REPLACING THE RIVIERA
There’s a common misconception among automotive enthusiasts (and some automotive historians) that the moves automakers make from year to year are in direct response to market reaction: that the shape and features of next year’s model is dictated by customer response to this year’s car.
The reality is that as much as automakers would like to respond that quickly to the public mood, the lead times involved in production tooling make it largely impossible. Even in the days before safety and emissions regulations, a major redesign usually took at least two years and involved a lot of expensive overtime, so for better or worse, automotive stylists, engineers, and executives of that era were often developing successors for models that had not yet gone on sale.
Among the few exceptions was the emerging personal luxury genre created by the four-seat Ford Thunderbird. Because such cars were produced in comparatively small numbers, their production runs were longer than those of most family sedans (until 1970, the Thunderbird was on a three-year cycle) and annual facelifts were typically modest. The designers of personal luxury cars were still stuck with the same basic shape for the full production run, but they at least had the luxury of considering public response to the current model before finalizing its replacement.
Development of the second-generation Buick Riviera probably began well before the 1963 model debuted on October 4, 1962. We don’t know exactly when the 1966 model was approved, but we assume it was around the spring of 1963, about the same time as the Oldsmobile Toronado.
We must admit that we were not able to track down a lot of detailed information on the styling development of the 1966 Buick Riviera, but based on the chronology of its Toronado counterpart, we can make an educated guess that work began in early to mid-1962, months before the 1963 Riviera went on sale. If so, development began under the direction of Bernard N. Smith, then Buick chief stylist, but most accounts credit the design to stylist David R. Holls, who had been Charles M. Jordan’s assistant at Cadillac from 1957 to 1960, working on the 1959–1961 Cadillacs, and then in the Chevrolet studio until he moved to Buick in 1961. Holls would succeed Smith as head of the Buick studio in 1963.
As we’ve previously discussed, the first Riviera did not originate in the Buick studio at all; it was developed by Ned Nickles (who, it must be said, had previously been Buick’s chief stylist) in a separate special projects studio, under the personal direction of styling vice president William L. Mitchell. The design was inspired both by the 1939–1940 LaSalle, which Mitchell had developed during his tenure as Cadillac chief stylist in the late 1930s, and the razor-edged roofline of a Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce Mitchell had spotted on a trip to London.
Buick stylists apparently decided the sharply creased look of the original Riviera didn’t have legs (although Mitchell remained infatuated with the theme, which reemerged a decade later as the “sheer look” of the 1976 Cadillac Seville). According to later interviews with Chuck Jordan, then a GM design director, even Holls’ early sketches went in a different direction, with a sleeker, more voluptuous shape and a rakish semi-fastback roof instead of the 1963 car’s angular notchback. (Holls, for his part, described the second-generation Riviera as a natural evolution of its predecessor.)
The design that emerged was quite sporty-looking, although it was bigger than the 1963–1965 Riviera in almost every dimension. With its kicked-up rear fenders and the pronounced “W” shape of its front end, the new Riviera also bore a stronger relationship to Buick’s forthcoming 1966 intermediate and full-size lines — probably an important consideration in its design.
We wouldn’t go so far as to say the 1966 Buick Riviera looks like its Buick stablemates, but there was definitely a family resemblance to contemporary big Buicks like this 1965 Wildcat hardtop. Note, for example, the W-shaped nose with its vestigial hood ornament and the wasp-waisted flare of the rear fenders.
The years from 1957 to 1970 were a curiously bipolar era for General Motors technologically: a fascinating, exciting, and sometimes puzzling mixture of bleeding-edge innovation and dogged adherence to the tried and true. On one hand, the corporation dabbled in everything from air suspension to rear transaxles, some of which would still have been impressive 20 years later. On the other hand, GM often abandoned those ideas almost as quickly as it introduced them. With rare exceptions, there was little on GM’s bread-and-butter products that would have puzzled a mechanic of the late 1930s.
Of all the many production car and truck models GM offered between 1957 and 1970, only five strayed from the familiar pattern of front-engine, rear-wheel drive, and live rear axle (the Corvair, the Pontiac Tempest, the Corvette Sting Ray, the Oldsmobile Toronado, and the 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado). Only four GM cars sold in the U.S. during this period offered fewer than six cylinders — two, if we discount imports from Vauxhall and Opel — and none had more than eight. GM’s wilder innovations, like turbocharging and triple turbine automatic transmissions, were seldom offered by more than two divisions at a time and often lasted only a few years.
To see the reasons for that schizophrenia, we need look no farther than GM’s 1966 E-body coupes, the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Buick Riviera (and their Cadillac cousin, the FWD Eldorado). The Toronado is widely considered a landmark automobile; not only was it the first American production car in nearly 30 years with front-wheel drive, its tidy “Unitized Power Package” managed to integrate FWD and big block V8 power in a way experts had insisted was impossible. By comparison, the conventionally engineered Riviera seems almost banal. However, far from being the lesser car, the second-generation Riviera was actually superior in a number of meaningful ways. This is its story.