1963-65 Buick Riviera - America's bid for a great new international classic
Inspired by the growing popularity of European sports cars during the 1950s, Ford and Chevy developed two-seat convertibles with radically different approaches; Ford created its V-8 powered Thunderbird as a refined, practical car with sporting flair. Chevrolet introduced its (originally) anemic, six-cylinder plastic Corvette as a dream car for the street. While Chevy later gave its Corvette V-8 power and steadily evolved it towards impressive performance, Ford took another leap, introducing the four-seat Thunderbird for 1958, doubling its sales and creating a new market niche, the personal luxury coupe.
Realizing Ford’s popular Thunderbird could not go unanswered, GM set to work developing a Cadillac competitor to bear the storied name of LaSalle. But there was a problem: Cadillac didn’t want it. The division lacked production capacity for introducing a new model as they were selling every car they could screw together.
When GM held a competition between Buick and Oldsmobile, the Buick pitch won, giving their new car a name the division had used since 1949. The Riviera made a splash and became a long-term success, selling over a million copies during its 1963-99 production run. Though there were many beautiful editions through the years, the original 1963-65 generation remains the marque’s most collectable, classic vintage.
Buick Riviera fun facts
- Leonard Nimoy commuted to the Paramount lot in his Riviera while doing Star Trek.
- William Shatner had Nimoy’s Riviera towed off the lot once as a prank.
- Buick’s name for its new sports luxury coupe reflected its European pretensions.
- Combining broad shouldered, chiseled good looks with a big Detroit V-8 made the “Riv” was an instant hit.
- GM design chief William Mitchell’s instruction to the Riviera’s designers were to, “Style it like a combination of Rolls-Royce and Ferrari.” Somehow, they made that work.
- Ads described the new coupe as “America’s bid for a great new international classic.” And it was.
- GM showed a series of sporty four-seat concept cars at its fabulous 1950s Motorama shows, but never got serious about building a "personal car" until Ford's four seat Thunderbird exposed a lucrative market niche.
- William Mitchell took the reins of famed GM design chief Harley Earl when he retired in 1958. The Riviera gave him a chance to show off his best work.
- One word might best describe the Riviera’s commanding presence: swagger.
- The Riviera’s front fenders had leading edges featuring faux grilles that referenced the legendary LaSalle's signature front end.
- First year sales were limited to 40,000 copies in order to promote exclusivity and desirability.
General motors’ ambitious effort realized its goal. The sensational new Riviera gained instant recognition as a design classic.
The Riviera’s original body style continued through its 1965 model year. Today the first generation Riviera is widely recognized as a preeminent design classic of the sixties. Customizers like to modify them, but the car is so well styled, such modifications are usually restricted to minor updates. The first generation Buick Riviera remains an affordable classic that’s under-valued to this day.
By Jim Cherry