Vintage Car And Driver Review: 1986 Buick Riviera T-Type – What Is This Car Supposed To Be?

Every once in a while, disasters are worth revisiting. Not only in an attempt to analyze what happened but also, because they are fascinating to our collective psyche. Success and failure, two extremes of reality we love to go back to.

And in the case of the mighty, failures are fascinating indeed. Particularly, as they’re often the result of bold and lofty ambitions.

The program behind the 1986 Buick Riviera was certainly one of GM’s boldest ones. And its failure in the marketplace earned it a well-deserved Deadly Sin title at CC. Need any proof behind that claim?

In cold figures, the high mark, ever, for the Riviera had been in ’85, selling 65K units. The following year, the newly downsized ’86 Riv barely eked out 22K units.

Sinful numbers, indeed.

How much ambition was behind the ’86 Riviera? As Car And Driver pointed out: “The new Buick is a member of the GM-30 family, which also includes Oldsmobile’s Toronado and Cadillac’s Allante, ElDorado and Seville. The GM planners sat down to create… a high-tech luxury platform… with state-of-the-art engineering features… You can sense Buick was reaching for the stars on this project… What happened next is anyone’s guess.”

Thanks to later interviews by those involved, we need no guessing anymore. Instead, we now know that the Riviera was a bold move. But a confused one at that.

By the time the ’80s dawned, GM had developed a curious knack; it would pursue the right ideas and deliver the wrong execution. A trait it had been slowly developing. The trio of the Toronado, Riviera, and Seville E-bodies of 1986 are non-shining examples of that.

The arrival of the 1986 E-body siblings was one more step in GM’s lofty downsizing program, which started back in the 70s. A series of efforts meant to face a landscape conditioned by the aftershocks of the 1970s; a period of new emission and safety regulations, general inflation, and an energy crisis.

It was tricky terrain, and it would test car makers to the limit. And in hindsight, after the successful launch of GM’s downsized B-bodies and A-bodies in ’77 and ’78, the company had reached its corporate limits.

To many, ‘X’ marks the spot where GM’s downfall began in earnest. The trouble-prone compact, fuel-efficient, and modern X-body cars of 1980 were a clear sign the company was chewing more than it could bite. Harvey Bell, engineering manager for the 2.5 4-cyl. used in the X-cars resumed in 2011: “We had this ingrained knowledge and had done vehicles pretty much the same way, polishing the same diamond, making small tweaks year after year… most engineering up to then was what I would call very sophisticated craft type stuff… so then they cut the engine in half, turned it around sideways to drive the front wheels, and threw away the frame. Oh, and by the way. Decided to do not just a few of them but to tool up four assembly plants.”

The ’86 E-bodies followed the same pattern, following overtly ambitious goals, with little grounding on the limitations of GM’s corporate culture. A culture that couldn’t adapt quickly enough to the changes happening in the automotive world. Or even, the changes it had imposed upon itself.

When upper management chose team-player Irv Rybicki as GM’s VP of Design in ’78, it was clear styling would no longer be the corporation’s calling card. The decision was a monumental shift. The company was to dispense with a sales tool that had defined it for decades.

In lieu of styling, GM’s mission was now to be the best at everything. Or something like that. In the Los Angeles Auto Show in January of 1980, Chevrolet General Manager Bob Lund claimed; “The period from 1975 and 1985 will go down as the golden age in automotive productive development, the decade in which we’ll transform the industry to fuel-efficient, exciting, individualized, and updated products… we are going to widen the distance between us and the rest of the industry.”

Photo by Paul Niedermeyer.


Styling was the ’86 Riviera’s main sin, the one that sealed the car’s fate. Bill Porter, chief of styling at Buick 1 Studio resumed; “We had a terrible time coming up with a theme for that car. There was… some psychological vacuum that foiled us in some strange way… it had us spooked and we could not rise above it… They gave us the package, which was considerably smaller, and we were quite worried about it. During development, when the model was roughed in, GM president Jim McDonald came into my studio and we talked about it. He wasn’t a car guy, so he didn’t see how wrong it was… Then Irv Rybicki came in and chatted with him briefly. Rybicki said ‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with this car that another 12 inches of length couldn’t cure.’ And McDonald turned to me and said, ‘Bill, I just came from Washington. Do not add one millimeter of length to this car’.”

1985 Buick Somerset on top. 1986 Riviera below. Images by Paul Niedermeyer.


Porter also added, “The marketing idea was to do a successful Riviera, then imitate it with a smaller car… but probably because of production issues, the smaller Somerset came out six months ahead of the Riviera.” A point Porter tried to make clear to GM Vice Chairman Howard Kehrl  “… I took him aside, and told him that if this reduced Riviera was offered to the public after the smaller car, it would be a disaster. It would be an imitation of a smaller, cheaper car. But he didn’t grasp that at all. He just gave me a deer in the headlights look.”

Notice I haven’t gotten to Car And Driver’s review yet. They obviously didn’t like it. At best, they referred to the Riviera as ‘half-baked.’ Between the techno-gizmo gadgets, the shrunk dimensions, the modern drivetrain, and the timid styling, Car And Driver had to ask “Exactly what is this automobile meant to be?”

Yet, by the cold measurements of a planner’s spreadsheet, the ’86 Riviera was a ‘good’ product. It met all the criteria behind its intended mission: it was a lighter space-efficient unibody car, with good fuel efficiency, and better driving dynamics than just about any Buick before it. It was also stuffed with very-’80s tech gadgetry and space-age ergonomics. Trendy ideas perfect for the Sharper Image decade. All wrapped in inoffensive styling.

But the resulting car just embodied the conflicting demands of corporate departments executing directives in a void. Its confusing signals were all too clear in the final product, alienating Buick’s traditional buyers and failing to entice youthful upscale buyers.

On a personal note, back in 1987 I actually rode a few times on an ’86 Seville. The Riviera’s sibling. To this day, I think the Seville was one of the best mid-80s GM cars I ever rode on. Its ride felt good, its handling fairly responsive, and its styling was certainly modern. I considered it, in general, ‘good.’

But was it desirable?

As we know, ‘good’ is not enough in a free market filled with options. Desirable is what’s needed. Something the ’86 Somerset-like Riviera was not to most of the public.


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986 Buick Riviera – GM’s Deadly Sin #1

Vintage Review: 1987 Buick Le Sabre T-Type And Riviera T-Type – Missing The Target