When General Motors decided to field a Ford Thunderbird-fighter, chief stylist Bill Mitchell decided it should look like a Rolls-Royce with the flavor of a Ferrari. The result -- the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera -- was a styling milestone. Now the Riviera is one most coveted cars of the 1960s.
The first-generation Buick Riviera is a classic in the true sense of the word: a work of enduring excellence. Conceived in a burst of creativity by some of General Motors' best designers and engineers, it was also a product of some of the best minds in advertising and marketing, with a carefully groomed image that contributed mightily to its immediate high success.
Today we remember the 1963-1965 Riviera primarily for its superb styling, a masterful blend of curves and razor-edge lines that was quickly recognized as an architectural landmark for the U.S. industry.
Our focus here is on how the car came to be and why it turned out the way it did. It's an intriguing story that offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner-workings of the world's largest automaker in the late 1950s and early '60s.
The first-generation Buick Riviera changed
only in detail throughout its three-year run. See more classic car pictures.
Buick's first personal-luxury car was undoubtedly prompted by the phenomenal success of Ford's four-seat Thunderbird. Introduced for the 1958 model year, the "Squarebird" was suspiciously like several of GM's mid-1950s Motorama show cars in concept, size, and, especially, interior layout.
Indeed, there's evidence to suggest that Ford moved to offer a four-seat Thunderbird partly because it believed GM would field something like the Chevrolet Biscayne, a 1955 show car with similarly compact dimensions and a luxurious bucket-seat interior.
With its crisp styling, good performance, and sporty, personal character, the Squarebird sold like mad, and model year production zoomed to nearly double that of the last two-seater. Sales continued to climb, exceeding 67,000 units for the 1959 season and forging on to nearly 91,000 for 1960. Ford had clearly one-upped GM, one of the few times it would do so in the postwar period.
The year the Squarebird arrived, GM acquired a new president, John F. Gordon, and a new chief stylist, William L. Mitchell. A man who likes to say he has "gasoline in his blood," Mitchell had trained under Harley Earl, the "founding father" of automotive styling, and was already renowned for his 1938-1941 Cadillac 60 Special.
Mitchell had always taken as much interest in a car's performance as its looks, and by the late 1950s he was actively involved in campaigning his specially designed Stingray racer in Sports Car Club of America road events (he had also designed the logo for the SCCA's predecessor organization).
Mitchell and Gordon discussed the "Thunderbird problem," and agreed that GM would ultimately have to reply to Ford's personal-luxury model. Gordon said such a car would have to be something "sharp and crisp." Mitchell immediately envisioned combining European flair with performance somewhere between that of a good GM sedan and a true sports car.
Continue on to the next page to read more about the evolution of the design of the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera.
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