The striking design of the 1963 Buick Riviera revitalized the Buick image.

1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 Buicks

Buick volume soared from about 250,000 cars and ninth place in 1960 to more than 665,000 and a tight hold on fifth by '69. This success was due partly to the advent of compacts and partly to increased demand for traditional Buicks. Electra sales, for instance, were only some 56,000 in 1960 but nearly 159,000 by '69. Corresponding LeSabre figures were about 152,000 and nearly 198,000. Wildcat, which replaced Invicta for '63, began at about 35,000 but was almost double that by decade's end.

The aforementioned compact appeared for 1961 as the smallest Buick in 50 years. Reviving the Special name, it was one of three "second-wave" GM compacts -- the Buick-Olds-Pontiac models that followed Chevy's Corvair (and borrowed some of its body engineering).

Riding a 112-inch wheelbase, Special offered base and DeLuxe coupe, sedan, and four-door wagon in the $2300-$2700 range. All carried a new 215-cid aluminum-block V-8 with 155 bhp -- light, smooth, and efficient. (Amazingly, production lasted into the 21st century. GM sold manufacturing rights to Rover, which used it in Rover cars and Land Rover utility vehicles beginning in the late '60s.)

Responding quickly to the sporty-car craze begun by the 1960 Corvair Monza, Buick fielded a more special Special DeLuxe coupe for mid '61. This one resurrected another familiar name: Skylark. No-cost bucket seats, optional vinyl roof, and a 185-bhp V-8 helped sell more than 12,000 in that short debut season. For 1962 came Skylark and Special DeLuxe convertibles, an optional Borg-Warner four-speed gearbox -- and more than 42,000 Buick compact sales.

The big Buicks changed dramatically after the 1960 models, which were basically toned-down '59s. The '61s rode unchanged wheelbases but weighed 100-200 pounds less, looked much cleaner, and boasted fewer gimmicks.

For 1962, Buick unleashed the Wildcat as a specialty Invicta: a two-ton, 123-inch-wheelbase luxury hardtop priced around $4000 and sporting bucket seats, vinyl roof, and unique exterior badging. First-year sales were so good that Wildcat replaced Invicta on all midrange senior Buicks for '63 save a single wagon (fewer than 3500 sold), after which the Invicta name disappeared.

As noted, the premium Electras attracted increased sales right away. Two series continued for 1960-61: standard Electra and the posher Electra 225, named for its overall length in ­inches and soon popularly known as the "Deuce-and-a-Quarter." This setup didn't last, however, as all Electras became 225s for '62. Buick then concentrated on fewer offerings. Electra's standard engine through 1966 was a 325-bhp 401 V-8. A bored-out 425 with 340/360 bhp became optionally available by 1964. Both then gave way to a standard 430 with 360 horses.

Buick styling wasn't exceptional in the 1960s, with one singular exception: the new-for-'63 Riviera (recycling yet another well-known Flint moniker). This svelte personal-luxury hardtop coupe changed Buicks' stodgy image almost overnight. Many people felt that GM styling chief William L. Mitchell (who'd succeeded Harley Earl on his retirement back in '58) had fathered one of the best automotive shapes of all time.

This new Riviera was first conceived as a LaSalle, reviving Cadillac's lower-priced nameplate of 1927-40. (It wasn't the first attempt. Buick head designer Ned Nickles had penned an experimental "LaSalle II" roadster and hardtop sedan for the 1955 Motorama, both with trademark vertical-themed grille.) The impetus was Ford's highly successful four-seat Thunderbird that bowed for 1958. At one time, a convertible, four-door hardtop, and even a convertible sedan were considered. Ultimately, the hardtop-coupe clay model approved in early 1961 was assigned to Buick to give it a shot in the sales arm. Not that there was much choice. Cadillac didn't have facilities to build the car (and didn't need it), Chevrolet was enjoying record sales, and Oldsmobile and Pontiac had other fish to fry.

Mitchell freely admitted to borrowing some of the '63 Riviera's design elements. Its razor-edge roof styling, for instance, was inspired by certain 1950s English custom body-work. But the finished product was handsome and individual. As scheduled, model-year production was exactly 40,000.

Riding a 117-inch wheelbase, Riviera was about 14 inches shorter and 200-300 pounds lighter than other big '63 Buicks. At first, Electra's 325-bhp 401 V-8 was standard and the new 340-bhp 425 optional, but the latter became base power for '64, when optional horses increased to 360. Standard two-speed Turbine Drive was used for '63, three-speed Hydra-Matic thereafter. Handling was up to performance, which was strong. The typical 325-bhp Riv ran the quarter-mile in 16 seconds at 85 mph; a 360-bhp car managed 15.5 seconds and 90-plus mph.

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