By on December 28, 2009

san mateo riviera

Time to visit the the in-laws and old friends in the Bay Area. When the women and kids head for the mall, and the men turn on the game, its time for me to slip out and prowl the streets of San Mateo. Like most older Bay Area cities, it’s densely built, and an ideal hunting ground for Curbside Classics. And the climate here is about the best possible for street-side car preservation: less rain than Oregon, but not too much intense hot sunshine either. I’ve bagged a whole bunch of interesting cars that I haven’t seen in Eugene, so let’s take a look at them this week starting with this very excellent 1968 Riviera.

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Since it is vacation, and I don’t want to be branded anymore of a social outcast than I already am, I’m going to keep the commentary pretty short this week. We covered the genesis of Buick’s T-Bird fighter pretty thoroughly in the 1964 Riviera CC. The ’68 – ’69 Riviera are the middle of the three-part gen2 series, beginning with the quite clean and dramatic 1966, and ending with the increasingly blobby 1970.

Buick was clearly having a bit of an identity crisis with the Riviera. While the ’66 and ’67s tried to maintain, and even supersede the gen 1’s Motorama styling, this ’68 shows a tendency to come down to earth. The heavy wrap-around bumpers front and rear lost the delicacy of it predecessor’s details, and it just doesn’t look quite as exclusive anymore, with a greater resemblance to the rest of the Buick family.

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CC SM74 093 800It’s not just imagined either: Buick was letting the price (and standard content) slip in relation to inflation. The interior on this car makes that pretty clear; it’s anything but very special anymore. It looks straight out of a garden-variety Buick, having lost its dramatic dash, console and high quality materials (buckets and console were now optional). If the effect was to increase volume, it was working. These ’68 and almost identical ’69 models sold some 50k units per year, setting a high water mark until 1985, when buyers were grabbing the last semi-big Riviera before it was mutilated for the 1986 “Deadly Sin” version.

The 1968 Riviera was a healthily-engined car. The all-new Buick V8s had come out just the year before, with better breathing heads then the odd “nail-head” design. The 430 CI version in the Riviera pumped out 360 (gross) hp; it was an engine who’s lusty side I had thoroughly explored in a GF’s 1967 Wildcat. My homage to it’s effortless ability to accelerate a sofa down the road, as well as my take on the 1971 boat-tail Riviera can be found here.

CC SM74 092 800The Riviera of this vintage was about as good as it got for big American fast cruisers, especially in GS trim, which brought a firmer suspension and a few other goodies. The engines were smooth, and still breathed before the smog controls choked them in another couple of years. GM’s suspension development work was paying off, especially if the right option boxes were checked. If you wanted to fly down the freeway at triple-digit speeds in comfort and style, this was about as good as it got, until the Mercedes V8s showed up a few years later.

This particular Riviera is a true CC; it’s got just the right balance of patina and preservation, and in the benign Bay Area climate, it will still be sitting here on the street thirty years from now, looking ready to take on all comers.

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17 Comments on “Curbside Classic CA Vacation Edition: 1968 Buick Riviera...”

  • avatar

    i’m not from the USA and not too familiar with old america iron at all, but one thing i’ve noticed is that these cars all seem to be substantially updated or facelifted every year or two, not every 4-6 years like is the norm now.  and in the case of the Riviera, the older 64/66 models actually look newer and better than the 68/70 versions.  i think the 64 actually looks somewhat european (in XXXL size of course)

    • 0 avatar

      Yes that was the norm back in those days, refer to the 1955, 56, 57 Chevrolet Bel Air and the dramatic differences in styling.  Buick at different times in GM’s history has tried to be the “European” styled division.  Of course like all divisions it would suffer from identity crises while attempting to do that.  The most recent time was probably the mid to late 80s when some of Buick’s adds made allusions to European styling, although given GM’s ownership of Saab from 1989, it’s easy to see why those aspirations quickly died.  (But not before GM tried to make Oldsmobile the “European” division right before they killed it.

    • 0 avatar

      If you want to see amazing changes in a short time, look at the 1957, 1958, and 1959 Chevrolets…or for that matter, those same years for the other GM lines.

  • avatar

    Nice find! I don’t think I’ve ever even seen this generation/refresh of the  Riviera before.  I love mildly-beaten survivors, because they aren’t carefully cared for, but clearly well-loved enough to be made to keep running for decades.
    What would have been funny, is if you ran into Murilee Martin on a DOTS mission while hunting for CC’s.  Actually, I think doing so would destroy both TTAC and Jalopnik, so maybe it wouldn’t be so funny.

  • avatar

    I had a ’68 just like the one pictured… mine was tan with a white top, white interior… quite a looker, and it was in excellent shape.  I bought it after I foolishly sold my ’67 Wildcat (do I hear an echo in here?!?!), thinking it would be a slightly different flavor but more or less the same vibe.

    I was wrong.  Although the Riv had the exact same engine/trans combo, it was a completely different car to drive.  Where my Wildcat was alive, living, breathing, like driving a floppy but  fast manta ray, the Riv drove like my folk’s old ’72 Kingswood wagon.  It moved, but it felt bloated and numb as hell… lifeless.  Where the Wildcat’s size felt like a presence, the Riv felt like a lumbering whale, a total remote-control driving experience.  Mind you, this is all impressions from the driver’s seat.

    In short, my Riv was a beautiful visual statement and a cool, cool ride to be seen in, but a snoozer to drive.  I concur that this car marked a turning point for GM, the transition from the 60’s to the 70’s.  And not for the better.
    After two years, I finally sold mine out of sheer driving boredom.  The only thing I miss about it was that amazing, flawless white interior.

  • avatar

    I remember that they had a rolling speedometer. The numbers would roll on a drum, behind a stationary line.

  • avatar

    this is so unfair. I mean, California is a cornucopia of curbside classics. They’re so all over the place. Paradise for CC shutterbugs. But heck, can’t you do any better than that grody-looking (stylistically) Buick? Last time I was in Berkeley there was a Volvo p1800 wagon, among others. Lets have some real beauties.

  • avatar

    Is that some faded Earl Scheib repaint or is this just a car that has never seen the inside of a garage in 41 years?

    Back in the early 1990’s there was one of these for sale in my then neighborhood for the longest time, triple white, a decent 10-footer.  It kept my automotive Lust-o-Meter jumping, but I had a young child and just enough income to pay the bills.   Then, dammit, the slacker kid living next door bought it.   Now I was really PO’ed because I knew what was going to happen next.   This kid had an amazing talent at turning every car he owned into a parts car — occasionally by wrecking them, but more frequently by misguided attempts to improve them.  There was always at least one and sometimes two of such hulks in their back yard at any given time.  Sure enough, he set about trying to hop up the Riviera, and while various chromed items appeared in the engine compartment, something didn’t go well, because he had an engine compartment fire in the driveway.  I think he made one feeble attempt to repair it, but mostly the poor beast sat in his driveway rusting for about 3-4 years, with the fire-blistered hood removed and sitting on the roof, and a blue tarp covering the damaged engine.  Eventually the car was towed away but for some reason the hood remained a few years longer, sitting in the bed of one of the two Chevy S-10’s he was forever trying to reassemble into one good truck.

    (no, I wasn’t living in some redneck trailer park, this was in Philadelphia.  Our driveways were off a back alley so all this was screened off from the street, and the police had their hands too full keeping up withthe crack dealers to worry about technically illegal junk cars).

  • avatar

    I am the proud owner of a 69 Riviera. The 69 model year brought some significant changes to the car. Variable ratio power steering, Buick’s new front suspension (designed to track straighter putting the center link aft of the steering box) , collapsable steering column and much more. 
    I have modernized the suspension somewhat with stronger front springs beefier front sway bar and a rear sway bar. Polyurethane bushings , KYB shocks and BF Goodrich Comp TAs  round out the package. The car handles great for what it is.Body roll and rear slide has been greatly reduced. On the highway the car will cruise effortlessly at 80 to 100mph. I try as much as possible to get an empty road and just let it go, it seems to love it!

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    The early 60s Riviera and Toronado were fabulous cars. In the late 60s GM lost the thread. This car was at the inflection point.

  • avatar

    An interesting counterpoint to an earlier TTAC article where the 1958 Thunderbird (which started the whole ‘personal luxury car’ market) was ranked as one of the “Five Most Revolutionary Vehicles”. Where the ’58 T-Bird defined the market, a mere ten years later, the Riviera had morphed into being nothing more than just another 2-door hardtop Buick.

    FWIW, ‘Bunkie’ Knudson managed to accomplish virtually the same thing with the 1969 Thunderbird. At least the ’69 ‘Bird had a pointy, Pontiac-like nose to distinguish it from other Fords. Once Knudson was gone from Ford, though, so was the ‘Bird’s beak (and any semblence of anything special, too).

    To Buick’s credit, they made a valiant attempt at reviving the Riviera’s original purpose with the swoopy, torpedo-back 1971. Unfortunately, the dramatic styling seemed to scare GM and, by 1974, the Riviera had reverted back to being just another Buick.

    • 0 avatar

      The 1971 Riviera was originally supposed to be downsized to the intermediate chassis, much as Pontiac had done with the 1969 Grand Prix. Unfortunately, Buick got a new general manager, and he hated both the boat-tail and the downsizing plan. He wasn’t able to stop the first part of the plan, but he could stop the second part of it. Thus, the 1971 Riviera was based on the full-size platform.  The boat-tail and sweeping lines were just too much on the larger chassis.

      Of course, the 1971 Toronado and Eldorado also ended up looking very bloated, and the 1972 Thunderbird was basically a fatter LTD coupe with a longer hood and more cramped passenger compartment. It was really nothing special by then.

      The 1971 Riviera didn’t sell too well, but the 1974-76 versions without the boat-tail sold even more poorly. Granted, a recession had set in by 1974, but sales never really recovered for 1976 when the rest of the market – and big cars in particular – bounced back. The Riviera never really recovered until the downsized, front-wheel-drive version debuted for 1979.

    • 0 avatar

      It is a shame what happened to the Riviera after 1973. The ’82-’85 convertible was okay, as well as a noble attempt to distinguish and bring back the marque with the final, ’95-’99 after the absolute worst ’86-’93, thinly-disguised E-body version of the Regal (which I believe was accurately discussed in a previous CC).

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Back in early ’67 I was exiled to a prep school in Maine. The head master had a new dark green metallic  Gran Sport. He was a  jerk, but the car was a beauty. This Riviera has the same styling.  I agree that  the 1st gen  Riv was better looking.  on the whole, I  prefer GMs of 62-64 better than from 65 up.  The rounded edges made them look  bloated.

  • avatar

    The ugly bumpers and boring dash were the direct result of the new 1968 Federal safety standards.  Thin, but ineffective, bumpers were out.  Dashboards had to get heavy padding and flush switchgear.

  • avatar

    Glad to see you’re in the Bay Area. There are a lot of CC-worthy cars here in San Jose. On the street next to mine is an old Isuzu Trooper, and on the main road there is a Chevy Bel-Air and a DeSoto. I know there are more, but I only recently began paying attention.

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