Curbside Classic: 1972 Buick Riviera Boattail – Swan Song Or Big Ugly Duck?

The boattail Riviera represents the difficult ending of an era, and a passing of the baton. What started as a revolutionary concept with the 1958 Thunderbird, the four-passenger luxury coupe became the standard bearers for American design innovation in the sixties. And although late to respond, GM elevated the class to timeless elegance in the 1963 Riviera, as well as the Grand Prix, Starfire, Toronado and Eldorado. Now the magic seemed to slip away, but not without a final struggle to regain its former glory. But the times were changing away from the bold, brash Mitchell look, and the Lincoln Mark III had already defined the genre’s new faux-classic look for the seventies. Although the boattail made quite a splash in the automotive pond, its ripples quickly died away, and GM had to pass the baton back to Ford. The boattail Riviera: the swansong of the GM Golden Era, or just a big, ugly duckling?

The 1971 Riviera was a bold effort by GM styling head Bill Mitchell to recapture the magic that seemed to permeate GM so effortlessly in the sixties. The result was controversial and flawed, but its hulking and brash shape has certainly enriched our streets. For me, CC is about the visual thrill of rediscovering the unique shapes and designs of the past, no matter how imperfect, and the boattail Riviera certainly does that as well or better than any other car in my collection. It’s certainly a car worth stopping for.

Bill Mitchell’s younger days and early career was steeped in the classic cars of the twenties and thirties. And he endlessly looked to them for inspiration. The crisp and sharp lines of the ’63 Riviera, and the awkward 1980 Seville were inspired by the razor-edge lines of the British coach-builder Hooper. And of course, the boattail speedsters of the classic era informed the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray’s tail. With this new Riviera, Mitchell again reached to the past, including his own earlier designs.

To understand the ’71 Riviera’s design and execution challenges in greater detail, Ate Up With Motor has a fine article on its tortured birth. The ’71 Riviera was originally planned to join the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo on the smaller A-Special platform. And the first sketches by John Houlihan (above) were based on that assumption. But when Buick’s new General Manager Lee Mays saw what was planned, he refused to spend the money on the new body shell, forcing the boattail design to be upscaled to share as much of the body of 1971 full-sized LeSabre/Centurion as possible. The final design was largely the work of Jerry Hirshberg.

Clearly, and understandably, something of the original scale and intent got lost in the translation, from the prow-like beak, to the compromise of using the LeSabre’s front greenhouse, and the challenge in blending it with the tapered rear end. The way it came out, there are certain inconsistencies in transitions as well as some awkward angles, especially the transition from the low rear window back, and the rear hips from certain angles are just all wrong. This is a car like many movie stars: it begs to be shot from certain angles, and not others. This one is not the good one.

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.

The side sweep that starts at the front fenders and carries down across the sides was a Buick trademark for ages. But its use here is questionable, given the difficult transition it has to make into those exaggerated hips.

The new Riviera was not greeted enthusiastically. Sales actually dropped from its dull and boring predecessor. Within a couple of years, the boat tail was gone, replaced by perhaps one of the dreariest Rivieras ever, still using the same front end, but with a very conventional roof and a decidedly conventional but ugly rear end.

The Riviera was a huge car for being a “personal coupe”. The ’73 version with its new bumper stretched just shy of the 225 inches that the giant Electra used to crow about. And it weighed around 5,000 lbs when equipped in the usual fashion. One of the more disappointing aspects of this generation was the ever declining loss of interior quality. While the ’63 had an interior to drool over, this Riviera shares the ever-cheaper interior of its LeSabre/Centurion stablemates. Nothing to make one feel special sitting in here, except perhaps the view out the back window.

Let’s just take in a few more angles; each of them has plenty of visual interest.

From this direction, it’s clear that a fair amount of the originally intended prow made it into the final design. And under that expanse of hood sat Buick’s biggest and best 455 cubic inch V8, rated at 330 hp (gross) in 1971, and 250 hp (net) for ’72 and ’73. The GS package included a slightly higher rating on the big V8; 345 gross/270 net. Plenty of torque for the job at hand, but don’t even ask about fuel economy. These were the rock-bottom years, when single digits were the norm, and anything in the teens was something to brag about.

This angle again is an awkward one for the big boattail: those hips look fine in profile, but in conjunction with the narrowing tail, they stick out in a way that only a true lover of these cars or big-hipped women can appreciate. And there are plenty of those (in both categories). Boattails have an enthusiastic fan club, and thanks to them, we can look forward to seeing these around for a long time to come.

It was a bittersweet ending to GM’s big car golden era. And although Ford had quite a run with its popular big Lincoln Marks, they really weren’t stylistically significant, except for ushering in the vulgar baroque blow-out of the mid seventies and the ghastly Super-Fly/Bugazzi era. The Riviera struggled along in several stages of mediocrity, until it found a reasonably happy mid-life in the fairly handsome downsized 1979-1985 incarnation. By 1986, it was a shrunken shadow of its former self, headed for its inevitable axe. All things must end.