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

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Good morning, class. Welcome to GM’s Deadly Sins 101. In this seminar we will review and analyze some of the most critical blunders GM made over the decades, focusing on the ill-conceived, unreliable, ugly, and just plain mediocre products that destroyed the company. I struggled mightily with the decision as to the first example, given all the boners available to me. But here it is, GM’s Deadly Sin The 1986 Buick Riviera.

Please take a close look at the image on the overhead projector. You see two very similar looking cars, both Buick coupes from the year 1986. They are very close in size, concept, shape, and even surface details. They share the same basic engine. There’s only one really material difference: the price. One of these two cars cost more than twice as much (125% more) than the other one.

The car on top is a Somerset Regal coupe, which appeared in 1985 and competed with such other august GM compact products like the Pontiac Grand Am and the Olds Cutlass Calais in the popular priced segment (approx. $9K ($18K adjusted)). The fact that it was fairly difficult to distinguish these N-Body cars from one another will undoubtedly be the subject of another GMDS.

The car below it is the Riviera, which GM released in this form one year after(!) the much cheaper Somerset. Its list

price started at $20,000 ($39,000 adjusted). Since all of you spent $249 to buy my mandatory Curbside Classics textbook and DVD, you undoubtedly remember the chapter on the 1964 Riviera. It was one of the finest, if not the ultimate, post-war American cars. The Riviera and its stable mates Olds Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado were a belated response to the category that the 1958 Thunderbird first defined: the premium personal coupe.

While the T-Bird eventually lost its way and morphed (several times) into something else, the GM coupes came to own that market segment and generated healthy profits as well as the halo effect for the premium divisions. The success of the Riviera, Toronado and Eldorado were one of the key vital signs of health in GM’s far-distant profitable past.

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges presented by the changing times, especially the energy crises. While the Riviera started out a reasonable sized 208″ length, it suffered the same obesity crisis along with all of GM’s cars. By 1974, the boat-tailed Riviera was up to 223″. But the successful downsizing of 1979 resulted in a fairly handsome coupe, now with FWD and an available turbocharged 3.8 V6. It wasn’t as stunning as the original, but stunning is hard to replicate. But it was back to the original size, at 206″ overall, and substantially more efficient.

It sold well, too. In its last year, 1985, Buick moved 65k Rivs, the all-time high. And then, disaster arrived. The downsized E-body coupes for 1986 were the knock-out punch after the set up of the 1985 C-body sedans, shriveled shadows of the former DeVille, Electra and 98. Sales of the C-body sedans dropped considerably, and Lincoln’s proud RWD Town Car quickly surpassed the DeVille. But that was nothing compared the the E-body nightmare in the making.

All three of GM’s former cash cows suddenly developed cold cow syndrome, with the Riviera’s udders drying up the most. In its first year, 1986, sales were down a stunning 70%. And the drop didn’t stop; by 1988, unit sales were a mere 8,500, an 87% reduction from 1985. I challenge all of you students to find a comparable or worse drop in sales in direct response to a restyle, not economic conditions. Keep in mind that these years were during an economic growth cycle.

The Eldorado gave the Riviera a good run for the money in the first year sales drop, with a 69% reduction. But after another small drop in ’87, Eldo stabilized, for a while anyway. And Toronado came in third, with a mere 62% drop in ’86.

But all three models were mortally wounded by the mummified 1986 re-design, and the ludicrous efforts in subsequent restyles to add overhang to the front and rear of these dwarves became ever-more embarrassing. Bill Mitchell must have been mortified in his retirement.

Buick made a last-ditch attempt to revive the Riviera with the dramatic 1995 model. The G-platform was shared with Olds’ Aurora, but they were one-year mini-wonders, at best. After a brief wave of interest, their auto-pilots were programmed to terminal dive mode. The 1999 model managed just 1,956 units, before the breathing tube was finally pulled on the Riviera.

It wasn’t only the loss of sales of these once glorious coupes that was such a mortal blow. It was what these cars

once represented: GM as a purveyor of excellent design, desirable image, decent build quality, and a stranglehold on the mid-upper premium market segment. All these were utterly destroyed. Olds is long gone, Buicks are driven once a day to the senior special at God’s Waiting Room Café, and Cadillac is trying to start from scratch.

We’ll see you again for GM’s Deadly Sin #2. Any questions or comments? Class dismissed.

More New Curbside Classics Here

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

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  • John Franklin Mason John Franklin Mason on Sep 25, 2012

    Paul Niedermeyer, there are those who have made comments at GMInsider who trend to disagree with your assertion "the successful downsizing of 1979 resulted in a fairly handsome coupe," or the downsized 1977-1985 full sized General Motors cars. They have expressed their opionon that the designs were rather "mundane." I created the design images used on the 1977-1990 big bodied Cadillac Deville's/Brougham's and Chevrolet Impala/Caprice's. Also the big bodied 1977-1985 Buicks and Oldsmobile's as well as the 1979-1985 Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera. The Award Winning Chevrolet Impala/Caprice was also Motor Trends 1977 Car of the year. I drew dozens of copies each of most images and hundreds of copies of the 1979 Toronado (my personal favorite) that were lost and are likely to have survived. Those drawing are very valuable and I am trying to locate them.

  • Cornchip Cornchip on Nov 24, 2013

    I always thought those '95-'98 Rivieras had a lot of class. My mom bought a '92 Roadmaster wagon, which was an absolute whale, but is was incredibly comfy and actually reliable. It had close to 300,000mi on it when it got T-boned by a van with my brother behind the wheel. Along with the Impala SS, I have a little soft spot in my heart for those three '90s GMs. Slightly off topic but oh well.

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