The cars we loved.
Today’s automotive designs are considerably more aggressive than they once were. Car companies seem to want their luxury offerings to have a sporting edge while still trying to convey lushness. Sometimes the two can co-exist peacefully, but often times the compromise produces a less than inspired design. Back in the 1980s when most American luxury cars had no pretension to being sporty, elegance reigned supreme.
One of the best examples of American personal luxury in the age of the cassette came in the form of Buick’s Riviera. The Riviera has been Buick’s personal luxury car since 1963. Luxury was always first and foremost, but the Riviera has maintained a sporting streak (however inconsistent). Depending on the year, some were more sporting than others, but the “Rivie” has consistently been a style leader for Buick. While the sixth generation would mark some significant firsts for the Riviera, like front wheel drive, it was a generation that firmly placed luxury and style over performance.
Not that performance took a back seat completely. The 1979 to 85 Riviera featured turbocharged V6 engines as well as a Oldsmobile built V8. The new slimmed down body continued a trend towards downsizing that started in 1977. The Riviera shared its chassis with the Oldsmobile Tornado and Cadillac’s Eldorado while managing to look statelier than either of them. For those who wanted more sport, the S-Type and eventually the T-Type would come with a turbocharged 3.8L V6 with 185 hp. The normally aspirated standard engine had 125 hp while torque crazed V8 traditionalist made do with 140 hp.
The new for ’79 Riviera made such an impression with automotive critics, that it won the 1979 Motor Trend car of the Year Award. Buyers were impressed too as sales more than doubled the previous model year. Buick had no trouble convincing luxury car buyers of the merits of front wheel drive. The winter traction benefits alone were enough to lure the typical snow belt driver. As if it was not enough, Buick TV ads featured a Mercedes struggling to go uphill on a snow-covered road, while a Riviera effortlessly plowed through. For those in warmer climes, the drive wheels up front meant more rear space for passengers and luggage en route to the beach.
The Riviera’s image as a performance car got a serious boost when a specially prepared twin turbocharged 4.1L V6 version of the convertible was chosen to pace the Indy 500. All that power was channeled through a special Turbo-Hydromatic four-speed automatic transmission. The pace car’s 410 hp V6 would not see production, but was available as a normally aspirated alternative to the Oldsmobile sourced V8 (with less power).
Although the Riviera’s steering might not be called sports car like, the thick sport grip steering wheel on the T-Type reminded you that you were in something more than a luxury car. Unlike many American cars of the day (sport or luxury) the Rivera sported a fully independent suspension with rear coil springs and torsion bar. The suspension insured better than average stability when compared against the typical Chrysler or Ford competitor.
The rear of S and later T-type models also had a thick stabilizer bar for better manners on twisty roads. Public interest was sustained with various packages and engine changes over the years. An expensive convertible model appeared for 1982. At nearly $24,000, the low volume drop top is the rarest of the 6th generation Rivera and one of the most coveted by collectors of all things Buick.
The Riviera’s biggest asset was its style. It represented the American Baroque movement in automotive design at its highest degree during the period leading up to the mid 1980s. The long hood, chopped off C pillar and sloping rear end recalled 19th century carriages, yet looked modern with a purposeful sense of style and sport. The small rear window created by the tapered roof gave the Rivera a sporty silhouette that still looks great today. Whitewall tires and wire chrome wheels completed the look that has become a design staple for everyone from middle-aged men to gangster rappers. T-Type models had more subdued turbine style wheels that were common on other turbo models like the Regal.
There were a few concessions to the performance enthusiast inside like a center console and badges for the T-Type models, otherwise sport models had the same lush interior that normally aspirated car had. The dash with its flat front would be considered less than ergonomic by today’s standards, but it did feature a neat auto reverse cassette stereo with Delco’s digital radio tuner and DNR (a noise reduction system). In addition to the bass heavy factory sound system, there were all the power convience group items you could want. Generally the soft velour seats, and padded door upholstery was not unlike most other Buick and GM luxury cars of the day. The sixth generation Riviera was a success, even as it began to wind down production in 1985.
The replacement would continue on Rivera’s alternating trajectory of being bland to exciting and back again with an
ugly aero inspired seventh generation car starting in 1986. Although it was considerably more modern, it no longer had the distinctive look of luxury of the previous model. It would not be until the very last Riviera (1995-1999) that some semblance of style would return to the Rivera name.
Ironically, the Buick nameplate might return thanks to the Chinese who can’t seem to get enough of the brand. A concept car was shown in 2007 at the Shanghai Motor Show. It was so popular that a toy version of it was produced. The sleek Epsilon II based concept car generated considerable interest and may be a candidate for production – in China at least.