Curbside Classic: 1977-78 Buick Riviera – A Short Life In Hard Times

Unsuccessful cars are a bit like bad TV shows. Everyone remembers the runaway hits, (Hill Street Blues), but how many people get all choked up when reminiscing about Cop Rock? Same creators and a lot of the same themes and storylines, but a very different result. The failures are soon forgotten and everybody just blanks out that part of their remembrance and moves on. Today’s CC is like that, in its own way. In its short run, the 1977/78 Riviera aspired to be the Ne Plus Ultra of personal luxury, Buick style. Today, it’s seen more clearly for what it was: a GM placeholder that only borrowed the hard won mantle of an iconic nameplate.

We’ve often revisited the economic and social earthquakes that had made the car business a tough way to make a living in the second half of 1970’s. The decline of the muscle car, the first oil crisis and raging recession followed by rampant inflation made long term planning a fool’s errand during the malaise era.

Car companies are like supertankers – lots of inertia going forward, but really tough to steer. When the word came down during the first oil shock that GM was putting all its makes on a crash diet, it proved a surprising technical challenge. It was almost too easy to add weight – just listen to the focus groups and marketing surveys and make it longer and wider. But slimming down required a totally different approach.

Cars couldn’t just shed parts to reach their target weight. They had to have different DNA from concept to showroom floor. Thus when GM led the downsizing trend in 1977, there were mixed results across all car lines. Some models (Caprice, LeSabre) handled the transition with aplomb. Others (Monte Carlo, Cutlass in ’78) looked like a child’s drawing of their former selves.

It was a period of adjustment to a world without cheap oil and car designers were looking for something, anything, that would bridge the gap between old and new and still turn a profit. The designers at GM’s Buick division had an almost impossible mandate: whip up a two year only gap plugger that would buy valuable time for the division to complete the downsizing of the Riviera and move the car to a front wheel drive configuration. A tall task, to be sure.

It was decided at GM HQ that the Riv would join the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado in its new E body FWD platform planned for ’79. That left two selling seasons to kill before the new cars would be ready and Buick management scoured the lineup for a body shell that could plausibly pass for “personal luxury” in its 2 door guise. The Skylark and Regal were out; they would have been such obvious badge jobs that the division would be risking the future of a car that did profitable business even given its relatively modest (23,000 annual units) volume. Likewise the Electra. The 225 was the “big” (though recently downsized) Buick. The whole ”personal” luxury theme would be lost with a tarted up deuce and a quarter, so the B-body LeSabre two door (below) would have to be the donor car.

The 77-78 Riv ended up a very changed vehicle from the controversial, but well received notchback evolution of the “boattail” car that preceded it (below). The’75/76 was big and thirsty, but it had some of the classic styling cues that distinguished it from the obese Thunderbirds and too generic Cordobas of its day. To my eyes, it had character, and I could discern the theme that the designers were trying for, but it had to grow on you. It had done a steady 20,000 or so retail units a year during most of its life cycle, but the enormous tooling and engineering costs of the crash downsizing program called for a higher return on investment to sustain the car’s place in the lineup.

As was usually the case with a new Riviera generation, sales got a bump in the first model year from loyal Riviera buyers (by about 6,000 units) and then dropped off again as the sales force had to win “conquest” sales from rival makes. Prices reflected the intractable inflation of the malaise era, with the MSRP of the Riv up about 10% over the notchback/ boattail. The base car stickered at $7,357.

Those conquest sales were tougher to come by because the new personal luxury coupe in one end of the showroom looked too much like the accountants’ dream car at the other. Buick stylists had made some tweaks to the square cut lines of the LeSabre to soften the curves and give the Riv a more formal bearing.

The rear quarter opera windows were in the kicked up, “coke bottle” genre and, as was the case with previous Rivieras, there were no portholes out front. The wheelbase was fractionally less than the LeSabre and overall weight was down dramatically (by about 650 pounds) compared to the boattail. The grille treatment was almost bolt upright on the Riv (and evocative of the “toothy” grill of 49-52 if you used your imagination). The LeSabre had a more diagonal, slanted look forward of the front bulkhead.

Another factor that probably affected sales was the constant leaking of concept sketches, renderings and spy photos of the radical new front drivers that GM had planned. Some buyers also kept a wary eye on the economy, as rising inflation pushed up interest rates on new car purchases. Combine that with rising sticker prices, and the phrase “sticker shock” became a part of the late ’70 vernacular.

The big difference between the LeSabre and the its linemate was the wider choice of engine sizes: Buyers of the former could choose a V-6 and three V-8’s . For the upmarket Riv, it was a 350 V-8 from Buick, or an Olds 350 or an Olds 403. One premium option that set the Riviera apart from its donor car was available four wheel disc brakes. GM’s Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed drove the rear wheels for all.

The cabin was in keeping with the times, featuring crushed velour seats , a “burled walnut look” dash and power everything. This was near luxury territory, circa 1977.

The new look was cleaner and by no means unattractive, but the overall package was just too close to the LeSabre to make the car a true blue new model. It was just too obvious that they shared the same innards. This kind of mistake has been a hardy perennial at GM since…Well, forever.

The short model cycle and the passage of time have made these downsized Rivieras uncommon in the here and now, although you regularly see them at estate sales. If you spot a two tone silver/black factory paint job, you’re looking at a Buick LXXV anniversary edition. These cars, (to me anyway), make excellent budget collector cars because mechanical parts are a breeze, they were solidly built with quality probably a cut above the norm for what was a tumultuous and confusing time in the auto business.

The final factor on collectability is harder to quantify: These tended to be bought by the well to do and older well to do buyer. They are much more likely to have led pampered lives than the workaday LeSabres and Electras. I’ve seen half a dozen for sale on Craigslist with less than 100K on the clock that are all done at $4,500, but you will see the occasional dreamer list a clean car for $12,000. That’s insane money for a tarted up LeSabre.

The legacy of this generation Riviera is a mixed one. The E body car that replaced the placeholder Riv was a smash for Buick in ’79. (It even won the Motor Trend Car Of The Year award). Sales marched smartly upward also, more than doubling to over 52,000 units.

The FWD platform gave the Riv a new lease on life, but that lease expired when the Riv was dropped after the last 1999 model rolled off the line. Shifting consumer tastes and GM’s cynical body sharing programs had diluted the meaning of “personal luxury” as we now understand the term.