(Submitted by Bill Prince. First posted 9/13/2014))
For many years I admired the Bill Mitchell’s Silver Arrow III, which was based on the production 1971 “Boat Tail” Riviera. The modifications dramatically improved the appearance of the factory car. I purchased my 75K mile 1972 Riviera twelve years ago. Several years ago, I conceived a plan to modify the front and rear of my car, so as to have some of the appearance of the Silver Arrow III.
As most people familiar with the Boat Tail Riveras know (CC here), the production car ended up being vastly changed from the original concept, which was based on the mid-sized Skylark platform. 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, including the full size Buick windshield and door windows.
These changes damaged the look of the car – at least from certain viewing angles. From the side, and rear, and rear three quarter viewing angle, the production car looks great – Very dramatic and stylish. However, from the front, and worst yet from the front three quarter viewing angle – the car looks disconnected, a little odd, and too vertical in the front.
However, years passed and I did nothing. Finally, about four months ago I started to get serious about actually making the changes. I looked very closely at photos of the Silver Arrow III, and noted every change and how and why that change improved the appearance of the car. The changes were intended to unify, lower, widen, and smooth out the design for a much more stylish and sleek car.
Vertical lines were replaced with horizontal lines on the front. One main feature that helped in the look of the car, was the lowering of the roof by about 2” or 3”. The front door was cut down, and the windows are different. And the rear window was changed. However, I was not interested in doing any major non-reversible changes to my car since it is in excellent original condition.
One thing I did a few years ago, was to add after market fender skirts. These are not full skirts but rather about three quarter skirts that allow most of the wheel to still be seen. While I like the look of the car without skirts and with a full wheel opening, I really hated the look of the car from the front three quarters view.
There is a total discontinuity between the large side body section before the rear wheel opening and the much smaller side body section after the big wheel opening. The slender rear fender sort of just sticks out there by itself. Two other features make this worse. One is the fact that the boat tail rear window tapers rather quickly and none of it is visible from the front three quarters view. The second is the fact that the lower rear fender curves in too much at the bottom – in fact so much that it is not seen! My solution was to add fender skirts, so as to unify and blend the front and rear side body sections together. I wanted this change as well as all of my changes to look sort of factory.
So, with the fender skirts, I removed the wheel opening trim and filled in the recess with welting (actually white extension cord since I could not find any welting this large). I also added polished aluminum trim to the lower curved lip to both give it a finished factory look and to emphasis the flat side of the fender skirt thereby blending the skirt better into the body side. Finally, I fabricated small wheel opening trim parts for the lower wheel opening (the opening not covered the skirts).
I also added a rear antenna like that on the similar rear fastback of the 1963 Corvette Sing Ray. I thought about this for a long time, as well as it’s location, before installing it. The antenna sort of fills in the blank space on the top of the rear fender as it appears from the front three quarters view. The antenna also is a vertical contrast to the sloping of the rear window – again like the 1963 Corvette. It just looks right, in my opinion. I have thought about adding sort of a scoop at the bottom of the rear quarter panels, sticking out about an inch or so from the lower edge and traveling from the wheel well opening to the rear bumper – ending in a sort of vent. This would help with this area having too much of a inward curve, causing the lower quarter panel to not be seen in a front three quarter view. The defect adds to the skinny looking rear quarter panel. I am satisfied with my results, but may toy with this sometime in the future. Oh, I almost forgot – I added small arrows to the front and rear of the curved Buick side spear, and covered the upper black part with white tape to help unify the look of the car.
My goal for a mild duplication of the Silver Arrow III was:
Phase 1, modify the front of the car.
Phase 2 modify the rear of the car.
Phase 3, identify, purchase, and install Silver Arrow III type of wire wheels/correct white wall tires.
Front of the car: I spent more than 8 hours reviewing, designing, and making patterns for the changes to the front. Constraints included: Fabrication of parts had to be done with the hand tools, and the car needed to resemble the Silver Arrow III (look factory from a few feet away). As far as I know, no one has ever done a Silver Arrow III modification of a 1971-1972 Riviera.
Changes to the front include: 1.) New headlight panel/lens assemblies, and ”integration reflectors”. 2.) Bumper guard modification/relocation. 3.) New Tri-Shield emblem. 4.) Grille molding change. 5.) “Silver Arrow IV” License plate.
The headlight modification: After removing the original headlight bezel, I designed/fabricated 5 “Integration Reflectors” for each headlight box, for a more integrated rectangular headlight look. They have the same curvature as the headlights and have vertical impressions for a Fresnel lens look. I used 22 ga. Steel for the headlight overlay panels and .030” thick Lexan for the long wrap around lens, curving around and over the cornering lights. Horizontal lines were added to the lens to help unify the rectangular look.
Polished aluminum bezel trim was added around the headlight openings. Bumper guards: I used an extra set, since they had to be modified, including the addition of a fabricated polished aluminum side panels for each. It would have been easier to simply move them from the original position, which sort of “squeezes” the look of the front end to one of being narrow and tall, to the outer part of the bumper blade right on the inside of the grille, but that simply did not get the look I was after. So, I had to do a major modification of the guards in order to place them right on the outside of the grille opening.
This simple change made a big difference in achieving the horizontal sleek look I was after. Tri Shield Emblem: the angled Tri Shield emblem on the Silver Arrow III was off of a 1970 Riviera grille (I think). I found one, but the price was crazy high. So, I fabricate one out of 1/8” thick brushed aluminum (brushed different for each shield) and mounted it with two sided glazers tape. It almost looks better than the red white and blue Tri-Shield – sort of like silver arrows! Grille molding: I reduced the vertical height of the molding by covering three quarters of it with white vinyl tape. Again, a small change, but it helped in getting the lower horizontal sleek look.
Changes to the rear of the car: 1.) Trunk lid/fender ends. 2.) Tail lights. 3.) Tri shield emblem. 4.) Rear Window Windsplit.
Trunk lid modifications: I fabricated curved panels that screw on to the trunk lid to cover the cut out for the factory tail lights and removed the existing thin stainless trim. I also fabricated fender end panels are held on the glazers tape to match up with the panels on the trunk lid. I added a polished aluminum trim strip to the lower edge of the trunk lid including the panels. The panels have a molded in lip on that mates up with the top of the tail light.
The Tail lights: The first thing I did was to purchase two sets of 1971 tail lights. I used only the bottom of the horizontally divided 1971 tail light. The top part I blacked out. The tail light was also difficult since I wanted the entire lens to be red or a clear over the red and for it to have 4 lamps rather than the 2 from the factory. That meant that I would have to replace the reflector area with a lamp and replace the backup light area with a lamp – thereby having 4 lamps. So the reflector had to be completely remade, and the lens had to be completely remade.
In addition, a small area of body sheet metal behind the reflector would have to be cut out. I used the original 2 curved reflectors for the original tail lights and added a new one at each end (cutting off the smaller reflector for the backup light). I wanted very even light distribution and for all 4 lamps to function together for tail light, brake light, and turn signal. I did a similar thing to the lens by using the center two lamp area and removing the backup light clear part and replacing it with a red lens, and added a lens for the reflector area. I covered the red lens with a clear vertical Fresnel plastic lens, which gives a white lens look – although they can be removed.
Then I did the wiring with the added new sockets. This was a lot of work, but well worth it. The tail lights look really cool since they are slender and long – sort of Sleek and a little sinister. Tri-Shield emblem: (the same as the front one except for being curved more) covers the release access where the original “R” emblem was located – I now use the glove box power release. I installed clear Fresnel plastic lenses over the red lenses. Finally I added a polished aluminum “Wind Split” to the rear window as per the Silver Arrow III. It is just a continuation of the spine on the trunk lid. I have thought about fabricating two roof top brake light domes, but hate to have to use Velcro on the vinyl top. I am not sure about this change at this point.
Wire Wheels/tires: I bought a rare set of new vintage Appliance, 70 spoke, Wire Wheels – close to what the Silver Arrow III has. I installed new white lettered 235 75R15 tires, with shaved 1 ½” white walls. I modified the center caps with tri-shields/black tape for a “toothed gear” look like the Silver Arrow III. The larger tires help with the proportions of the car. The car is a little too big for a smaller tire size. It just does not look right. The wire wheels also have less of an offset, thereby causing the wheels to be outboard a little over an inch more. This also helps with the original ungainly look of small wheels tucked too far into the body.
Normally, the changes people make to the boat tail evolves splitting the bumper. When done correctly, it looks OK but just does not look factory and adds more to the non-sleek vertical look. This look could be improved on (in my opinion) by “blending” the front bumper blades into the grills in a straight line, but still eliminating the part of the bumper blade that comes to a point over the center of the grille – for a more factory look.
These modifications took me more than 300 hours of work, but the end results to me are amazing. The changes may be subtle, but the car looks much more unified, sleek and stylish, while still looking basically like a factory car.