Happy Birthday Riv’
Evans takes a look at Buick’s original personal luxury car, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary…
While it is often understood that Ford’s Thunderbird created the so-called ‘Personal Luxury’ segment with its introduction as a 1955 model, I’d argue that this type of car really didn’t hit its stride until the Sixties and the launch of the 1963 Buick Riviera, a milestone car, which is now celebrating its 60th anniversary. Yes, there were sporty, personal type two-doors before that, notably the T-bird, and exclusive 1956-57 Continental Mk II and later, the full-size Oldsmobile Starfire and Pontiac Grand Prix from General Motors, but I’d argue that it was the Riviera that came to really define the breed and led to an explosion in these types of offerings.
Initial styling studies didn’t impress the General’s then vice-president of design, William L Mitchell. Legend has it that while on a trip to the UK, Mitchell was inspired by seeing a custom Rolls-Royce in the mist, leading to a new direction in styling proposals. Under Mitchell’s watch, Ned Nickels and his team began working on what was to become the XP-715, which Mitchell christened as the LaSalle II.
Originally, the new personal luxury car was conceived as a new model in the Cadillac line-up, but GM’s highest-profile division had already started work on its own design in partnership with Oldsmobile (which would ultimately emerge as the 1967 Eldorado). As a result, GM brass decided to offer the concept to other GM divisions to see if they could come up with a suitable result. Ultimately, it was at Buick where the personal luxury idea generated most interest, seen as a suitable image builder to boost somewhat flagging sales.
Debuting on October 4, 1962 as a 1963 model, the new car, dubbed Riviera, was an instant sensation. Its clean, crisp lines made it look like nothing else on the road and it had performance to back up its svelte looks. Although a full-size car, the Riv was both shorter and narrower than its siblings, riding on a unique 117-inch wheelbase X-frame. Under the hood was a standard 401cu in Buick V8, the so-called Wildcat 445, which packed 325 horsepower and 445lb-ft of torque. As befitting its somewhat sporty persona, a four-barrel Rochester Quadrajet carburettor and dual exhausts were also standard on the Riviera.
A larger, 425cu in V8 with 340hp and 465lb-ft of torque was available as an option, but even in standard trim, the ’63 Riviera was a stout performer in its day. It could accelerate from 0-60mph in close to eight seconds and cover the standing quarter-mile in 16 seconds at around 115mph (remember, this was still a big, 4000lb car). Priced at $4333, Buick sold every one of the 40,000 units allocated for production that year and the Riviera did wonders in revitalising Buick’s image in the marketplace.
For 1964, the Riviera received a number of updates, chief among them being the adoption of a larger 425cu in V8 as standard – the Wildcat 465 with 340bhp and 465lb-ft of torque (a Super Wildcat V8 with 365bhp and dual-quad carburation was available as an extra cost ($139.75) option. Arguably even bigger news was the adoption of a new transmission, GM’s new Super Turbine 400, which provided much improved momentum to the rear tyres – 43% in fact, over the old Dynaflow. Although sales skidded a bit for 1964 – to 37,658 units – there was no denying that the Riviera had made a big splash in the marketplace. The original 1963 design was updated for 1965, its final year of production. Most notable was the adoption of stacked hidden headlights behind electrically operated clamshell doors (originally proposed for ’63 but axed because of cost considerations) and a redesigned tail with higher-mounted bumper and altered tail-lights.
A Gran Sport option (coded A9) debuted for 1965 and is considered to be among the most highly prized Rivieras ever built. Gran Sports were spec’d with a 425cu in V8 rated at 360bhp and 465lb-ft of torque, with dual quad 600cfm Carter AFB carburettors and a unique 2¼-inch dual exhaust. The Super Turbine 400 transmission was recalibrated for firmer shifts, while a standard 3.42:1 axle ratio was fitted to Gran Sports.
A total of 34,586 Rivieras were built for 1965, though only 3354 of those were ordered with the Gran Sport Option.
Although as a breed, the personal-luxury coupe finally fizzled out in the mid-2000s – a victim of growing buyer preference for crewcab pick-ups and crossover utilities – surviving examples of this genre of automobile represent a special part of American car culture, one that speaks to a genteel elegance of days gone by. And there’s no question that at the very pinnacle of personal luxury motoring sit the 1963-65 Buick Rivieras.