3 June 2009

1963-1965 Buick Riviera: Substance and Style

While the Riviera name in the Buick scheme dates as far back as the late 1940s, it wasn't until 1963 that the Riviera became a stand-alone model. It was at that time that the Riv became a symbol of American luxury, power, and design that solidified the car's classic status.

The Riviera debuted at the Paris Auto Show, a curious choice for an American coupe, even considering the car's name. The Eurocentric introduction emphasized the Riviera's role as a departure from the standard fare coming from Detroit. This was a world-class car, and what better place to show if off than on the world's stage.

The Riviera was unique among the GM lineup, in that it shared its bodyshell with no other GM products, and critics praised it for its razor-sharp coupe styling, with a low-profile roofline, broad C-pillar, short wheelbase, and rear-slanted grille. It also came extremely well appointed, with amenities like leather bucket seating, wood highlights, a console, power steering, aluminum-finned drum brakes, and map and courtesy lights. Options included air conditioning, tilt steering, cruise control, AM/FM radio, and power windows and seats.

But the Riviera was not just a pretty face. Mechanically, it relied on V8 power from a 401-ci "nailhead," driving 325 horses to the rear wheels through Buick's trusty Dynaflow automatic transmission. Because it weighed less than many contemporary Buicks yet utilized the same powerplant, the Riviera could move. Motor Trend recorded a 0 to 60 mph time of eight seconds, with a top speed of 115 mph. For an extra $50, a 340-hp, 425-ci V8 was also available.

Handling tended toward mild understeer, but overall the car exhibited a balance not found in many of its contemporaries. Skilled drivers could extract plenty of performance from the Riviera if the road got twisty.

With a base price of $4,330, the Riviera wasn't cheap, and most buyers inched prices towards $5,000 by optioning the car heavily. Production for 1963 totaled 40,000 cars which, coupled with the heady price, distinguishing the Riviera as Buick's flagship. It was also positioned as a direct competitor to the Ford Thunderbird, and as such the Riviera was a success.

Changes for 1964 were few, though a stylized "R" emblem replaced the traditional Buick logo — a detail that would stick with the Riviera until the car was finally discontinued in 1999. The 401 V8 was dropped, with the 425 now standard, while a Super Wildcat V8 became the high-performance engine of choice that year, with dual Carter AFB 4-barrel carburetors and a 360-hp rating. The Dynaflow transmission was replaced by a new 3-speed Super Turbine 400 known as the Turbo Hydramatic. Sales in 1964 dipped to 37,958.

By 1965, plans were already underway to restyle the popular coupe, but the last of the first-generation Rivieras upped the performance ante with a new Gran Sport model. The high-performance GS included the 425-ci Super Wildcat V8, along with dual exhaust, a stiffer suspension with heavy-duty components, and a revised rear axle ratio. The 401 V8 reappeared as the base engine, and the headlights were now concealed behind clamshell doors, a design originally intended for production from the start. The non-functional air intakes that had characterized the rear side sheetmetal were now gone, and tilt steering became standard. Sales for 1965 totaled 34,586.

With over 112,000 units sold in its first three years, the first-generation Buick Riviera did exactly as Bill Mitchell and the rest of its creators intended for it to do — challenge the Thunderbird for four-seat supremacy and show the world what General Motors was capable of.

Subsequent generations furthered the luxury and performance ideals that had established the Riviera model, but it is the cars built from 1963 to 1965 that put the Riviera on the collector car map.

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