By on June 2, 2009

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.

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48 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1964 Buick Riviera...”

  • avatar

    One of the best looking cars on either side of the Atlantic, to this day.

  • avatar

    The story of how this car came to be is pretty fascinating. It was not originally intended as a Buick at all — it was intended as a revival of the LaSalle for Cadillac.

  • avatar

    1963 surely was a magical year for GM styling.

    Even bread and butter larger cars like the Pontiac Catalina had the wide-body stacked-headlight look and something about those creases on the hardtop of the coupes always caught my eye.

    Every so often I would make it to large swap meets like Carlisle where the breadth of cars on display would be hard to take in. Yet, seamingly every time something caught my eye and made me stop to look it was an early ’60s GM product.

    I’m sure I’d be disappointed by the driving experence with four-wheel drum brakes and two-speed automatics. But, as automotive sculpture and surely what had been the must-have designs of their time, they are great to ponder.

  • avatar

    The hubcaps are gorgeous.

    The dashboard rocks.

    I saw one in about 2000 here, crashed. It was blue. Even so, it was a beautiful car to watch.

  • avatar

    I had the privilege of driving my grandfather’s 1963 Buick Riviera. White with a blue interior. A fairly good driving car – rear vision was troublesome. As I recall it had a 455 V8 and Dynaflow tranny (pre turbo-hydramatic?). A very handsome personal coupe.

    Definitely a classic.

    We lost one of the hub-caps – it had “spinners”. I had to go to Highfield Buick (Decatur, IL) to order a new one. It was like $50 (very expensive 60’s dollars).

  • avatar
    Ken Strumpf

    One of my fondest memories was going with my Dad to pick up our brand new dark blue ’64 Chevy Belair. Now that was a nice looking car and built like a tank. I learned to drive on that car a decade later and we finally got rid of it when the upholstery wore out and we were literally sitting on springs. They really knew how to make cars back then, how did they forget it?

  • avatar

    Until ’64, when it got the Turbo Hydramatic, Rivieras and other big Buicks had the Twin Turbine (a.k.a. Twin Turbine Dynaflow) transmission. This was very nominally a two-speed automatic, but it did not use low gear in normal driving. It had a fairly complicated torque converter with two turbines (instead of the normal one) and a variable-pitch stator, which provided torque multiplication at low speeds. In Drive, you’d take off on the converter, which would give you the effect of a continuously variable transmission — a smooth flow of power. As speed increased, the stator and first turbine would freewheel, and you’d have a more-or-less straight-through, 1:1 gearing.

    To use the low gear, you had to start in Low and shift manually to Drive. I think for a Riv, depending on axle ratio, you could hold Low until around 60 mph. Naturally, the car was noticeably faster this way, although Drive was perfectly adequate most of the time.

    The ’64-on cars used the Super Turbine 400, a.k.a. Turbo Hydramatic 400. The ST400 was a conventional three-speed automatic, and a lot more efficient (if not quite as smooth) as the Twin Turbine.

  • avatar

    I never thought I would see Buick Riviera, Jaguar MkX, Corvette and Volvo P1800 in the same article!
    I guess the modern equivalent might be BMW 650, Mercedes CLS, Corvette (still) and Nissan 350Z???
    Other suggestions?

  • avatar

    I absolutely LOVE that body Rivvy, but prefer the 1965, with the concealed headlamps stacked on either side of the grill. Those things are really getting expensive. The ’60s really were GM’s styling heyday. They could learn a lot by going back and examining what they did right in those days and trying to repeat it in a modern way. And no, I don’t mean retro rides like the new Camaro or the cheesy HHR. I’d like to see purely handsome style that doesn’t need gimmicky (fender vents, anyone?) touches. The current Malibu is a nice start, and the CTS is nice (despite the vents) but it’s about all they’ve got.

  • avatar

    Oh man- I own one of these! I’ve had her since I was 16 years old. I always make the joke that it took me a few times of meeting my wife before I fell in love with her, but the first time I saw a 1st gen Rivvie, it was love at first sight!

    My thoughts turn to my ’64 Riv quite a bit now in response to GM declaring bankruptcy. How could a company that produced this magnificent vehicle a mere 45 years ago now be bankrupt? What internal processes changed (or didn’t!) to take us from Mitchell’s vision of what was essentially an American Bentley/Jag/Rolls Royce to GM today? The bankruptcy of GM hits you pretty hard if you have any intimate knowledge of what GM was. It also makes me think about my father’s ’55 Chevy. Go sit in one of those and think about how it was GM’s “value” offering in 1955.

    It has been a far fall, but I am still rooting for GM and always will.

  • avatar

    Absolutely one of the most beautiful Cadillacs, err… Buicks, GM has ever produced!

    Great picture thread on the H.A.M.B.

  • avatar

    I think I have to agree with you that 1963 was GM’s style peak. In addition to those already mentioned, the Chevy Impala 2 door hardtop was gorgeous, as well as the Olds Starfire. Was there any 1963 GM car that was not beautiful? The 63 Tempest may have been the worst of them, and it was certainly not bad.

    But anyway, this Riv stands above the rest. This car is simply beautiful. My favorite color combo was the midnight blue with a silver-blue interior.

    But as beautifully as the Riv was executed, I think that this may have been one of the earliest examples of sclerosis setting in. Ford had been making money hand over fist with the 4 place Thunderbird since 1958. It is apparent that GM did not see a market for a 4 place luxury coupe and only started on the Riv after it was clear that Ford had mined a new market. Alas, this is a pattern that would be repeated over and over in the coming decades.

    I recall a couple interesting features of these cars. Buick’s drum brakes had aluminum fins for heat dissipation. Also, the doors had a unique second door handle at the very back for rear seat passengers to open the doors from inside. Does anyone else remember the Buick speed minder of that era? It was a needle that you could adjust to a selected speed on the speedometer. When the speedo needle reached the speed set on the speed minder needle, a buzzer would sound. Not as good as cruise control, but certainly a unique feature that, so far as I know, was only on Buicks.

    As always, a fascinating read.

  • avatar

    As a 18 year old working on the line in 1972,One of the oldtimers[about a 32 year old guy]invited me out for a beer at lunch.He had a 65 Riv with a cooler full of Labbats 50 in the back seat.Seven year old car or not,I thought that Buick was the coolest thing.Or maybe it was just the beer.

    All I can remember was after lunch,working back on the line bolting gas tanks on 72 Chevies.I needed a piss so bad I could taste it.

    Thats the Riviera memory that sticks in my head.

  • avatar

    I wonder why GM/Buick never made a convertible version of the early Riv. It would have made a classic car even better.

  • avatar

    The Bill Mitchell of GM style was their peak, IMHO. Harley Earl was waaaaaaaaaaaaaay overrated.


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    Engineering a convertible wasn’t cheap, and volumes were low. And they already had them on both full and mid-size platforms.


    I agree, somewhat. Earl, like Mitchell, was best in his earlier years. Think ’48 Caddy fastback coupe (a gem), ’55 Chevy (excellent). His last years in the late fifties were bad. But Mitchell had the same problem; think mid eighties!

  • avatar

    No I haft’a disagree Bunter,no doubt Mitchell had a touch.Harley Earl however was a trail blazer.

  • avatar

    Right Paul, Mitchell had problems in the mid eighties.The problems came from the bean counters.

  • avatar

    Those were beautiful cars.

  • avatar

    jpcavanaugh: I think I have to agree with you that 1963 was GM’s style peak.

    I believe that 1965 was GM’s peak year for styling.

    The 1965 Corvair was better looking than the 1960-64 models, and the Buick-Olds-Pontiac intermediates were much more attractive than their 1963 counterparts.

    jpcavanaugh: But as beautifully as the Riv was executed, I think that this may have been one of the earliest examples of sclerosis setting in. Ford had been making money hand over fist with the 4 place Thunderbird since 1958. It is apparent that GM did not see a market for a 4 place luxury coupe and only started on the Riv after it was clear that Ford had mined a new market.

    Ford apparently used several GM Motorama showcars as inspiration for the 1958 Thunderbird! Many of those cars were low-slung hardtop coupes with bucket seats and a console. But GM failed to follow up on the crowd’s favorable reaction to its designs.

    As one GM designer bitterly noted, the Motoramas provided free market research for Ford, which only had to pay the cost of a few tickets to gauge the reaction of crowds to GM’s designs! Of course, it was GM’s fault for not following up on the reactions of the crowd to new ideas and concepts

    Paul Niedermeyer: But Mitchell had the same problem; think mid eighties!

    Bill Mitchell retired in 1977. If I recall correctly, his last designs for GM were the 1980 Cadillac Seville and the restyled 1980 full-size cars. He can’t be held responsible for GM’s mid-1980s clunkers.

  • avatar

    I think 1967 was the best year…

    Corvette (same as 63)
    Every Pontiac
    Most Buicks
    Caddy ElDorado
    Olds 442
    Olds 98 – I dunno why, but I LOVE this car. So low and wide-looking.

    Even the Trucks were bad-ass.

  • avatar


    I believe that 1965 was GM’s peak year for styling.

    I have to disagree. Look at the 65 Olds 88. Ugh. I also thought the 65 Cutlass, though better than the 63, was a big step down from the 64. 65 Impala was also never one of my favorites. Not near as pretty as the 66. I will go with you on the Pontiac Bonneville, though. The 65 was nearly as pretty as the 63, maybe a bit better.

    Bill Mitchell retired in 1977. If I recall correctly, his last designs for GM were the 1980 Cadillac Seville and the restyled 1980 full-size cars. He can’t be held responsible for GM’s mid-1980s clunkers.

    So Bill Mitchell was responsible for the 80-85 Olds 88. That was one of the ugliest cars GM ever built. The 77-79 Olds (both 88 and 98) were the best looking of that generation of big cars. The 80-85 Olds was the worst. That horrid slope-nose was terrible. I had an 84 Olds 98. An attractive car from the doors back, but the front just ruined it. All hail the gods of aerodynamics.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    64 was my favorite year for GM looks. Mostly for the Impala covertable, the Chevelle and the GTO. Caddies still had fins. The first gen Riviera warnt no slouch either. Keep ’em coming , Paul.

  • avatar

    The 65 Riviera GS is probably my all time favorite GM.

  • avatar

    argentla :

    Thank you for the LaSalle info, that was very interesting.

  • avatar

    ” transport me right back to 1963 and the Buick dealer’s showroom in Iowa City.”
    Thomas Wolfe had it right: You can’t go home again.
    63 Buick and all.

  • avatar

    jpcavanaugh: I always thought that all of the 1965 GM full-size cars were stunning automobiles – particularly the Chevrolet. I love the triple floating taillights on the Impalas.

    My parents had a 1965 Bel Air station wagon, and even that was good looking. Unfortunately, the quality didn’t match the looks, and within six years, it was rolling junk. It was in 1965 that Chevrolet really started to go downhill.

    The 1965 88 and Ninety-Eight were also very handsome cars…much smoother and more unified than any of the full-size Olds from 1959-64.

    To each his own, I guess!

    As for the 1980-85 Oldsmobile Delta 88s and Ninety-Eights – I remember thinking that they looked awkward when I first saw them, but they grew on me. They were extremely popular cars at the time. My parents had a 1982 Delta 88 Royale in Jadestone with wire covers, but without the vinyl roof. That car always received favorable comments. It was very reliable, too.

  • avatar

    geeber: I will go with you on the 65 Olds 98. In fact, all of the big C bodies were quite attractive in 65-66. And you are right about those 80s 88s. They were everywhere. I always thought it was a huge mistake for GM to eliminate the big rear drive chassis in the 90s. A more attractive re-body in the 90s would have sold like crazy. That was the only kind of car GM was ever really good at anyhow. (OK, Corvette guys, the Corvette too.)

    An interesting (to me, anyway) tangential thought – what was the best looking year for the entire industry during the 60s? I would argue 1966. Other than the Marilin, was there a bad looking car built in 66?

  • avatar


    It would be a toss-up between 1965 and 1966. The Marlin was the only real stinker for both years, although the Barracuda wasn’t much of a looker, either.

  • avatar


    You have a mistake in the stock price. There was a split in GM stock somewhere probably in the last 25 years–I’m not sure when. In any event, my parents bought me a single share for xmas ’63 or ’64, paying $96 for it, which if ’63 is $643 in today’s dollars. And somewhere along the line, that share split into two. David

  • avatar

    I could swear the first Riviera was 1964. I made the same September pilgrimages as you apparently did, and the salesmen were always friendly, probably hoping I’d drag my father down.

    That Riviera is in any event an absolutely beautiful, elegant car. My favorite year for GM was ’64, the Impala, the Chevelle, Corvette, the Buicks (all of them), and the Pontiacs and Olds. But especially the Impala, the Chevelle, the Wildcat and the Riviera.

    The Riviera looks sad in your photos, as if it should be on the beach at La Jolla or Santa Monica, and here it is in this funky section of Eugene instead, near the trailer vendor and the lumber yard, wearing those funky hubcaps. It does look like it’s in real good shape though.

  • avatar

    Paul, that looks like the same place where you photographed the bright chartreuse A-body Mopar car a while ago.

    Nice-looking Riviera, GM’s counterpart to the Chrysler 300K.

  • avatar

    Love your Curbside Classics, Paul. They are one of the crown jewels of TTAC. Though I grew up a decade later, I had a similar fascination for 70s cars as a kid. Considering how enthralled I was with the boattail Rivs of my youth, I can’t imagine getting to see all the 60s classics brand new in the showrooms.

    Thanks again, and keep ’em coming!

  • avatar

    Closest I came to one of these was a 1963 Buick LeSabre with the 401 Cu. inch engine—a 4 door dressed up in jet-black with a salmon interior. If my memory serves me well—it was about ‘a block long’, had that wonderful ‘variable pitch Dynaflow’ automatic—bought it used in ’65, had it for 8 years. Among its bullet-proof reliabilty, it was very quiet, was softly-sprung, and had awesome acceleration! Taking curves on twisty roads needed some care and attention, however. I loved that car.
    Of only 2 GM cars owned, it was my first. The second one was a ’76 Chev. Malibu—my last GM car which I had for 10 years. My last and final foray into GM automobile ownership was in 1979 when I test-drove the Citation—a vast disappointment, and which history proved my decision to be the ‘right one’.

  • avatar

    Bill Mitchell reached mandatory retirement age in 1977. His replacement was Irv Rybicki, who was a genial, cooperative, team player (Mitchell, like Harley Earl, was a hard-drinking hell-raiser). You could probably lay a lot of responsibility for GM’s dreadful 80s products on Rybicki’s shoulders. It was not that he was a bad designer, but any time the divisions or senior management demanded something (more commonality, in particular), he didn’t fight: he said, “Sure, okay.”

    Chuck Jordan, who had been Mitchell’s intended successor, took over later in the 80s, and he was responsible for a lot of the rather attractive GM cars of the 90s, like the final Riviera.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Yes; I meant to say mid-seventies, regarding Mitchell. With some exceptions, I think much of the seventies GM styling was not up to the mid-sixties level.

    David Holzman, I used Yahoo Finance historical chart; to my knowledge, their charts are always adjusted for stock splits. If you can prove your higher price, I’ll change it.

    Of course, since you thought the Riviera came out in ’64, I’m not feeling that the odds of changing the stock price is very high :)

    fincar1, No, that was in a cemetery. This is a trailer sales lot. Although, it was as dead as a cemetery there.

  • avatar


    Your inference that I’m likely to be wrong about the stock price because I may be wrong about when the Riviera came out is poorly founded. Being off on the year the Riviera came out, over 45 yrs ago, would be a relatively easy memory slip-up. For me to be off about the stock is not. Here’s why. I was a rabid GM fan. My parents bought me the stock–my share of ownership of my then favorite company–and the sum they paid, $96, seemed like a huge sum to me then, so it stuck in my mind. I’ve had that share ever since, and never bought any more. But as I mentioned, at some time in the last 25 years it split, so I now have two shares. I don’t think my share is anomalous in any way; I’d be very surprised if all shares of common stock didn’t split when mine did. I plugged the $96 into an adjuster for inflation for the year 1963, and it gave me $643 in 2007 $. So I suspect the Yahoo finance historical chart made a mistake. David

  • avatar

    In fact, GM’s website shows a stock split 2 for one in feb 89.

  • avatar

    @jpcavanaugh re best year

    I’d say ’64. I think alot of the GMs became too bulky after that, and more so in ’66 than in ’65. Same w/ the Chryslers. The ’64 is definitely the apogee of the Imperial. Only the Corvair improves significantly from ’64 to ’65 (and I bet I’d get an argument from PN on that score).

    The downhill slide accelerated in the ’70s, and on into the ’80s, although the ’80s Caprice was a very nice looking car–as was the ’90s Caprice, though in a very different way.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    Maybe you didn’t notice my smile emoticon at the end of my comment, I was giving you a hard time about the Riviera.

    But I’m still sure you’re wrong. Here’s the GM stock chart back to 1962:

    These stock charts are automatically adjusted for stock splits. Look at 1989, when GM stock did split; if it wasn’t adjusted, the stock would have immediately dropped 50%. Anyway, I’m quite certain that these charts compensate for splits automatically, otherwise the old prices would be meaningless. I’m happy to be proven wrong though :)

  • avatar

    That Riv’s instrument panel reminds me of my Dad’s
    64 Wildcat. One evening while jockeying cars in
    our driveway, I was called inside for a phone call. An hour later I went to bed. The next morn-
    ing Dad found the car still idling in the driveway. The interior was hotter than Hades and
    it drank 3/4 tank of gas. I offered to fill the tank and change the oil, and everything was OK.
    About Buick’s speed & handling? Ask my buddy
    Andy how it took the Route 14 steel truss bridge
    at 100 mph!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    cubemarc, The Riviera shared much of it’s upper panel parts with the C-body Riviera and Wildcat. They couldn’t afford to tool up a unique one.

  • avatar

    When I was a boy, a neighbor owned one of these. The dude bought the car new, and used it as a daily driver for 17 years. There was an engraved badge on the dash that said: “Made especially for Stanley K.” Stan ordered it with exactly the features he wanted. I thought it was so incredibly cool. He finally sold it in 1981 after rust had eaten away large parts of the car. The Riv was replaced with an 81 Olds. I can’t remember which model Olds, but I do remember it was a horrendous, ugly, piece of shit, that seemed to spend half its time on the lift at the dealer.

  • avatar

    Paul N is right, if a share is an after-the-split share. I was stuck thinking of a share as a “before-the-split” share. My parents paid $96 for what was, from today’s perspective, two shares.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    There were no 455s in 1963.
    And 1969 was GM’s best year. The new Grand Prixs with 390HP, ‘The Judge’, absolutely beautiful full-size (The Bonneville “Coke Bottle” look). The 428 was their best engine. You can tell Pontiac was my favorite division (way back when I thought there was a difference!)
    And the 455 came out across all lines except Chevrolet in 1970 in answer to emission standards and to retain some semblance of power. Some 455s actually did quite well (SD 455 comes to mind; also the Buick 455 was a hoss.) And they averaged what, 10 MPG?

  • avatar

    GM’s intermediates looked great in 1969, but I always thought that several of its full-size cars looked too fat and heavy that year. And the Toronado had that awful front end that ruined the entire car.

  • avatar

    I really enjoy the curbside classic series, keep em coming!
    I have found memories as kid drooling over these cars. My tastes where more modest. I really liked the early/mid sixties Impalas (favorite uncle had one)

    As I recall a friend of my mine, dad had a Olds 88 or 98 convert.
    It had the needle that buzzed at your set speed. It was white with red leather.
    And speak of interiors, what happened to the color choices? all we have to pick is tan,black,grey. Might be worth an article

    As far as demise of GM: look to the era, when the whiskey & scotch drinkers whom preferred blonds where replaced by the wine and cheese MBA yuppies, down hill from there on.

  • avatar

    Funny, I think the first car that really fascinated me. I can’t even be sure how old I was…probably less than 10. About 20 minutes up the road there was a tiny town called Palermo(now consumed by subdivisions). In front of one of the very few homes someone had parked a silver one of these. It looked okay, but something must have gone wrong mechanically as it never budged. I remember harassing my dad that he should ask about that car and if they wanted to sell it. A few years later, I moved out west for 4 years. When I returned, it was a rusted heap, up to it’s axles in mud. Had I known, I would have at least tried to salvage the 401 nailhead. As it was, it disappeared, no doubt to the junkyard. Bastards.

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