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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