Curbside Classic: 1963 Buick Riviera – Hitting All The Right Notes

1963 Buick Riviera


It’s really important to hit the right notes. Just ask a singer, since most listeners can perceive a wrong note even if they aren’t musically inclined. Some singers seem naturally incapable of being off key, and here we have the automotive equivalent of one of them. Like Frank Sinatra showing up to audition for American Idol sits a star on a dingy urban curb surrounded by younger vehicles that share none of its tonal beauty.

Plenty has been written about the first gen Rivieras on CC, but would you believe there has never been a full Curbside Classic feature on the 1963 model? This seems like a good opportunity to rectify that, with a focus on the development of the introductory model as well as plenty of photos further down of a Midas-touched survivor.



Today it’s hard to picture the first Riviera as anything besides a Buick. Yet, as GM [slowly] conceived their response to Ford’s 1958 four-seater Thunderbird hit, the division to sell it hadn’t been chosen. In the Thunderbird’s first year, GM got a new president, John Gordon, and a new styling chief, Bill Mitchell. Gordon gave Mitchell direction to start working up ideas for a car. Did Mitchell know even at that early date that the car-to-be would be a highlight of his career and legacy? Perhaps, because he really took the project to heart.



Mitchell started at GM in the Cadillac studio and in 1937 drew this LaSalle concept (Cadillac’s 1927-40 companion make), evidence that the idea for the Riviera’s fender tips had been percolating in his head for quite a while.


1940 LaSalle seen at National Funeral Museum (my CC article)


Mitchell also said in a post-retirement interview that the Riviera fender tips were meant to evoke the grille of the LaSalles.  The 38-40 models bear the closest resemblance.


1955-58 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud


He didn’t settle on a full design concept until a trip to England in 1959, where he was inspired by a foggy encounter with a Rolls-Royce. The sharp-edged parts of the Rolls’ styling was the inspiration for the roof, rear deck and fender tops.


1956 Ferrari 410 Superamerica


He further wanted “Ferrari flavor” in the car, which can be seen in the front end and smooth flowing body sides (and possibly the vents). Both cars also sported classic long hood/short deck proportions and sparing use of brightwork, which would become Mitchell hallmarks. The general euro influence can also be seen in the rear wheel openings more open than typical of American cars at the time.



Mitchell recruited veteran GM designer Ned Nickles to do drawings.  After the England trip, Mitchell tagged this Nickles drawing as the basis for the project going forward.



The drawing made it to clay model form in 1960 notably unchanged blow the beltline. Clearly, the Riviera was not always thought of as a coupe-only model. The overall shape of the production car stayed pretty faithful to this concept. One major change was the rear wheel openings were opened up, in keeping with the European theme Mitchell had settled on.



In fact, as late as mid-1962, a convertible was being seriously considered when this fiberglass model was photographed (previously covered here).

As cool as a Riviera convertible would have been, I think they were wise to keep things simple and just focus on the elegant coupe. What wasn’t so focused was the form that the headlights would take. As seen in the early styling exercises, hidden headlights were always in mind. Mitchell wanted to put them in the fender blades with opening doors, but that was ruled out as requiring too much engineering development.



If they couldn’t be hidden, how about just putting headlights ON the fender grilles? Cooler heads prevailed, fortunately.



Headlights cleanly contained in the main grille were settled on, at least for the time being. The final design, internally called XP-715, was completed in 1961. Bill Mitchell imagined the car as a Cadillac and called it La Salle II, a nod to his affection for Cadillac from his time there and his first big success designing the 1938 Sixty Special.



What division would get it remained undecided. Cadillac turned it down, since they were selling about as many cars as they could build and didn’t want to take on a new model. Chevrolet also declined, since they were also pretty maxxed out on production. A Chevy Riviera sounds preposterous, until you remember that the Thunderbird was a Ford. The remaining divisions all wanted it, but Buick wanted it more. If any part of General Motors could be considered “struggling” in the early 60’s, Buick was it. Their production was down over 50% from their mid-50’s peak and they saw the XP-715 as a great flagship from which to launch a divisional reinvigoration. They enlisted their ad agency to help them win over Corporate with a slick presentation, parts of which ended up being used in Riviera’s early promotions. Mitchell was adamant that whatever division did the car, they couldn’t change the design. Buick manager Ed Rollert said they liked it and wanted to leave it as is, winning Mitchell’s endorsement.



After the styling was completed and Buick got the car, Mitchell continued to have a sense of ownership in it. He wanted a “no compromises” mentality to developing the car, which he thought of as special. He would send assistants to engineering and manufacturing to make sure it was being done right. He needn’t have worried too much, as Buick staff also took the car very seriously and gladly took the No Compromises ethos to heart.



Though many parts were taken off the shelf, including drivetrains and the cruciform frame design, the body structure was specific to the car and chassis optimized for its mission. Details were sweated, such as getting unique suspension bushings, Buick’s best finned aluminum brakes, and tires designed especially for the car.

Also taken off Buick’s shelf was the name Riviera, which was so perfectly suited to the new personal luxury coupe it seems like it was always meant for it. Buick buffs will recall it was used on all hardtops from 1949-58 and Electra coupes in 1959-62.


From the earliest conceptions, Mitchell saw the car as having performance between a comfortable sedan and a sports car and his vision prevailed. This was achieved by using the same standard 325hp 401c.i. engine as the Wildcat and Electra but designing the body to be 200-300 pounds lighter than those. Additionally, a bored out 425c.i. version making 340hp was developed and offered only in the Riviera for 1963 (it would be standard in Riviera for 64 and optional in those cars in 64-66). The sports car personality only went so far, as no manual transmission was offered, but rather Buick’s two-speed Dual-Path Turbine Drive automatic (nee Dynaflow) was the only choice in 63 (replaced by the three-speed Super Turbine [Hydramatic] for 64).


1963 Buick Riviera


As exceptional as the body and chassis were, the interior was just as well-executed. Like its Thunderbird target, and in keeping with the European theme, front seating was buckets only with a standard, integrated center console. Riviera was obligated to share its large Double Circle instrument panel and dash with other 63 Buicks, but the upslope of the console and door control panels matching the forward sloping dash angle is unique (and really appealing!). As compromises go, this one was pretty painless as it’s a beautiful dash. It had probably the most functional center console in the industry, with a gearshift, cigarette lighter, ashtray, storage, floor lights, HVAC ducting, and optional tachometer (not present here).


1963 Buick Riviera


The detailing is wonderful, as seen on the door panel with its real wood veneer, chrome switchery, and sublime handles. There is also a door handle on the backside of the armrest for the rear seat passengers. I neglected to photograph it, but the rear seat is quite attractive, too, with bucket appearance and a large metal center speaker panel.


1963 Buick Riviera


On the way to adapting the LaSalle II to production, Buick settled the headlight conundrum by swapping out the single lamps for duals. That’s not surprising, as by this time all American higher end or luxury cars had dual headlights. This picture shows the fender tips are actually grilles and contain turn signals like the LaSalle II.



1963 Buick Riviera


Further reflecting GM’s and Buick’s desire to make the Riviera special, they engineered some features for the car that would be firsts in the industry. The windshield and backlight used a new adhesive mounting system that made them more flush. The side windows used no chrome framing around the glass, which convertibles and hardtops had always had up to that point. Developing this technique may be why the side glass is flat rather than more modern curved glass. Frameless glass would become universal within a few years and Riviera would get curved in its second generation. The Riviera pioneered flat wiring harnesses for better reliability and packaging.

Buick bragged in their brochure about the effort put into building the car, thus: “After you examine a Riviera you’ll find it hard to believe that it’s not a custom-made car… We think it’s the finest quality you can buy in an assembly-line-produced automobile.”


1963 Buick Riviera


Our curbside feature car doesn’t just look great in photos, it’s truly a phenomenal specimen. It’s mostly original with 46,000 miles and sports most options available. It may have led a charmed life, but it’s longevity in this condition may also be an indication that Buick’s big brochure bragging wasn’t blatant bloviation.


1963 Buick Riviera


I might have chucked this flawed photo but I still need it to show off the amazing interior. The leather upholstery is original. 1963 was the only first-gen year leather was available, optional with the Custom interior which included the wood on the doors and much fancier armrests (leather wouldn’t be available in Riviera again until 1974). Options present include tilt wheel, remote side mirror, power driver seat, power windows (but not power vent windows, also available), air conditioning, AM/FM radio, and Guide-Matic headlight dimmer.


1963 Buick Riviera


Gauges are gorgeous, though you’ll have to be content to be an idiot with only lights for oil, temp, and volts.


1963 Buick Riviera


One of the few options the car doesn’t have is the 425 engine. The 401 a.k.a. Wildcat 445 should be plenty adequate, though, with 325 horsepower and the eponymous 445 lb-ft of torque. There is just enough patina under here to testify to the unrestored condition, but not so much that it doesn’t still look fantastic.


1963 Buick Riviera


1960’s-vintage T3 headlights are present and accounted for.


1963 Buick Riviera


Another option is the wire wheel covers. With the hindsight of living through the 70’s and 80’s, these might strike some as a little cheesy on a car like this. I don’t think it is at all, though. In 1963, fake wire wheels were still a fairly novel accessory. Automakers offered them for a few years in the mid 50’s, then dropped them.



The 63 Riviera was one of the first cars they were available on again, so the public didn’t generally have stereotypes in their minds about them. The Riviera’s are quite good looking, with parallel wires and nonfunctional spinners as was common on 1960s-era fake wires. Real wire wheels like the LaSalle II had would have been an attractive feature, but I would guess it was felt they would intrude too much into Cadillac territory in price and image. If you want the look of Mitchell’s concept car, the wire hubcaps are the closest thing available from the factory.


1963 Buick Riviera


When I spotted this fine machine, I got to meet the owner who was very friendly and allowed me to paw all over the car getting photos. He recently bought it out of Connecticut and is the fourth owner. It reportedly was a one family car for about its first 40 years. According to him, the main refurbishment has been resprayed paint on the sides to fix door dings. Looking at it, one would think the whole thing has been repainted as perfect and well-matched as the finish is. He describes driving the car as incredibly smooth with imperceptible shifts from the Dynaflow.

The only real blemish is the Riviera badge above the left taillight, which an over-enthusiastic previous owner placed there. As if anyone needs a badge to know what model Buick this is! Strangely, after gaining fame for a year in the public’s eye, Buick felt the need to put a Riviera badge on the rear for 64-65 and drop the Buick badging.


1963 Buick Riviera


In the title, I refer to the 1963 Riviera as hitting all the right notes. It’s a figure of speech and in this case it’s true literally. This Riviera is equipped with Buick and Cadillac’s famed Four Note Horn. What are the right notes, you ask?



The standard two-note horn consists of “seashell” or “snail” units mounted on the radiator support in the notes of A and F. The two downright musical looking instruments mounted on the underside of the hood are the C and D notes. Anybody who knows music, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that makes an F6 or Dmin7 chord. In the Key Of Excellence!



The owner hit the horn for me, so I can personally report it’s loud and sounds distinctly train-like. That’s not a coincidence, as trains use 3 to 5 trumpet horns in a similar fashion. They’re just air powered and louder.



Yes, the Riviera hit all the right notes metaphorically, too, proving to be loved and popular as a new car and maybe more so years later as an example of what GM could do at it’s full engineering and design strength. Buick limited 1963 model production to 40,000 and sold exactly that number. That was still far less than the Thunderbird despite a 3% lower base price, which was perhaps the consequence of getting beaten to a new market by five years.  The 64-65 would sell just shy of the 63, before climbing some in the second generation (66-70) and especially so in the fifth generation (79-85). It’s the inaugural generation models, though, that are first in the hearts of many classic car lovers. Beautiful notes never to be played again.


photographed 11/6/23 in Houston, Tx.

Much of the historical info on the Riviera’s development was drawn from a March 1985 Collectible Automobile article and the book Great Cars Of The 20th Century by Brown, Langworth, et al, P.I.L. 

related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1964 Buick Riviera – The Peak GM Experience by P.N.

The Great 28, Car #2–1963-65 Buick Riviera: The Buick I Can’t Buy by Aaron65

Console Stereoside Classic: 1963 Buick Riviera – The Ride And Sound Of Tomorrow by me. A testament to how far Buick marketing went to hit the right notes, they actually sponsored a music record to promote the new Riviera.