Curbside Classic: 1972 Boattail Buick Riviera

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1972 boattail buick riviera

The boattail Riviera is a fitting finale to Curbside Classics for now. I’ve had a thing for fastbacks since day one, and I’ve been indulging in them this week. This Riviera also represents the difficult ending of an era, where the large luxury coupe, especially GM’s, was the standard bearer for American design innovation and leadership. What started as a revolutionary concept with the 1958 Thunderbird, and was elevated to timeless elegance in the 1963 Riviera, now struggled to regain its former glory in the dying days of the giant car.

The 1971 Riviera was a bold effort by GM styling head Bill Mitchell to recapture the magic that seemed to permeate GM in the sixties. The result was controversial and flawed, but its hulking and brash shape has certainly enriched our streets. For me, CC is about the visual thrill of rediscovering the unique shapes and designs of the past, no matter how imperfect, and the boattail Riviera certainly does that as well or better than any other car in my collection. It’s a car worth stopping for.

Bill Mitchell’s younger days and early career was steeped in the classic cars of the twenties and thirties. And he endlessly looked to them for inspiration. The crisp and sharp lines of the ’63 Riviera, and the awkward 1980 Seville were inspired by the razor-edge lines of the British coach-builder Hooper. And of course, the boattail speedsters of the classic era informed the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray’s tail. With this new Riviera, Mitchell again reached to the past, including his own earlier designs, the Corvette, of course.

To understand the ’71 Riviera’s design and execution challenges in greater detail, ateupwithmotor has a fine article on its tortured birth. The ’71 Riviera was originally planned to join the Grand Prix and Monte Carlo on the smaller A-Special platform. And the original sketches by John Houlihan (above) were based on that assumption. But when Buick’s new GM Lee Mays saw what was planned, he refused to spend the money on the new body shell, forcing the boattail design to be upscaled to share as much of the body of 1971 full-sized LeSabre/Centurion as possible.

Clearly, and understandably, something of the original scale and intent got lost in the translation, from the prow-like beak, to the compromise of using the LeSabre’s front greenhouse, and the challenge in blending it with the tapered rear end. The way it came out, there are certain inconsistencies in transitions as well as some awkward angles, especially the transition from the low rear window back, and the rear hips from certain angles are just all wrong. This is a car like many movie stars: it begs to be shot from certain angles, and not others.

Although the front end may have come out a bit flatter than originally conceived, I do find it to be a very handsome face nevertheless. It just screams Bill Mitchell, and in the best way possible. It evokes a number of GM designs during the golden era, and as much as anything about this car, it represents a swan song: by 1973, five mph bumpers ruined it forever, and that whole era of beautiful faces. This face is saying: take a good look, because you’ll never see anything quite like it again.

The side sweep that starts at the front fenders and carries down across the sides was a Buick trademark for ages. But its use here is questionable, given the difficult transition it has to make into those exaggerated hips.

The new Riviera was not greeted enthusiastically. Sales actually dropped from its dull and boring predecessor. Within a couple of years, the boat tail was gone, replaced by perhaps one of the dreariest Rivieras ever, still using the same front end, but with a very conventional roof and a decidedly conventional but ugly rear end.

The Riviera was a huge car for being a “personal coupe”. The ’73 version with its new bumper stretched just shy of the 225 inches that the giant Electra used to crow about. And it weighed around 5,000 lbs when equipped in the usual fashion. One of the more disappointing aspects of this generation was the ever declining loss of interior quality. While the ’63 had an interior to drool over, this Riviera shares the ever-cheaper interior of its LeSabre/Centurion stablemates. Nothing to make one feel special sitting in here, except perhaps the view out the back window.

I’m (literally) running out of words today, so let’s just take in a few more angles; each of them has plenty of visual interest.

From this direction, its clear that a fair amount of the originally intended prow made it into the final design. And under that expanse of hood sat Buick’s biggest and best 455 cubic inch V8, rated at 330 hp (gross) in 1971, and 250 hp (net) for ’72 and ’73. The GS package included a slightly higher rating on the big V8; 345 gross/270 net. Plenty of torque for the job at hand, but don’t even ask about fuel economy. These were the rock-bottom years, when single digits were the norm, and anything in the teens was something to brag about.

This angle again is an awkward one for the big boattail: those hips look fine in profile, but in conjunction with the narrowing tail, they stick out in a way that only a true lover of these cars or big-hipped women can appreciate. And there are plenty of those (in both categories). Boattails have an enthusiastic fan club, and thanks to them, we can look forward to seeing these around for a long time to come.

It was a bittersweet ending to GM’s big car golden era. And although Ford had quite a run with its popular big Lincoln Marks, they really weren’t stylistically significant, except for ushering in the vulgar baroque blow-out of the mid seventies and the ghastly Super-Fly/ Bugazzi era. The Riviera struggled along in several stages of mediocrity, until it found a reasonably happy mid-life in the fairly handsome downsized 1979-1985 incarnation. By 1986, it was a shrunken shadow of its former self, headed for its inevitable axe. All things must end.

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2 of 47 comments
  • Ceipower Ceipower on Jul 26, 2010

    Here's a car that screams , I have brass balls and I don't care who knows it. Even though this is considered a failure sales wise , I'd much rather have this as a failure on my resume , then say the Aztek. Both stayed around for a few years , neither sold in any kind of numbers. Still , over time , these boatail Riv's haven't lost their style. The Aztek can't lose what it never had.

  • Dynasty Dynasty on Jan 31, 2011

    Ok, I had one of these. Drove it as my daily driver close to four years. I'll admit.. it was big, only really a good look from certain angles.. BUT, driving this car was something special. I'm not sure where the author states these cars weighed 5000 pounds came from. In the service manual I have somewhere, I'm pretty sure the curb weight was closer to 3800 pounds. At any rate, the 455 big block had no trouble moving this vehicle down the street, or up the steepest mountain pass you could find as fast as you wanted, in the heat of summer with the frigid ac unit chilling straight through your bones. The front brakes were quite impressive too. I don't have performance figures, but they seemed to be able to stop the car quite well. In fact, for the size and weight of the vehicle it was actually quite nimble. Mine was gold with a complimenting vinyl top. I put quite a bit of time and money into doing some defered maintenance and some upgrades all pretty much to no avail. The engine (455s) had a terrible lubrication system. With cold oil, oil pressure was dismil. Once the engine was warmed up, I think I was lucky to have 10 psi. If even that much. I just remember it was pretty bad. Had I known the oil pressure problems prior to purchase, probably would have passed. And it wasn't for at least a couple years that I had it that I got to putting some VDO gauges into it. Eventually the engine needed about 2K worth of work (because of lack of oil pressure), the cost of gas was rising, and sadly.. it just was not that cool of a car, say like a 65 riviera, that I could have justified putting any more money into it. Sold it for 2k. Hopefully, the gentleman who bought it from me rebuilt the motor, because the body, interior, suspension, and brakes were all in top notch shape when he got it from me.

  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )
  • Thehyundaigarage Yes, Canadian market vehicles have had immobilizers mandated by transport Canada since around 2001.In the US market, some key start Toyotas and Nissans still don’t have immobilizers. The US doesn’t mandate immobilizers or daytime running lights, but they mandate TPMS, yet canada mandates both, but couldn’t care less about TPMS. You’d think we’d have universal standards in North America.