Curbside Classic: 1985 Buick Riviera – A Ray of Light in the Darkness


(first posted 5/8/2013)      As we all know, boys in their teens tend to focus on two subjects- girls and cars. Since I graduated High School in 1979, the girls of my youth came wrapped in bright polyester, and the cars often came wrapped in mediocrity. As manufacturers budgeted money for mandated emissions and safety equipment, other areas of car design languished in the shadows. I recall reading about the new models for 1975 or 1976, and noting that “new” for most domestic manufacturers meant offering two tone paint options. These new paint designs and vinyl graphic packages were the automotive equivalent of polyester suits and attempted to distract from the aging platforms and reduced power outputs. Thankfully, the 1979 Buick Riviera burst into this automotive wasteland, and let us know the future held better days.


This model first appeared in 1979, and was offered until 1985. Sharing a platform with the Olds Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado, this was GM’s first shot at downsizing their executive class personal luxury cars. The Riviera was offered in a base V-8 powered trim, or a sporty turbocharged model (called the S-Type in 79 & 80, and T-Type on later models). While the Riv did not see a big increase in power, the trimmer, lighter body made the best of the available engines. The new tighter chassis provided improved handling, and available four wheel disc brakes provided solid stopping power.

The Riviera lost its mojo though the seventies, but the new body returned the Riviera to greatness, so much so that it remained unchanged through all seven years of production.  Looking at the emblems, grille and tail lights, I’m guessing this is a 1984 or 1985 V-8 base model. According to my research, Buick chose to leave the exterior completely unchanged over the final two years of production, but I won’t be surprised if someone can identify the specific year based on interior or exterior features.


In 1978, to meet power and fuel economy targets, Buick decided to become the turbocharged division of General Motors. Placing a turbocharger on their 3.8 liter V-6, they offered the engine in their larger cars as an economical alternative to V-8 power. As the halo car for the division, the turbo V-6 was the only engine offered for all seven years of Riviera production. The first five years sported a carburetor, offering 185 HP in 1979 and ’80 and 180 HP from 1981 to ’83. In 1984, the engine received fuel injection, but remained rated at 180 horses.


It’s remarkable how many engine options were offered on a single platform in the sixties, seventies and eighties. In the case of the Riviera, emissions and fuel economy demands kept changing, and GM’s recent decision to supply division specific motors to all divisions offered new options to the engineers. In the Riviera, every model year offered a Buick turbo V-6 and an Oldsmobile (gasoline) V-8, but the V-8 lost displacement over the first three model years, dropping from 1979’s 350 cubic inches down to 1981’s 307. In addition to the base V-8 and turbo V-6, Buick also offered a diesel V-8 from 1980 to ‘84 and a normally aspirated 4.1 liter V-6 from 1981 to ‘84. Hmmm… Perhaps the black bumper stain above the tailpipe indicates this is an ’84 diesel.


But enough technical data- let’s just look over those body lines, and enjoy one of the more successful examples of 1980’s downsized style. All three of the new E-bodies looked good in 1979, but to my eye Buick really hit the target. The soft curves helped differentiate it from its Cadillac and Oldsmobile cousins, and provided some European flair to go with the new right sized dimensions. Reviewers agreed, and the Riviera rolled out to strong approval, including Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award. As I said, this car came out the year I graduated high school, and while I missed the target demographic by about 20 years, I did offer it props at the time, considering it pretty attractive for an “old guys” car.


Looking in the interior, nothing stands out, but nothing offends either. As the halo car of Buick’s line, buyers could choose many electronic gizmos, including digital gauges. Perhaps Buick offered these toys to make up for the V-8’s low horsepower. This particular car includes the base cloth interior and analog gauges, but it looks to be a nice working environment. I’d prefer the three spoke wheel offered on the T-Type, but the dash provides clean lines and the tilt wheel promises a comfortable seating position.


So clearly, I like this car. The E-body provided a solid and reliable platform (at least with gasoline power), the lines were very attractive, and the overall package delivered on this promise. At model release, Riviera sales more than doubled over 1978, and sales remained strong throughout the model run. In fact, the strongest sales occurred in the last two years of production, with 1985 providing the highest sales of all seven years! This sort of result is unheard of for most cars, but is even more amazing considering the Riviera’s place in the Buick lineup. Its segment (personal luxury coupe) typically saw a strong drop in sales in the later model years as fickle buyers abandoned aging models for newer, flashier models. The ability to maintain solid sales over seven model years speaks very well of this car.

In closing, perhaps this model should have remained in production for several more years, especially considering the sales performance of the next generation Riviera. With sales dropping more than 70% in 1986, the results for the new car might be best described as “scorched earth.” For more information on this dismal performance, see Paul’s article on the 1986 Riviera.