The cars we loved.

1979-1985 Buick Rivera: Less Performance Plus More Luxury Equals Style

1979 Buick Riviera

1979 Buick Riviera

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.

84' Turbo badge

84′ Turbo badge

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.

1984 Buick Riviera T-Type

1984 Buick Riviera T-Type

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.

1985 Buick Riviera T-Type Interior

1985 Buick Riviera T-Type Interior

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.

1983 Buick Riviera Pace Car

1983 Buick Riviera Pace Car

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.

1985 Buick Riviera T-Type

1985 Buick Riviera T-Type


9 comments on “1979-1985 Buick Rivera: Less Performance Plus More Luxury Equals Style

  1. Jerry Stigliano
    June 24, 2013

    Nice article except that the author needs to know that when expressing dates, his punctuation is incorrect. There is no apostrophe after the numeral; it should be 1980s, not 1980’s. When showing only the decade, the apostrophe replaces the century as such: ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. If you people would learn proper grammar, punctuation and word usage, your writing skills would improve. Finally, the word “base” is used regarding the radio, but it should read “bass-heavy.” There are your lessons for the day.

    • autopolis
      June 25, 2013

      Thank you for the tips, you are of course correct on all accounts. I do however take issue with your usage of the term “you people”. If I did not know better, I’d guess you were some bitter unemployed English major:)

  2. Drew Dowdell
    October 30, 2013

    A couple of details you got wrong or unclear, otherwise a very nice article.
    1 – The Riviera has front torsion bar and rear coil springs, not the reverse.
    2 – While the Twin-Turbo 4.1 was used in the pace car, the 4.1 offered in production was not turbo-charged at all. It was a naturally aspirated, enlarged bore version of the 3.8 liter V6. It produced 125 hp and 205 lb-ft. The turbo-charged Riviera was 3.8 liters.
    3 – You left a few engines off the list. In ’79 and ’80, the Riviera the V8 option was the Olds 350 V8 packing 160hp. The 307 was phased in mid-1980 with the 140hp you cite. The Olds 350 Diesel with 110hp was available throughout the generation. I don’t think the 4.1 lasted past 1982 or 83, it had an even lower take rate than the diesel.
    4 – If the name returns, it is unlikely to be on the Epsilon II platform. I would expect it to share the RWD Alpha platform that the Cadillac ATS and CTS now use and that the next Camaro is rumored to be using.

    • autopolis
      October 31, 2013

      Thanks for setting me straight. It will be interesting to see if a new Rivera will continue as front wheel drive or use the Alpha platform.

      • Drew Dowdell
        October 31, 2013

        It is likely that we’ve already seen the last new Epsilon II platform vehicles from GM already (2014 Malibu/Regal & 2013 Impala/Lacrosse). Epsilon III, if it is even called Epsilon at all, will be heavily revised to lower weight. I think that Alpha is more likely due to its flexibility and low weight.

        One other correction that I missed last night: A 1999 – 2002 Riviera would be a welcome discovery to us fans of the marque… unfortunately we’ll have to make due with just the 1995 – 1999 model that was the last one Buick produced.

      • autopolis
        November 1, 2013

        That last point should have been 1995-1999. Its been a bad week for typos:)


  3. Craig
    June 21, 2014

    410hp?? That thing must’ve been interesting in a FWD chassis! Still, it shows just what American engineers were capable of in the much-maligned ’70s-’80s (did I do that right, Jerry?) when the government keeps its sticky beak out of it.

    Definitely makes one wonder just what we could have had. Great article. Those Rivieras still look elegant today.

    • autopolis
      June 22, 2014

      My dad had one in the late ’80s, it was a V8 with 140 hp, rode like a cloud and steered like one too. As much as I hated driving it, I always thought it was a handsome looking car. It still looks great today. Greg

  4. Rick Sand
    June 10, 2018

    Thank you for a very concise and BALANCED article. Well done (!) and very much appreciated by another who values these cars for what they were in their day.
    This was GM design boss Bill Mitchell’s attempt to create a Riviera that raised the style bar as much as the first one in 1963. These were all about driving a piece of rolling sculpture – and given the regulatory and engineering restrictions of the times – with some sophisticated engineering and performance thrown in as well. Many considered the Riv to be the best looking of the E bodied trio. One fellow I knew who could afford anything, purchased his Riviera T-type over the Cadillac Eldorado because it “had a prettier line”. Looks aside: fully independent suspensions with automatic level control, 4 wheel disc brakes, Turbocharged engines and sophisticated electronics were not as common then as now. These cars made a real statement with style and substance. Best.

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2012 by in 70's Cars, 80's Cars, Buick and tagged , , , , , , .
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