1963-1965 Buick Riviera

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.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

This first-generation Buick Riviera changed only in detail between 1963-1965.
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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Though Mitchell was hardly short of ideas, he had trouble pinning down the design concept for this would-be Thunderbird-fighter until he went off to the annual London Motor Show in 1959. One evening, he saw a parked Rolls-Royce partially obscured in the fog. "That's it!" he said to himself. "If we just let the air out of the tires . . . just lower it a bit."

With this firm direction, he got together with Ned Nickles and a few select support designers in an isolated Advanced Styling studio back at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. Nickles, of course, was an old hand at Buick, having created the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera, Buick's first pillarless hardtop, as well as the famous "portholes" and the sporty 1953 Skylark convertible. He also contributed to the clean lines of Chevrolet's new 1960 compact, the rear-engine Corvair.

Mitchell made it clear that he wanted GM's new personal car to have the Rolls' razor-edge roof, rear deck, and sides, plus an aggressive front end reminiscent of contemporary Ferraris. As it turned out, Nickles had already sketched an interesting design that incorporated these elements.

To each of its front fender leading edges he now applied small grilles shaped like the ones Mitchell had penned for certain late-1930s LaSalles. With this change, Nickles' drawing became the starting point for what would emerge in late 1962 as the production Riviera.

The hidden headlamps seen here were brought out and into the light for1965 Buick Riviera model.
The hidden headlamps seen here were brought
out and into the light for the 1965 model.

The new personal car was assigned experimental project number XP-715, and design work moved quickly to scale and full-size clay models. At this point the Advanced studio didn't know which division would be tapped to build the car, but Mitchell was eager to nudge the decision toward Cadillac, probably because that's where he had begun his GM career.

Accordingly, early proposals carried the name "LaSalle II," thus reviving Cadillac's companion nameplate last seen in 1940. The name was also used on two 1955 Motorama exercises.

Preliminary drawings for XP-715 featured subdued headlights or ones not visible. It was thought that the headlights could be concealed in some way behind the front fender grilles. Dominating these designs were horizontal lines and a sense of strength.

As on the early LaSalle, double bumpers wrapped around both ends. However, as the design progressed through clay models to production form, the bumpers were reduced to one-piece units. Some early clay models carry a grilleless front with an air intake below the front bumper along with panels concealing the headlights and bearing a LaSalle crest.

In the next section, find out how Bill Mitchell and the design team overcame numerous styling obstacles to create a model that would wow GM executives.

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At an early stage it was decided that the car was a bit narrow, so 3/4 inch was subsequently added to the beltline, creating a little "shelf" at the base of the side windows on the final production cars. An accent strip was added just below the rear window. This tended to emphasize the razor-edge line that ran the length of the car. Working together, the two made the car appear to be lower than it was.

Because of Mitchell's special liking for them, rear side scoops appeared on late clay models. The scoops were divided by horizontal lines in the various studies right up through the final fiberglass model, but these lines were lost by production time. However, the scoops were quite prominent on a Riviera show car, the Silver Arrow of 1964, which was often used by Mitchell "as his personal transportation."

Many solutions for acceptable headlight placement were tried. Some were awful. The original plan of placing headlamps in the fenders behind the grilles could not be engineered in time. Sliding panels were tried but just did not work.

Finally, the headlights were simply left exposed, placed horizontally in the grille, in order to meet time limitations and to save expense. There were groans from the sidelines.

The 1963-1965 Buick Riviera headlights (seen here) were left exposed for the final design.
Not everyone was thrilled about the placement of the
headlights on the Riviera.

George Moon directed the interior design effort. Sitting in the front seat of a 1965 Buick Riviera more than 20 years later, he said, "I had forgotten how nice this design was. You know, today we'd never be able to use all the brightwork that is here on the dash -- government regulations."

A couple of years before XP-715, Drew Hare, a member of Moon's team, had done the interior for XP-921, an experimental affectionately known among the designers as the "Buck Rogers" or "Double Bubble" car. This featured a "double-circle" theme for the dash and a distinctive split seat design in the rear. Hare and Moon drew heavily on these earlier themes for the Riviera's interior.

This 1963 Riviera dash design was like no other Buick's.
The 1963 Riviera dash design was like no other Buick.

In fact, all 1963 Buicks used the double-circle dashboard design. Because of its console, however, the Riviera's radio faceplate had to be V-shaped to fit (the 1963 had no front speaker). The console necessitated other changes, so the Riviera dash differed slightly from that in other Buicks.

The console itself was functional, housing an ashtray, two cigarette lighters, a compartment, the gear selector, courtesy lights, and ductwork for the air conditioning and heating systems.

When the design was completed, a fiberglass model of XP-715 was presented to the heads of the five GM divisions. Although the program was targeted for Cadillac, that division was selling cars at such a rate that it had no need for the new model and thus turned it down.

Chevrolet bowed out for the same reason, but Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick were quite interested. All three wanted and needed an innovative product like this, so a series of marketing presentations was scheduled to determine which division would get it.

Continue reading to find out how the "XP-715" became the "Riviera."

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Buick came to the competition loaded for bear. By this time its sales were down to almost half of what they'd been in record-setting 1955, and some of its factories were standing idle. The XP-715 seemed to be just the tonic the division needed.

Its marketing group had recently completed a survey that defined the potential customers for such a car, with demographic data on income level, number of children, general lifestyle, features desired, and other factors.

Anxious to ensure victory in the competition, Buick did something quite out of the ordinary. It called in its ad agency, McCann-Erickson, to give its presentation a professional polish. Marion Harper, head of McCann-Erickson's parent company, Interpublic, offered his company's full support. Paul Foley, who headed the McCann-Erickson office in Detroit, called in Jack Tinker from New York to work with the Buick people.

Though the decision process ran into a second session before the GM Executive Committee, Buick blew away its sister divisions. It was prepared for and eager to sell the car, and its presentation convinced the Executive Committee.

Responsibility for XP-715 was now transferred to Buick, but the car was still without a name. "LaSalle II" was out because it was associated with Cadillac and might be interpreted to mean "cheap Cadillac" by the public.

Crisp superstructure and rounded lower body contours were beautifully blended in this 1963 Buick Riviera.
Crisp superstructure and rounded lower body
contours were beautifully blended in the 1963 Riviera.

Passing over such jewels as "Centurian" and "Drake," product planners ultimately chose "Riviera," which evoked the elegance of the Italian and French coastal playground. Of course, it was a name long familiar at Buick, having been used for the make's pillarless hardtops since 1949, but it would gain new meaning from the design on which it would now appear.

The intensity Buick had built up in preparing its competitive presentation continued into its strategy for marketing the Riviera. Roland Withers, the division's head of marketing, was a man who did things in grand style. The Riviera would be crucial to Buick's recovery, and he wanted the car to have a special image.

Accordingly, he decreed that no more than 40,000 per year would be built, which would make this a somewhat rare automobile that would bring people into showrooms. It would also endow the Riviera with a certain snob appeal that would, it was hoped, rub off on other Buicks. He kept production at or below that figure for 1963-1965, and Buick's substantial increase in overall sales proved that his strategy worked.

Also to his credit, Withers made the Riviera a special project for McCann-Erickson. Jack Tinker, who had assisted in the committee presentation, had since retired from the agency, but Marion Harper persuaded him to come back to work with Interpublic. However, Tinker agreed only with the understanding that he could form his own separate "think tank" and would not have to work in the corporate offices.

Eventually, his little team became known among people in the ad business as "Tinker's Thinkers." Operating out of a suite in The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, they came up with such successful product names as Tab for Coca-Cola and Accutron for Bulova. Tinker's Thinkers were tops in the ad business.

In the next section, read about the Buick Riviera's journey through the world of automotive production.

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When Jack Tinker arrived in Flint to see the Riviera production prototype, he was elated. He and his team studied the car, then returned to New York where he arranged for some of the ad industry’s top photographers to capture the new model on film.

Among them were respected fashion photographers Irving Penn and Bert Stern. With the kind of secrecy usually reserved for the CIA, an early production car was shipped under wraps to New York City and the team quickly began crafting the Riviera’s image.

The general form of the magazine ads and where they would appear was decided. Mitchell had elected to display the Riviera name in script, just like the Las Vegas hotel. Tinker developed a transected “R” design for the car’s logo and insisted that early ads show a reflection of this as part of the format.

The elegance that was part and parcel of the Riviera’s image was largely the result of decisions made by Tinker and his “Thinkers.” Much of that image, including the famous logo, lives on in today’s Riviera.

The Buick Riviera (seen here) emerged for 1963 as a U.S. styling landmark.
The Buick Riviera emerged for 1963 as a
U.S. styling landmark.

Well into the ad campaign, Buick’s marketing people decided that the ads were a bit too elegant, that people were getting the idea that the Riviera was so plush and uncommon that it was unaffordable. As a result, ads were toned down and leather interiors were not offered as an option for the 1964-1965 models.

In a similar move, Roland Withers decided to give the 1965 version more of a muscle aura, suggesting that Buick offer a high-performance Gran Sport package and factory mag-style wheels as options. Following the Executive Committee’s decision, Buick had sent the XP-715 design and models over to engineering for production development, with specific instructions to leave the body alone.

Chief Engineer Lowell Kintigh, who carefully watched all projects in his domain, delegated Riviera engineering to Phil Bowser, Buick’s Director of Research and Development and Assistant Chief Engineer.

“Kintigh told me what he wanted for the Riviera and told me to bring it to him when I had finished,” Bowser says. From Mitchell came word that the car should have performance somewhere between that of a comfortable sedan and a sports car.

This was not idle talk, and Mitchell sent his assistant, Ed Glowacke, to check up on Engineering’s progress and to give a suggestion here and there. Glowacke, renowned at GM as a perfectionist, had kept tabs on things during the Riviera’s design gestation and would continue to do so right through production tooling at Fisher Body.

Go to the next page to read about how Buick engineering stayed true to Bill Mitchell's luxury sedan/sports car design.

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Mitchell considered the Riviera special, and he wanted it done right, with as few compromises as possible. Phil Bowser and his engineering team did an excellent job. "The Riviera was the most exciting project of my career," he says. The 1963 Riviera's design promised much, and the right engineering was essential for the car to fulfill those promises.

George Ryder, who at the time was working at both Design Staff and Buick Engineering, says that Bowser's work was so painstaking that he sometimes had trouble getting drawings out of Research and Development for line engineering. Ryder found the project invigorating but exhausting.

The pressure to get this car right was incredible. "For example, it was quite a job to get all the engine accessories under the hood." The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system required special effort and design.

Buick Riviera was an early exponent of this integrated dash/console.
Buick Riviera was an early exponent of the
integrated dash/console.

Riviera engineering involved a delicate balance between luxury sedan and sports car characteristics. Bowser took this challenge quite seriously. He and his staff studied the performance of the big Buick Electra as well as the Jaguar and Corvette sports cars. So careful was the study made by Bowser and colleague Sherrill Richey that they published a paper on it with the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Though basic chassis design concepts and mechanical components were used wherever possible for economy, reliability, and quality, the Riviera's overall engineering was new from the ground up, with "no compromise" the byword. For example, a cruciform frame as used on other cars in the Buick stable was also the correct choice for the 1963 Riviera.

It had been shown to isolate chassis noise from the passenger compartment better than other types and offered the advantage of a lower step-in height, important with the rakish body.

Independent rear suspension and disc brakes were ruled out because of increased maintenance costs and their lack of reliability at the time. However, special bushings were designed to give the 1963 Riviera a smooth ride, and finned aluminum drum brakes were specified, similar to those on the Electra.

Three manufacturers produced tires expressly designed for the new model, with special profiles and bolstered shoulders. Power steering was necessary because of the high curb weight (over two tons), but it did not detract much from road feel and provided about 3.5 turns lock-to-lock.

In the next section, read about the power behind the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera.

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Buick’s 401-cubic-inch “Wildcat” V-8 fit the 1963 Buick Riviera concept exactly. Phil Bowser’s group showed graphically that this engine provided just the right power to match engineering guidelines. However, bore size was increased by 1/8 inch to produce a new 425-cubic-inch engine, which was offered as an option.

Buick’s Turbine Drive automatic transmission, a refinement of the old Dynaflow, was used only for the first-year models. The Turbine Drive automatic transmission offered smoother performance thanks to a unique “switch-the-pitch” stator blade angle feature, plus manual low gear selection. Shifting was fluid and not felt, while one was quite aware of gear changes on the 1964-1965 cars.

The two-position stator blade changed to a high or “performance” angle in full-throttle acceleration, thus allowing the engine to reach relatively high revs on upshifts. Riviera was the first car to use “flat ribbon” wiring for its electrical system, which made it easier to fit interior components together.

Buick Riviera's big 425 V-8 (shown here) put out 360 bhp.
Buick Riviera's big 425 V-8 put out 360 horsepower.

Bowser delivered the fully production engineered 1963 Buick Riviera right on schedule. Chief Engineer Lowell Kintigh, whom Bowser stresses had the ability to discover engineering flaws by simply driving a car, was impressed with this one’s performance.

Even before Bowser’s group had completed their assignment, Carl Hedeen and his team had begun to determine what was needed to make the Riviera a production reality, operating under the now-familiar “no compromise” dictum from Bowser, Mitchell, and Glowacke. Hedeen always considered his “don’t touch the design” run-ins with Mitchell to be a lot of fun, but in the case of the Riviera, “It was not evolution -- it was revolution!”

Hedeen was satisfied that the Buick Riviera represented a break with what he calls the “jukebox age.” “Usually Ned Nickles’ designs were much better than the final product,” he notes. In this case, however, he was determined to deliver the design intact to the production line.

The Riviera had found yet another advocate. Fisher Body Division also maintained the excellence of the original design. Indeed, the only significant change was the hood. It was determined that the planned “pancake hood” would be too expensive, so a more conventional unit was substituted.

Continue to the next section to find out how the 1963 Buick Riviera overcame numerous design and engineering obstacles to become a "new international classic."

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Because of its razor-edge lines, superb detailing, and advanced features, the 1963 Buick Riviera presented several problems for Fisher Body. For example, it was GM's first mass-produced car with frameless side glass, which meant Fisher had to develop a means to ensure proper window sealing. Removable outer door skins were part of the solution.

On the production line, the door was hung and adjusted so that the glass snuggled up to its gaskets. Then the door skins were installed and front fenders aligned to match via a special jig. The flush, adhesive-mounted rear window and windshield, both firsts for a production model, necessitated development of still other manufacturing techniques.

By 1965, the Buick Riviera's tail lamps (seen here) had moved into the bumper.
By 1965, the Buick Riviera's tail lamps had
moved into the bumper.

If the first Riviera's many design and engineering innovations seem clouded now, it's because so many of them have since been copied that they've been rendered commonplace.

But there's no question about its performance. Typical 0-60 mph acceleration was 8.5 seconds, with 16.5 seconds for the standing quarter-mile, faster than almost anything else on the road except for certain high-power sports cars.

Road test writer John Bolster of England timed the 1965 at 6.8 seconds to 60 mph and 15.4 seconds in the standing quarter-mile, placing it above the Jensen FF, the Ferrari 250 GT 2+2, and Aston Martin DB-4 GT, to name a few.

The 1963-1965 Riviera met with approval from all quarters, and has since earned Milestone status from the Milestone Car Society. Jaguar founder and designer Sir William Lyons said that Mitchell had done "a very wonderful job," and Sergio Pininfarina declared it "one of the most beautiful American cars ever built; it has marked a very impressive return to simplicity of American car design."

This beautifully preserved 1965 Riviera Gran Sport shows off even cleaner lines than the 1963.
This beautifully preserved 1965 Riviera Gran Sport
shows off even cleaner lines than the 1963.

At its debut at the Paris Auto Show, Raymond Loewy said the Riviera was the handsomest American production car -- apart from his own Studebaker Avanti, that is, the Riviera's only real competition for 1963.

General Motors had made a successful bid for what was advertised as "a new international classic." The reason was that Mitchell had made things happen for Nickles' elegant design, carrying it over all corporate hurdles with the cry of "no compromise!" The "jukebox age" was indeed over.

In the next and final section of this article, get specifications for the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera.

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The 1963-1965 Buick Riviera design -- from conception to completion -- is considered one of the most significant events in the history of car design. Find specifications for the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera in the following chart.

1963-1965 Buick Riviera Specifications


$4,333 (1963), $4,385 (1964) $4,408 (1965)
Wheelbase (inches)
Overall length (inches)
Overall width (inches)
Overall height (inches)
Tread, front/rear (inches)
Curb weight (pounds)
3,988 (1963), 3,951 (1964), 4,036 (1965)

ohv V-8
Bore x stroke (inches)
4.19 x 3.64 (1963), 4.31 x 3.64 (1964-1965)
Displacement (cid)
401 (1963), 425 (1964-1965)
Horsepower @ rpm
325-340 (1963), 340-360 (1964-1965)
1/4-bbl (1963), 1/4-2/4-bbl (1964-1965)
twin turbine drive (1963), super turbine drive (1964-1965)
2 (1963), 3 (1964-1965)

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