Never terribly common, the final generation of the Buick Riviera is getting notable for its increasing absence on the curbs and driveways of our land. This rough looking Riviera’s status as a daily driver appears to be hanging by a thread. It will be a sad day when Buick’s suave personal luxury cars are no longer commonly used daily drivers because I believe the 95-99 Riviera had something to say, as I will explain below before we look at Rivieras great and small.
I have a theory about music, but it could apply to other creative fields as well. I’m not claiming it’s an original idea, though I haven’t heard it anywhere else. Have you ever noticed how popular, long-lived artists or bands tend to create their best material early in their careers? Even if they are talented enough to be popular for decades and release dozens of albums, even good ones, they won’t be able to recreate the magic of their early creative peak. I’m specifically thinking of artists or bands that write their own material, i.e. singer/songwriters, so this only applies to some musical genres.
Many skills grow with age and experience over decades, but songwriting seems to be different. My theory is that gifted songwriters are not just gifted with skill but also with something to say, musically speaking. After they get that out and say what they have to say, the well is essentially dry. By something to say, I’m talking about music, not so much lyrics. Lyrics are integral to a song, but the idea relates to the musical expression, not the verbal message.
Young artists have to develop their songwriting skills. Once their skills reach the point of being able to effectively channel their musical message, they can reach their peak quality output. The trajectory differs widely. Some peak very early, some later. Some are at their peak a shorter time, some longer. What seems to be pretty universal is that it is very difficult and rare for singer/songwriters to reach a second peak of creativity and discover they have something else profound to say. It’s tough to replenish the well for a comeback.
Developing cars is as much art as it is science, at least in the area of styling. It was certainly artistry that created the original Riviera. The 63-65 Riviera is arguably the best styled car to ever come out of Detroit. That’s claiming a lot, I know, but it’s a heck of a design. It wasn’t luck that made it a hit, even if the hubcaps do look like they were lifted from a casino (look again at the above photo), and its value to Buick as a halo model went beyond the respectable sales numbers. The memory of the Riviera’s original glory kept the car in Buick’s lineup for another 30 uninterrupted years even when sales were not always great.
Judging from GM’s cars in the early/mid 60’s, Bill Mitchell and Co. had a lot to say in their designs, and said it with verve in the first several years after he took over from Harley Earl. The 63 Riviera may be his ultimate statement.
The Riviera’s second generation (66-70) was also inspired, though possibly not so much as the first. What of the third gen boattails of 71-73? Those certainly had a lot to say, many people just didn’t like the message.
It seems that Mitchell and the Buick stylists ran out of anything to say after the boattail. The down-sized 77-79 B-body Riviera is especially uninspired.
As a last hurrah for the Mitchell era (the design locked in during his last year), the 79 isn’t a bad statement and was something of a comeback. It strikes me as a nice application of established Riviera themes but not especially original. Boy did it ever speak to buyers, selling better than any other generation including the 63-65 and 66-70.
The down-down-sized 86 Riviera has nothing to say artistically and car buyers weren’t listening. It inadvertently had a lot to say about GM at the time, none of it good. The 86 Riviera was the inaugural subject in the GM’s Deadly Sins series here. It slinked away uncelebrated at the end of 1993 without a replacement.
GM had plans, though. Given the bad taste the last Riviera left, Buick thought it was worth another bite in hopes the apple would be sweeter this time. In many ways it was. GM developed a brand new platform as an early-release 1995 model, the G-body, with Oldsmobile doing a four door version and Buick a coupe. The Oldsmobile Aurora got rave reviews (for a 90’s GM car, at least) for its tastefully original styling and tight body structure, among other attributes. Though sporting an extra pair of doors, it was a suitable replacement for the Toronado, serving better as a divisional flagship than any Toronado since at least the 70’s.
The Buick looked nothing like the Oldsmobile as GM finally re-learned how to give platformmates true distinction. More on the styling later.
They were also mechanically well-differentiated as the Aurora got a smaller version of the Cadillac Northstar V8 (250hp) while Buick wisely stuck with their 3800 V6, available in standard (205hp) and supercharged (225hp) forms. Even supercharged, the Riviera wasn’t going to win a lot of drag races but it was adequate for personal luxury purposes. Like the Aurora, ride and handling were very competent. The new Riviera was a substantially sized car, too, back to approximately its “ideal” length within an inch of the 1963 model.
Interiors were not as happy a subject. The dash styling was suggestive of the original 1963 design…but…
1995’s monochromatic, plasticky interpretation left quite a bit to be desired compared to the luscious original. The modern version certainly was safer, lighter, and more comfortable, just lacking even a little of the old charm. If the center console in the 95 looks a bit grafted-in compared to the well-integrated 63, it’s because the new Riviera actually came standard with a bench seat. In an interior otherwise devoid of bright work, it somehow was bestowed metal-trimmed pedals, a rarity by the mid 90’s. You can just see them poking out under the dash in the 95 photo above.
Back to the styling. It was dramatic and a big departure from recent Rivs. The Riviera’s exterior design chief was William L. Porter, who said on its introduction, “I think the overall shape is both muscular and romantic, but the secret is that the design also has some mystery to it. Essentially the body is a big ellipse resting on wheels.” Hmm..muscular and romantic, with mystery. Sounds appealing, kind of like if Arnold Schwartzenegger and Meryl Streep made a movie together. The ellipse statement is definitely apt: the car is nothing if not rounded.
The lines have a nice flow and are not without elegance. The frameless glass and very thin b-pillars give it the look of a hardtop. It suffers from none of the 86 E-body’s stubby butt syndrome.
All that said, speaking personally as a longtime Riviera fan, the final generation is by far my least favorite version and that includes 74-76 and 86-88. This car should have pushed all my Buick-loving buttons. Yet, even in 1994 I didn’t like the look and in all the years since I’ve never been able to warm to it much. I don’t care for the extremely tapered nose, but I think the core of my problem is that I’m not a fan of the cab forward look, especially when applying it to luxury coupes. I’m just a long hood/short deck kind of guy. The 86 had its stubby butt, I theorize, to preserve the traditional long hood/short deck proportions even with its short hood. On the 95, the tail is very long, which is not in itself a bad thing but it amplifies the short hood. The proportions are all wrong for a Riviera.
The 95 Riviera makes me think of the 1984 Chevy Citation IV show car, which was a fully functional engineering study in minimizing drag and beauty. The main point of similarity is the short hood/long deck coupe look, with an elongated tail that tapers into a fairly small rear panel to give it that ideal aerodynamic “teardrop” shape.
The Riviera’s rear seems to use the same trick, though I’ve found no evidence that the designers had the Citation in mind. The Riviera had a drag coefficient of 0.33, which is about average for a modern car and a far cry from the Citation’s 0.265.
It was stated by Porter that the 1988 Lucerne show car was the immediate basis, though it is barely recognizable in the production car after applying it to the G-body and adding their ellipsoidal fuselage theme, enhanced “fault lines” running from the headlights to the end of the rear deck, modified roof line, and coke bottle waist.
This particular Riviera has been known to me for over 20 years. The owners of the house across the street from where I used to live in Tempe bought it when it was a relatively youthful late model car sometime around the turn of the century, I don’t remember exactly when. I went back to visit my old block this year and was surprised to see the neighbors still have the Riviera. They always parked it in the driveway in the same spot and judging by the condition, that habit has continued and it’s soaked up every minute of Arizona sunlight for the last 20 years (approximately the same period since they last trimmed their shrubs).
The deterioration of the finish is a sight to behold, a case study in patina development in the clear coat era. The Dark Cherry Metallic paint is about gone on the upper surface and the only thing still metallic about it is the bare steel showing through. Charmingly, the clear coat is coming off in a very Buick fashion. It follows an arc in an impersonation of the classic Sweepspear.
Like Johnny Cash with American Recordings (1994), Yes with 90125 (1983), Meatloaf (and Jim Steinman) with Bat Out Of Hell II (1993), or David Bowie with Let’s Dance (1983), the 1995 Riviera is the automotive equivalent of getting the band (without any original members, Blood, Sweat and Tears-style) back together and finding, against the odds, that there’s still a lot to say musically and success to be had. Also like many musicians, Buick found that comeback success can be short-lived. The new Riviera found 41k new homes in its extended first season, on par with the Riviera’s better years. Unfortunately, it seemed most everyone who wanted one bought in the first year, as sales quickly spiraled down to less than 2,000 for its 1999 finale.
Whether this was because more people didn’t like what the Riviera had to say or because the half-life of interest in American luxury coupes had decayed to just about zero is a question for discussion. Even though I’ve not been a fan of the last Riviera, I was still sorry it was cancelled and that the band is not likely to ever get back together again.
photographed in Tempe, Arizona June 20, 2022
Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Buick Riviera – Out to Sea by William Stopford – Contains more detail and less musical theory.
Reader’s COAL/My Driving Impressions: 1990 Buick Riviera – A Mysterious Buick Fulfilling A Lifelong Dream by Brendan Saur – Not really relevant to the 95, but this is a very entertaining feel good story.