Curbside Classic: 1971 Buick Riviera – Bill Mitchell’s Pointy Dead-End


(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.

1938 Cadillac Sixty Special. W38HV_CA001

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.