Vintage Road Test: 1963 Buick Riviera – Hot Rod Nailhead Buick

CC Contributor Aaron65 has noted several times that his ’63 Riviera feels significantly quicker and handles better than his ’63 Thunderbird:  “It will absolutely leave my T-Bird standing around as if tied to a tree“. Well, he’s hardly the only one. Motor Trend tested the new Riviera, and even with the base 325 hp 401 cubic inch “nailhead” V8, they were surprised at how brisk it was. It was capable of sub-8 second 0-60 times and clicked of a 16.01 second 1/4 mile at 85.71 mph. For a none too-light (4200 lbs curb weight) luxury coupe with a standard engine rated at 325 hp, that was pretty impressive. And its handling was equally better than average, as were the brakes.

The Riviera may have competed with the Thunderbird in general concept, but in terms of dynamic qualities, it was in a league of its own. And that’s without factoring in its sublime styling.

After having the four-seat luxury coupe market for itself since 1958, the ’63 Riviera was a highly anticipated car, especially with the automotive journalist set. It’s not often something this new and unique came along. M/T was convinced that the very handsome new Riviera would do well against the T-Bird, especially so since the ’63’Bird was in its last year of the “bulletbird” design. It turned out that way, with the ’63 Riviera selling 40k units versus some 61k for the ’63 T-Bird. The Riviera was a success even if it was not going to dislodge the well-established Thunderbird.

When it came to drivers who put a priority on how their cars actually performed, the Riviera stood head and shoulders above the rather ponderous Thunderbird. Starting with acceleration; the Riviera acquitted itself very well indeed, with the numbers stated above (the tested 0-60 time with a passenger and full test gear was 8.1 seconds).

As a somewhat surprising point of reference, this 325 hp Riviera’s acceleration stats are virtually identical to that of a 300 hp 327 4-speed ’67 Corvette tested by R&T that we posted here (0-60 in 7.8; 1/4 mile in 16.0 @86.5 mph). You’ll never badmouth the Buick Dynaflow again, eh?

Some years back, we also did a vintage C/D test of a ’64 Riviera with the larger 425 CID V8 rated at 340 hp, which was standard in ’64 and optional in ’63, and its acceleration stats were actually a wee bit slower than this ’63, with a 0-60 of 8.3 seconds and the 1/4 mile in 16.6 @83 mph. So much for C/D always having the best acceleration times, but the differences are slight, and easily chalked up to the usual variances within engine builds, temperature, track conditions and others. The 425 CID version had the same heads as the 401, with tiny 1.875″ intake valves and 1.5″ exhaust valves, meaning that the 425 didn’t breathe any better (an inherent limitation in the nailhead design), thus it likely produced only a very nominal amount more actual horsepower. Torque increased from 445 to 465 ft.lbs. The 425’s camshaft had slightly more duration and lift.

M/T went as far as to say that the Riviera “could even be a real sleeper at the drags” in its class” (F/Stock automatic for the 325 hp version; E/Stock automatic for the 340 hp). The existing record at the time for E/SA was 14.18 @98.10 mph.  M/T speculated “you can almost bet that someone will show up at the Winternationals in a Riviera“. A quick check of entries shows that a Hal Geber did enter a ’63 Buick in the E/SA class. No indication of how he did.

The rumors that Buick would offer a four-speed stick in the Riviera never came to pass. The Dual-Range Turbine Drive acquitted itself well, being “hard to beat, either in smoothness or performance“.

Another other superiority were the Riviera’s excellent finned brake drums; aluminum on the front (with cast iron inserts) and cast iron on the rear. According to M/T, these drums withstood two more panic stops than other cars with cast-iron drums all-round. And they recovered faster after being overheated.

The Riviera’s didn’t just go fast in a straight line either; its handling was deemed surprisingly good. Raising the tire pressures a bit resulted in very good cornering and all-round handling, thanks to the front anti-roll bar and the quick (3.5 turns) power steering. Car and Driver also praised the Riviera’s handling in its extensive test.

None of that diminished the Riviera’s ride and comfort while tooling around town. Seating for four in the semi-bucket seats was comfortable, and visibility was good. The build quality was high, but the lack of engine instruments in the otherwise handsome instrument panel was a bit of a let down.

All in all, “the Riviera would be a very satisfying car to own.” Indeed.

Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1964 Buick Riviera – The Peak GM Experience

Vintage C&D Review: 1964 Buick Riviera Road Research Report – The Longest, Most Comprehensive Car Review Ever?

COAL: 1963 Buick Riviera – “Here’s Where Man And Riviera Get To Know Each Other”

Automotive History: The Legendary Buick Nailhead V8 – And The Source Of Its Unusual Valve Arrangement