GM gave us some genuine peak experiences before its long fall. Their post-war summit was the mid sixties. Its stock hit $358 (adjusted) in 1965, and profits crested in 1966 at $15 billion (adjusted). What about the best year for its cars? That would have to be 1963, with the trio of Corvette Sting Ray, Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera. And which one gets the nod as number one? I can’t decide. But this Riviera happened to be sitting along the road on the way home from the lumber yard, so the decision was made for me.
I can accept the fickle finger of fate making the call, but I do have some mixed feelings about this particular example that beckoned me. I envisioned an original specimen in white, with tan interior. I’m not sure what name to give this re-paint, and I’ve never seen wheel covers like these which remind me of Messala’s spoke-eating chariot hubs in Ben-Hur.
But despite, or maybe because of, the removal of some of the Riviera’s chrome accents and door handles, the dramatic sweep and purity of its lines are still very much intact. Well, except for the gaps from those ill-fitting doors. But it can still work some of that old Bill Mitchell magic on me, and transport me right back to 1963 and the Buick dealer’s showroom in Iowa City.
As a ten-year old GM acolyte, I would sit in devotion for hours in the Riviera, that sacred chapel of St. Mark of Excellence. And it was the only car worthy of equal time in the back pew. In my hands I held the heavy-stock Buick hymnal, memorizing the sacred texts: “standard engine: Wildcat 465 (named for its torque output; it took me a while to figure that out), 340 horsepower, four-barrel carburetor. Optional: Super Wildcat, 360 horsepower, dual four-barrel carburetors…”
I would have lit votive candles for Bill Mitchell on that dramatic sweep of chrome instrument altar if I thought the salesmen wouldn’t throw me out. In retrospect, I’m surprised they didn’t anyway. Salesmen were more patient with potential future customers then. And when I eventually got restless in the showroom, I’d walk back into the service area, roam around under the cars on the lifts, and hang out with the mechanics. A summer day in the pre-litigation and pre-videogame era well spent.
As a kid, I intuitively knew the Riviera was special. But I didn’t fully appreciate the impact it had on the enthusiast/sporty buyers, until I came across a 1964 Car and Driver with an in-depth “Research Report” (5,000 mile extended test). The Riviera is compared favorably with the road-worthy classic Bentley Continental, despite the Buick being less than half the price.
The Buick engineers didn’t just slap that gorgeous body on a shortened Electra frame; a fair amount of effort went into chassis tuning and refinement. And C/D spends pages in highly analytical language and charts comparing roll angles, spring rates, camber, weight distribution, etc. with the Jaguar Mark X, the Corvette, and the Volvo P-1800(!), and their effect on the Riviera’s handling. Buff mags have changed as much over the decades as the cars.
The distillation of several arcane pages is this: the Riviera isn’t a true sports car, but can hustle, even through curves, as long as the road is smooth: “We sometimes amused ourselves catching TR-4s and big Healeys on fast bends…the absolute worst was experienced when negotiating a winding road with a succession of dips and rises at a fast clip, when the car moved forward in a series of enormous lurches”. That kind of sums up American cars back then, even the best of them.
The steering was a bit compromised too: “the muscular effort required to turn the car is very low…[but] the amount of twirling that has to be done with the wheel feels excessive”. That’s why the necker’s knob was invented. But that could be dangerous, because “If you try to throw the Riviera into a sudden turn, you may find yourself halfway into it, with a sudden, if momentary, loss of power assist, and lacking the strength to turn the wheel enough to get through in clean style”. The Riviera’s buckets and vast console weren’t exactly conducive to necking on the go anyway.
In my childhood memory, the Riviera was just a rocket, and a damn elegant one. It’s encapsulated in this crystal clear image of a Riviera on the go: we were on the mountainous western part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1964, jammed into our hot, black Fairlane. A white Riviera flashed by us at what seemed twice our speed (piloted by Jack Baruth’s grandpa?). I watched in awe and envy, as those distinctive rectangular red taillights faded, then disappeared into the tunnel ahead.
Thanks for the memories, Riviera; I’m glad I was there, and that my brain cells felt it worth keeping them so fresh and clear all these years. Somehow, I suspect it’s not likely our kids will be writing their childhood memories of Buicks forty years from now.