward/front fender forward edge straightened up.
Someone in another Riviera discussion suggested that the ’71 landed on B-body because of launch timing, caught out of cadence with the smaller platform’s changeovers. I think this is a reasonable explanation. The Riv had already become a pretty large car so moving to B was no major break with strategy.
Earlier suggestion was made to use ’69 GP or ’70-71 beak to balance the boat tail. I agree, the front might have benefitted with some sort of prominant protruding grill. The entire ’72 Bonneville bumper/grill/fascia could probably be grafted in. Of note, it appears that these Pontiacs and the Riv shared the same extended axle-to-dash, which if my photo scaling is any guide is 4.5 inches longer than Chevy. The ’71 Catalina, Olds and Buick used only a 2 inch longer setup while Caddy went a full 5 inches.
Here’s a better effort with the skirts. And headlights now exposed rather than hidden, still recessed like production so what you see in image is the reflective bezel. Biggest challenge has been working with the front fenders, which have no peak like Pontiac, instead a simple bull nose along length and in front. All the more reason to pour on the drama up front. And skip the vinyl roof in the rear.
Mitchell clearly had Pierce’s Silver Arrow in mind with this car and GM could have easily resurrected the marque with it, revivalism being in full swing back then. With a finely crafted interior and finessed exterior could have fetched a high price. Would have kept Cadillac on its toes.
Slightly off-topic: To me, the red Boattail speedster looks like an Auburn, not an Amilcar.
I love the boattail Riviera!
For my own I’d prefer stock height, trim, and wheels but the featured car does have a very cool, sinister vibe to it, and it’s a better world for it being in it.
I saw two boat-tail Rivs on the road last month, and hundreds of km apart on different days, so unrelated to each other. Both in rural British Columbia.
I’ve gotta say, I consider the boat tail Riviera ugly as sin. And the original ’63, while not exactly what I would want, a exceptional design for the era. There are more fans of the boat tail than I would have guessed however.
But this, I think few who did like it would think better of it than the ’63. And arguably while styling is subjective, it’s not, I suspect few would consider the ’71 better looking than the ’63. There’s a reason C2 Corvettes are so sought after, they’re very good looking cars. Nearly everyone agrees. The boat tail, uh, less so.
The boat-tail Riviera looks amazing… when compared to the 1971 ElDorado. How’s that for damning with faint praise?
I like the front end and silhouette profile, but the tail is, umm, off-putting. It reminds me of the front end of my Dad’s 1968 Ventura; at best it could be described as unfortunate-looking.
My custom 1972 Riviera Silver Arrow IV. Recently dyed the blue vinyl top to a white vinyl top. Original paint.
Rear view of my 1972 Riviera Silver Arrow IV
Out of gas! New sending unit now installed!
Side view – roof reflector fairings not yet re-installed after dying the vinyl top white.
1971 Riviera Starship ad