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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

February 12, 1999

One of my neighbors has a Buick Riviera - a '71 model that has seen better days. Its second repaint is showing signs of fading and the vinyl top has started to shred at the seams. But she uses the old car for daily transportation and I understand why. All of those vintage front- engined, rear-drive Rivieras still have class.

And that's exactly what William Mitchell, then-head of the G.M. Design Staff, had in mind when he laid out the basic parameters for a corporate luxury sports coupe in 1960. General Motors had been caught napping when Ford introduced its original Thunderbird in '55. It outsold the Corvette by over five-to-one during the three-year lifespan of the original T'Bird. The same thing happened when the four-placed "Big Bird" came on line in 1958. By then, Mitchell was determined that General Motors would have a distinctive "personal" four-seater to do battle with its cross-town rival.

Two years later, Mitchell and his crew were working on a sensuous coupe that was simple, but exotic. It was less angular than the T'Bird and really more on the order of the original Lincoln Continental that dazzled auto enthusiasts twenty-years earlier. Mitchell labeled the full-scale mockup of his dream car the LaSalle II, harking back to the pre-World War II G.M. brand that was a less-expensive adjunct to the Cadillac lineup. Unlike "supporting" lines for other high-ticket American brands, the LaSalle had been produced to the standards of its parent, and when less-expensive Cadillac models were introduced in the late '30s, the LaSalle lost its corporate reason to exist.

It was this name that Mitchell used to try to persuade the executives at Cadillac that it was the perfect marque for his Thunderbird fighter. In those days, each of the General Motors divisions was quite autonomous and developed their lines of vehicles pretty much on their own. But there was a problem: Cadillac gave the LaSalle II the cold shoulder. G.M.'s luxury line was selling everything it produced and saw no need to allot production space and resources to a product it didn't really need.

But G.M. management and John Gordon (G.M president at the time) did like the new car and opened a bidding contest between Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile (all G.M. makes, of course) to see whose logo would grace the new machine. Chevrolet backed out (it too was riding high on record sales) which left Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile. Each wanted the car, but Buick won out by virtue of the fact that its sales had been sliding since '55 and the division needed a high-profile product to draw browsers into its showrooms.

History records that Buick was helped by a couple of other factors, too. It agreed to leave the car as it was originally designed by Mitchell's group and the division made a much more polished presentation to the top guns of G.M. management. And it already had a name waiting in the wings. Its original Roadmaster Riviera hardtop coupe came out in '49 and Buick had planned to attach the name to a nearly-produced "glamour" sedan that had been scratched from the Buick lineup ten years later. The new Buick "personal" car, a vehicle that was designed to be personally driven by working millionaires, was appropriately labeled the Riviera.

Once the new Riviera (termed a "New Concept" car by Buick marketers) was in the pipeline, the company pinpointed who it considered the ideal buyer for the car: relatively young, well-educated, on the upper end of the income scale (which meant enough money to buy from emotion rather than logic) and no kids at home. Its sales literature promoted it as an international type of sporting car that was fast, comfortable and above all, good looking. Its standard engine was a 401-cubic inch V8 that put out 325 horsepower with a 425-inch V8 available as an option. This monster V8 put out a whopping 340 horsepower. The Riviera was no lightweight at 4000 pounds, but its performance was nonetheless so spectacular that Buick engineers had to commission two rubber companies to produce special high-performance tires for the car

And all this before the advent of the Muscle Car Era.

Over the years and into the '70s, '80s, and 'early '90s, the Riviera fell victim to the General Motors mindset of chrome trim changes and different badges on a common platform for the various G.M. divisions. But the Riviera name has been in continuous use by Buick until this day, with an interruption in '94 for a complete and very individualistic model changeover.

The first-generation Rivieras of '63, '64 and '65 were the most attractive and are the most sought-after by collectors, especially in the upscale Gran Sport motif. The second generation, '66 to '68, are highly prized too, especially so since they can be had for slightly less money.

But I don't think that my neighbor is interested in parting with her '71 model Riviera, tattered vinyl roof not withstanding. I'm sure she still considers it a very classy ride.