In 1966, General Motors wanted the 1966 Buick Riviera to share front-wheel-drive technology with the 1966 Toronado and 1967 Eldorado. But problems cropped up during early testing of front-drive prototypes, and Buick decided the Buick Riviera should stick with rear-wheel drive.
Buick opted out of the front-drive program for a few reasons, particularly cost. In 1966 dollars, front-wheel drive made the Toronado $400 more expensive to manufacture than the Buick Riviera. Yet the 1966 Toronado's list price was only $161 more than the Buick Riviera's. Also, pre-prototype testing showed durability problems with the front-wheel-drive differential bearings. Here's basically what happened.
In 1963-1964, Buick had responsibility for that part of the Toronado's front-drive system between the Hydra-Matic and the inner constant-velocity joints. In other words, Buick's engineering research and development (R&D) department were charged with developing the front-wheel-drive differential mechanism and drive axles, a project that ended up in the lap of a 30-year-old Buick engineer named Jack DeCou.
The team was having problems burning up pinion bearings due to lubrication issues. DeCou and other engineers changed bearing angles and lubrication systems and redesigned the differential.
DeCou's boss, Phillip C. Bowser, cited a third reason why Buick chose not to make the 1966 Riviera front-drive. Buick engineers didn't like the way the big front-wheel-drive pretest vehicles rode and handled. They had a tendency to understeer, especially when pushed to the limit.
Bowser went on to become Buick's chief engineer in 1968, but throughout the first-and second-generation Riviera's development, Lowell Kintigh held that position. He remained, throughout his career, a staunch believer in over-the-road testing. To him, what a car felt like on the road meant everything.
According to those who worked with Kintigh, he had an almost unbelievable sensitivity for the feel of a car. He drove hard and fast, often dusting the lonely mountain roads of Arizona and Colorado at speeds that made his fellow engineers distinctly nervous.
Ride was one of Buick's hallmarks, but another was braking ability. Buick had almost always prided itself on its brakes. To evaluate the finned, aluminum-clad, 12-inch front drum brakes that appeared on the 1966 Riviera, Kintigh had his brake development people test them over and over down Pikes Peak. The test mules were put in Drive, driven hard down the mountain, then driven back up to come down again. The cycle was repeated a number of times.
The rear-drive 1966 Buick Riviera did end up sharing some of the Toronado's sheet-metal stampings. Both cars used the same cowl, roof, glass, and inner doors. The frame and undercarriage, though, were very different. According to Buick's chief body engineer, George R. Ryder, the 1966 Riviera used a cruciform frame similar to the previous generation's but exclusive to the Buick Riviera, with a 119-inch wheelbase for 1966-1970, two inches longer than in 1963-1965.
The 1966 Riviera also shared the Toronado's rocker sills and the rear section of the Toronado's floorpan. The Riviera had specific toeboards but a common floor from the third frame member back. Finally, Ryder notes that the 1966-1970 Riviera stood slightly taller than the first-generation coupe. It now had a single cardan joint in the driveline instead of doubles.
There's no question that Buick made the right decision in going with rear drive. After the Toronado's first year, when sales of Toronados and Rivieras ran neck and neck, Rivieras outsold Toronados by nearly 100 percent in 1967-1969 and by about 33 percent for 1970.
In the next section, learn more about the history behind the Buick Riviera's design.
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Buick Riviera Origins
When GM designed the Buick Riviera in 1963 and redesigned it in 1966-1970, its real competition wasn't the Toronado -- it was Ford's Thunderbird. The original 1963 Buick Riviera gave GM a much-needed entry into the four-seater personal-luxury market. Before it came along, the Thunderbird had that market niche all to itself.
Yet the first Buick Riviera's purpose wasn't just to fill a hole. It was also to boost Buick's image, and it did that with success. Through such cars as the Riviera, the Wildcats, and the Special Skylarks, Buick got rid of its reputation for gaiters and galoshes.
Designer Ned Nickles, in one of GM's advanced styling studios, kicked off the original Buick Riviera with those big twin parking lamps on the fronts of the fenders. He originally conceived the car not as a Buick, but as a four-place Cadillac. Because of the fender uprights, which took their inspiration from the 1939-1940 LaSalle grille, Nickles called this concept car the LaSalle II.
GM Design Staff, meanwhile, gave it its official experimental number, XP-715, and Nickles' boss, GM design vice-president William L. Mitchell, added the clean, shapely, slightly razor-edged body sculpting plus the eggcrate grille. Mitchell referred to the LaSalle II's styling as looking "Ferrari/Rolls-Royce."
Mitchell initially urged Cadillac to produce the LaSalle II, but it soon became obvious that Cadillac general manager Jim Roche wasn't interested. At that point, General Motors decided to let Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile compete for the right to build the car. Buick general manager Ed Rollert and sales manager Roland Withers both felt strongly that their division needed an image maker like the LaSalle II.
In the intramural competition that followed, Ed Rollert personally made Buick's pitch to GM's executive policy committee. His presentation was bolstered by Buick's ad agency, McCann-Erickson, as well as by the division's marketing staff.
Rollert also called on chief R&D body engineer, Ed Reynolds, to lay out a plan that would allow Buick to build the 1963 Buick Riviera using a good number of off-the-shelf parts, mostly from GM's B-cars. According to Phil Bowser, Reynolds used everything possible from the B-body but still kept the unique flavor Nickles and Mitchell had put into the LaSalle II.
By demonstrating to corporate management that Buick could save millions in tooling and production costs, Reynolds showed the Riviera as being very competitive against the Thunderbird. Buick thus won the right to build and sell the Riviera, and it did so totally alone for the first three years of the marque's life.
The next section of this article provides more information about the new design of the Buick Riviera in 1966.
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1966 Buick Riviera
When the time came to design the second-generation Buick Riviera, the corporation very much wanted its three upper divisions -- Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac -- to share what would soon become the 1966-1967 E-body. Olds and Cadillac eventually did share it, of course, with the front-drive Eldorado arriving as a 1967 model Cadillac. General Motors agreed to give Olds one year of front-wheel-drive exclusivity, thus bolstering that division's reputation as a GM technology leader.
The 1966 Buick Riviera's dimensions and general shape derived from the Toronado, according to David R. Holls, who was Buick's design chief from 1963 through 1967. The 1966 Buick Riviera's design included grilles in the edges of the front fenders, W-shaped ends and headlights that flipped up underneath the hood.
The design of the Buick Riviera's hidden headlamps was very clever. Envision, in side view, an L-shaped assembly. One leg of the L contained twin sealed-beam units. The other leg carried a grille section that blended perfectly with the normal grille texture.
When the headlights were off, the lamps faced upward and laid underneath that part of the hood that overhung the grille. The other leg of the L, the grille section, automatically pointed down and became part of the grille. When the headlights were turned on, an electric motor behind the grille center rotated the L a full 90 degrees, flipping the lights down, while the grille insert moved up under the hood, behind the pivot.
Holls lists the 1966 Buick Riviera as one of his personal favorites. It was a big car, yet it didn't rely on size for its interest. There was visual appeal and impact in just the shape itself, a purity and simplicity that needed -- and fortunately got -- virtually no ornamentation. So there was very little to distract the eye from the total sculpture.
Everything flowed from one source, and the W-shaped front and rear complemented each other to give the car an overall harmony. The 1966 Buick Riviera was one of those rare, miraculous designs that made it into production without a lot of fussy committee contributions.
In addition, two benches became available: a standard version with a conventional 50/50 split, and an optional Strato Bench, with a center armrest. Both the Strato Bench and optional bucket seats could be ordered with extra-cost headrests and recliners.
The console added $47.03 to the price of any Buick Riviera, even the Gran Sport, and came with a basket-handle shift lever for the Super Turbine automatic transmission. Power steering and a tilt column were standard in all 1966-1970 Buick Rivieras, and for 1967 quick-ratio 15.0:1 steering became available as a $15.79 option.
On the next page, find out how GM modified the Buick Riviera in 1967.
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1967 Buick Riviera
Buick Riviera and Toronado interiors looked similar for 1966-1967. Both used drum-type speedometers, standard bench seats, and both had low, relatively flat floor tunnels. Thoughtful touches inside the 1966 Buick Riviera included door pulls molded into, and all the way along the plastic door panels. And the Buick Riviera's optional console was of the "natural bridge" type that had an open space beneath the front section.
Jerry L. Brochstein, a designer in Holls' studio (and more recently responsible for the Cadillac Voyagé concept car), conceived the 1966 Riviera's wheelcovers. Brochstein took his inspiration from Bugatti's straight-strung wire wheels. The Buick Riviera's wheelcovers were later picked up by Chevrolet and used on the 1967-1975 Corvette and Caprice: same vanes but different spinners. Motor Wheels' stamped-steel chrome rims were carried over from the previous generation as an option on all 1966 Buick Rivieras.
The 1966 Buick Riviera's design came together relatively easily, because everyone recognized the theme. The trick was to carry over cues from the 1963-1965 Buick Riviera -- the Ferrari/Rolls-Royce idea -- but repackage them to be compatible with the Toronado and its emerging E-body.
Buick Rivieras from 1966 through 1970 remained basically the same, but there were some important changes along the way. The 1967 Buick Riviera, while it looked virtually identical to the 1966 (save for a grille and taillight touch-up), used an entirely different engine. The 1966 Riviera had carried over the 425-cid V-8 from 1963-1965, an engine that unbeknownst to the public had reached the end of its road. Buick sorely needed a bigger, better V-8.
The Buick Riviera's 1966 425, especially with twin quads, had taken Buick's "nailhead" V-8 about as far as it could go. That engine had been introduced as a 322 in 1953 and had been reworked time and again. At 425 cubes, it had reached its absolute limit in size and volumetric efficiency. At a time when American cars were getting heavier by the year, when muscle reigned supreme, and when the old nailhead couldn't be pumped any higher, Flint decided to design and produce a brand-new family of Buick V-8s.
The job of designing this new engine went to Clifford G. Studaker, who'd been intimately involved with Buick's 1961 aluminum 215 and the 1962 V-6. The new engine started out for 1967 at 430 cid (and 360 horsepower), only five cubic inches bigger than the 1966 425. In addition, it was also produced in a downsized 400-cid version and, for 1970, bored out to become the 455. More about that one in a moment.
Buick Riviera Gran Sport equipment tended to change over the years. For 1966, the Buick Riviera offered two Gran Sport packages. The simpler of the two cost $175.56 and included fender and dashboard monograms, a chromed air cleaner, cast aluminum rocker covers, whitewall or red-stripe 8.45 x 15 Goodyear Power Cushion tires, 3.42:1 Positraction rear axle, and heavy-duty suspension.
The second version, costing $300.96, added dual four-barrel carbs. Neither Gran Sport package included bucket seats. Those were a separate option, and unless one specifically ordered them the Gran Sport came with an armrest bench and column shifter, same as the regular Buick Rivieras.
Gran Sport officially became "GS" in 1967 -- enthusiast magazines had already been abbreviating it anyway. Equipment for the package in 1967-1968 was virtually the same as in 1966, except that the aluminum rocker covers were deleted.
The 1967 Buick Riviera's standard brakes remained 12-inch drums, the fronts again clad in aluminum but now with 90 fins instead of the 45 from 1966. Vented discs became available optionally for the first time in 1967 ($78.74), and the rear drums remained cast iron.
In the next section, learn how the Buick Riviera changed in 1968-1969.
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1968-1969 Buick Riviera
When Buick needed to redesign the Buick Riviera in 1968-1969, they didn't need to make many changes to this collectible auto.
Buick's design chief, Dave Holls, facelifted the 1968 Buick Riviera, giving the front a more massive look, with a center-divided grille more in keeping with that year’s other Buicks. Otherwise, though, everything remained basically the same as before.
For 1969, the Buick Riviera took on two noteworthy engineering improvements: variable-ratio power steering and what Buick called AccuDrive. The latter consisted of changes in suspension geometry that made the car track better, especially under conditions like strong side winds.
Phil Bowser explained that AccuDrive would allow the Buick Riviera to resist wind gusts that would normally push a car sideways or cause the car to roll.
Two other significant 1969 changes included giving buyers a choice of no-cost bucket seats as an alternative to the standard bench, and the addition of standard front shoulder harnesses. Of course, the grille texture was altered for model-year identification, as was the bodyside trim.
The personal-luxury field started getting crowded in 1967, when the Cadillac Eldorado joined the fray. That was followed by the Continental Mark III in mid-1968, a rejuvenated Pontiac Grand Prix in 1969, and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo for 1970. Even so, the Buick Riviera kept its sales momentum, and actually outsold the Thunderbird that year.
The year also saw Buick Motor Division regain fourth place in U.S. sales as calendar-year production reached 713,832 units, second only to 1955. Robert L. Kessler had served as Buick’s general manager since mid-1965 and, in fact, it was he who helped raise the division back into fourth.
On the next page, find out why 1970 was the last production year for the Buick Riviera.
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1970 Buick Riviera
The 1966-1969 Buick Riviera models saw record sales for Buick. However, by 1970 the bloom was off the rose, and all Buicks, including the Buick Riviera, took a dip in sales. The 1970 Buick Riviera turned out to be a disappointment to some, especially aesthetically.
This model, as well as the 1969 Buick Riviera, had been restyled under Buick's new studio chief, Donald D, Lasky. Not that he had much choice. GM's design vice-president Bill Mitchell decided, in a characteristic change of mind on his earlier Ferrari/Rolls-Royce theme, to make the 1970 Buick Riviera "more French."
Mitchell wanted Lasky to put some "Delage" into the marque. That notion accounted for the skirted rear-wheel cutouts, the heavier rear aspect, and the wide and, some felt, obtrusive sweepspear along the sides. "The 1970 Riviera," as Dave Holls puts it, "was not a happy car."
Buick did, however, launch the 455-cid V-8 in the 1970 Buick Riviera, an engine rated at 370 bhp, with an axle-wrenching 510 lbs/ft torque. The 400 and 430 versions of this engine were now history as the 455 became the only big-block Buick available. Unlike Pontiac and Oldsmobile, which also had 455s, Cliff Studaker's strategy with Buick's engine was to give it better breathing through bigger valves.
He did this, not by stroking a smaller version of the engine as Pontiac and Olds had done, but rather by giving it more bore. Studaker left the 430's stroke at 3.9 inches but bored it out to 4.313. The extra bore, combined with the domed combustion chamber, allowed bigger valves than Buick's competition and also gave Buick an edge in meeting ever-tightening emissions standards.
GM's horsepower ratings in that era were more or less "formula," meaning A-cars couldn't advertise more than 360 bhp and B-cars had to stay under 370. So while an identical 455 Buick V-8 went into, say, the A-body's 1970 GS-455 and the 1970 Buick Riviera, the former listed this engine at 360 horses while the Buick Riviera got a 370 rating. Both shared the Buick Stage I high-lift cam, stiffer valve springs, big Quadrajet four-barrel carb, cold-air induction, and low-restriction dual exhausts.
The 1970 Buick Riviera model marked the last of the second-generation, 119-inch-wheelbase Buick Rivieras. Due in part to a soft economy, sales of the 1970 model fell precipitously, and they only kept heading downhill after the introduction of the controversial 1971 "boattail" design. But that's an altogether different car and a different story.
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