The 1963 Buick Riviera

The personal-luxury car niche, pioneered by Ford in 1958, had become a viable market in the early sixties. After 200,000 four-seat Thunderbirds had sold, GM's first response was the 1961 Olds Starfire, followed by the Pontiac Grand Prix a year later. In late 1962, Buick unveiled the Riviera, a beautiful two-door sport-coupe that could out-corner, out-brake, and out-accelerate the T-bird. But it couldn't outsell it. So this week at Crown Auto Parts and Performance we are going to look at the rise of the Buick Riviera.

Bill Mitchell succeeded Harley Earl as General Motors Vice President of Styling in December 1958. One of his first challenges was to produce a car to compete head-to-head with the Ford Thunderbird. It was to be comfortable, powerful, and have styling so unique that anyone could tell what it was. That last assignment went to Ned Nickles, who had designed many previous models for GM, including Buick's first pillar-less hardtop, the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera.

In a year's time, a two-door, four-passenger concept car became a full-size clay model. Code-named XP-715, the project was given the green light for production, but there was still the issue of who would build it. Cadillac and Chevrolet were both doing well and didn't need another new model, so the XP-715 was offered to the three other GM divisions. Buick got the nod, naming the new car after their 1949 Roadmaster hardtop, the Riviera.

Slated for 1963 model year introduction, chief engineer Lowell Kintigh and his team had less than a year and a half to turn the clay model into a production car. The short schedule necessitated using an existing platform. A full-sized Buick Electra frame was modified to accept the Riviera's shorter 117-inch wheelbase. The rear-wheel-drive chassis used conventional double-wishbone suspension up front with a solid rear axle unit. Although the original XP-715 design had concealed front headlamps, technical problems and cost factors would see the first-year Riv with conventional quad headlamps.

Relatively new at the time, the frame-less side windows presented another challenge for body engineers. To be fitted properly, a door assembly with detachable outer panels had to be designed, allowing the doors to be hung and windows adjusted before the outer panels were attached.

Stretching out at a long 208 inches, the Buick Riviera was introduced to the public in October of 1962. The rear-slanted nose, low-profile roofline, and wide roof pillars gave the car a look all its own. Headlamps mounted in the grille kept the car's sharp profile intact.

Like its Thunderbird rival, the Riviera interior featured four bucket seats, center console, and floor-mounted shifter. Upholstery was vinyl, with cloth/vinyl or leather/vinyl available. Rear passengers could let themselves out with the second set of inside door handles. Underneath the center of the sloped instrument panel housed an array of heating and air conditioning controls, allowing no room for a front speaker in the dashboard. Because of this, the radio had its one speaker mounted between the two rear seats.

The production Riviera (unusually for a GM product) shared its bodyshell with no other model. It rode a cruciform frame similar to the standard Buick frame, but shorter and narrower, with a 2.0 in (51 mm) narrower track. Its wheelbase of 117 in (2972 mm) and overall length of 208 in (5283 mm) were 6.0 inches (152 mm) and 7.7 in (196 mm) shorter, respectively, than a Buick LeSabre, but slightly longer than a contemporary Thunderbird. At 4190 lb (1900 kg), it was about 200 lb (90 kg) lighter than either. It shared the standard Buick V8 engines, with a displacement of either 401 in³ (6.5 L) or 425 in³ (6.9 L), and Twin Turbine automatic transmission. Brakes were Buick's standard "Al-Fin" (aluminum finned) drums of 12 in. (304.8 mm) diameter. Power steering was standard equipment, with an overall steering ratio of 20.5:1, giving 3.5 turns lock-to-lock.

The Riviera's suspension used the same basic design as standard Buicks, with double wishbones front and a live axle located by trailing arms and a lateral track bar, but the roll centers were raised to reduce body lean. Although its coil springs were actually slightly softer than other Buicks, with the lighter overall weight, the net effect was to make the Riviera somewhat firmer. Although still biased towards understeer, contemporary testers considered it one of the most roadable American cars, with an excellent balance of comfort and agility.

The 1963 Buick Riviera’s rear fenders bulge out a bit farther than the doors, creating a wasp-waisted “Coke-bottle” shape in plan view. The flared-out fenders were a design cue borrowed from contemporary fighter aircraft; the fuselage of many supersonic aircraft narrows in the area of the wing roots to minimize changes in cross-sectional area, which reduces transonic drag.

The 1963 Buick Riviera’s frameless side windows were still relatively novel at the time and presented a challenge for body engineers. To allow the windows to be fitted properly, Fisher Body Division designed unique bolt-on outer panels that allowed the doors to be finished after the glass and window regulators were installed

The Riviera was introduced on October 4, 1962 as a 1963 model, with a base price of $4,333, although typical delivered prices with options ran upwards of $5,000. Production was deliberately limited to 40,000 or less to increase demand.

Base motor on the 1963 Riviera was Buick's 401 cubic-inch "Nailhead" V8, so named for the unorthodox vertical position of its valves, which resembled large nails. The valves were tiny for an engine of its size, but helped produce lots of low-end power. With a 10.25-1 compression ratio and single 4-barrel carburetor, the 401 motor produced 445 ft-lbs of torque and 325 horsepower. The larger 425-cid Wildcat 465 engine (so named for its torque output) produced 340 horsepower and was available at extra cost. Transmission on the first-year Riv was the Twin-Turbine automatic, which would be Buick's final version of the fabled two-speed Dynaflow unit.

By having accessories such as power windows, power seats, and tilt-wheel extra-cost options, the Riviera's base price was kept lower than the Thunderbird's. Other popular options included air conditioning, cruise control, power door locks, AM/FM radio and automatic trunk release. The interior layout of the first-generation Buick Riviera remained essentially similar through all three model years; this is a 1965 model. The twin-pod dashboard, shared with the Electra 225, looks like it should have more instrumentation than it actually does — most engine functions are signaled by warning lights. The upholstery is vinyl; real leather was optional in 1963, but that option was discontinued the following year. Whitewall tires and wire-wheel covers were also available at extra cost, as were 15"x6" finned alloy wheels. For the first model year, Buick had a production cap of 40,000 Rivieras. All were sold.

The Riviera was a fast car. Even with the base engine, it was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 8 seconds with a top speed in the neighborhood of 120 mph (193 km/h). Although no Ferrari, the Riviera was a good deal more agile than most American cars its size and its big 12-inch (305mm) finned drum brakes gave it respectable stopping power. The Riviera rode somewhat more firmly than a Thunderbird, but was by no means uncomfortable.

The automotive press was very enthusiastic about the Riviera — it was perhaps the first model Buick had ever offered that was really their sort of car. While there was some mild nitpicking about the Riviera’s numb power steering and less-than-comprehensive instruments, the reviews were exceptionally positive. Even the European press, which generally took a dim view of both the capabilities and the styling of American cars, judged the Riviera a decent effort.

Sadly, like the acclaimed, award-winning film that fails to measure up to the mindless summer blockbusters at the box office, the Riviera could not approach the popularity of the Thunderbird. Despite being in the final year of a body style that buyers had greeted with some wariness, the Thunderbird outsold the Riviera by 50% and probably would have even without the artificial cap on Riviera production.

On the face of it, that disparity is difficult to understand. The Riviera was faster than the Thunderbird, had notably better handling and brakes, was arguably better-looking, and actually cost somewhat less. In those days, a Buick was theoretically much more prestigious than a Ford and tended to have better fit and finish (discounting the dark days of 1957–1958). However, the Thunderbird was by far the stronger brand. Even the least-educated automotive consumer knew that the Thunderbird name meant something special. By contrast, Buick had applied the Riviera nameplate to a whole host of cars, including the base-model Special that had been the division’s volume seller in the early to mid-fifties, so it connoted no particular distinction or prestige.

Beyond that, the Riviera’s crisp, relatively unadorned styling may have been a little too subtle for Thunderbird customers, who seemed to relish that car’s sometimes overwrought glitz and gimmickry. The Thunderbird’s appeal was not so much that it was sporty, but that it had the sort of feverish detailing automakers normally reserved for show cars.