Curbside Classic: 1989 Buick Riviera – What The 1986 Riviera Should Have Been

(first posted 3/26/2012)    First things first: I like these cars. The downsized 1986 Riviera was a little too downsized, and its resemblance to the N-body Somerset/Skylark made matters worse. While I didn’t care much for the 1986-88 Rivieras, I really liked the ’89s. Considering all the ’89-’93 Rivieras I remember seeing when new, it seems that new car shoppers did, too.

The Riviera was introduced in 1963 as the first personal-luxury Buick. It was classic Bill Mitchell styling, and was characterized as an American Jaguar by many when new. The beautiful styling and luxurious yet sporty interiors were a great combination and many well-to-do buyers took home a Riviera.

For the remainder of the Sixties, the Rivieras always announced themselves with smooth lines and good taste, and the GS option turned the Riviera into a banker’s hot rod.

The 1971s were redesigned, featuring the love it or hate it boat tail design. Though not nearly as restrained or elegant as the 1963-65 Rivieras (many would call it unrestrained), it still said Bill Mitchell in a big way, especially that Corvette Sting Ray-inspired roof and backlight.

For 1974, the polarizing boattail and swoopy roofline were gone. A conventional roof with de rigueur opera windows was grafted onto the 1971-73 body, and a subdued bustleback was added to the rear deck.

The downsized 1977 Rivieras were all new and had even more in common with the B/C-body LeSabre/Electra, clean lines notwithstanding. The little-changed ’78s were the last rear wheel drive Rivieras.

The other E-body coupes had switched to front wheel drive in 1966, and while the Riviera had much in common with the Eldorado and Toronado, they remained rear wheel drive. In 1979 the redesigned Riviera finally joined their corporate cousins, adding fwd to a handsome new exterior.

Throughout the Seventies, the Riviera remained a big, impressive car with a V8 (or an available 3.8L turbo V6 in ’79), plush interiors and styling that, while not always to everyone’s taste, said “I am a luxury car.” That changed with the 1986 models.

The 1986 Riviera was the most-changed Riviera ever, and a much of it was a downgrade from Rivieras of the past. Although it had worthwhile improvements such as a transverse engine, better space utilization and front wheel drive, most folks could not get past the styling, and wondered why the top-of-the-line Buick now could no longer be had with a V8. It was twenty inches shorter than the 1985 model. I think the styling was all right up to the B pillar, but the tiny sail panel and chopped-off rear deck did not say luxury car, Buick, or Riviera.

The primary reason the ’86 Rivieras turned out the way they did is a result of the second gas crisis of 1979. A lot of people were worried that it was going to happen over and over, and that gas prices were going to go up to $2 per gallon ($6.27 adjusted). As a result, GM ordered all their new designs to be drastically downsized, and the ’86 Riviera and its Eldorado and Toronado siblings were the result of extreme fuel efficiency. Of course, that gas price spike didn’t occur, and GM was stuck with luxury vehicles that didn’t look it.

If that wasn’t enough, the new for ’85 Somerset coupe looked an awful lot like the Riviera, despite its much lower price tag. Sales tanked accordingly, to the tune of 22,138 ’86s, 15,223 ’87s and a mere 8625 in 1988. Despite a smooth 3800 V6, 4-speed Turbo Hydramatic and very nice driving dynamics, something had to be done about the styling, or the Riviera was done for.

Fortunately, the 1989 Riviera was much more appealing car. While the 108″ wheelbase was unchanged, the rear deck was extended by 11″ and the C-pillar was wider, much more in step with a Buick-like appearance. Sales of the ’89 model were much improved, with 21,189 sold.

Not much was new for 1990, but the Riviera got a new instrument panel, which it shared with the two-seater Reatta. A driver’s side airbag was also new. I think the new design really worked, and it’s what the Riviera should have looked like in ’86. Despite the attractive new styling, Buick had been hurt by the 1986 Riviera, as the design turned off lots of buyers. Hopefully some of them came back and bought an ’89-’93 Riv, but many most likely looked elsewhere.

One interesting feature of the ’86-’89 Rivieras was the first touch-screen computer in an automobile. It included air conditioning and sound system settings, as well as a trip computer and diagnostic functions. While very cutting-edge for the 1980s, it was a very complicated system. When it worked, it worked great, but if anything went awry, fixing it was a very expensive proposition. The redesigned ’89s had this feature for just one year, and then it went away.

Rivieras received only minor changes through the end of this generation. Only 4555 were built in 1993, the last year, though they were only built through December 1992. A lot of people thought this was the end of the Riviera, but Buick had one more trick up its sleeve, and an all-new version would debut for 1995 with an available supercharged 3800 V6.

I found this Riviera the same day as the ’72 MGB GT. As soon as I parked I noticed it, as it was the nicest ’89-’93 Riviera I had seen in years. It looked showroom-new. I also really liked the turbine-spoke aluminum wheels, as 90% of these Rivieras seemed to have the wire wheel covers. As I was taking the photos, the owner came out of the store. He was a super nice guy and loves his Riviera. Friends of his bought it brand-new at McEleney Buick-Cadillac in 1989 – it cost $27,000. He always told them he wanted to buy the car when they were ready to sell it. When the husband passed away, it was seldom driven and usually sat in the garage. When the lady bought a new Lucerne, he called her up and said, “How about selling me the Riviera?” He said to tell him how much and he’d write her a check.

When he bought it it had 89,000 miles on it; today it has 120,000. He hit a deer with it a while back and was afraid the insurance company was going to total it, but it was fixed better than new. Parts are hard to find for these cars, but he found the alloy wheels and replaced the chrome grille and some other exterior trim with NOS parts. He’s taken excellent care of it and it shows.

The 1986 was hurt by its economy car styling, but the 1989 redesign saved it, and may have contributed to Buick’s moving forward with the last generation 1995-99 Riviera. I can only wonder how much more Rivieras would have sold if the ’89 model had come out in ’86.  We’ll never know.