1971-1973 Buick Riviera

1963 riviera, left side
The 1963 Riviera received praise from all quarters for its elegant styling, not to mention its top-notch performance and luxurious interior. See more classic car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1971-1973 Buick Riviera was the manufacturer's most controversial piece of styling since the batwing job of 1959. Despite the success of the 1963 Riviera, sales had plummeted by 1970. A quick fix was badly needed, and Buick gambled that the 1971 “boattail” was the answer.

It’s true, too, that by 1971 the time had obviously come for a new and different Riviera. Consider 1,070 production figures, for example. While still comfortably ahead of Oldsmobile’s Toronado -- the Riveria's intra-corporate rival -- output skidded an alarming 29 percent from 52,872 units in 1969 to 37,336 units, the lowest since 1965.


Nor was this a reflection of market conditions, for overall Buick sales were holding steady, while Ford’s Thunderbird made a modest gain that year.

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It had been Ford, of course, that had pioneered the “luxury personal car” concept with the 1958 introduction of the first four-place T-Bird. And the Bird continued to lead the field in sales, despite stiff competition from its counterpart at Buick.

Even so, the Riviera, first introduced for the 1963 season, had been a resounding sales success from the start, and a style and performance leader as well.

“It was the Riviera,” authors Ian Norbye and lames Dunne declared, “that put some class into this market segment.”

Even Car and Driver, a magazine not usually noted for unstinting praise of American luxury cars, admitted that “the Riviera is different from the other big Buicks, and it stands alone among American cars in providing a combination of luxury, performance and general roadworthiness that approaches Bentley Continental standards at less than half the price.”

Learn about Buick Riviera styling changes on to the next page.

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Buick Riviera Styling Changes

1971 riviera, boattail
GM styling honcho William Mitchell determined that the 1971 Riviera would be different and daring -- and indeed it was, due mainly to the boattail design up back.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

A number of Buick Riviera styling changes would take place at the end of the 1960s. In fact, a major restyling was undertaken for 1966.

Designed by David Holls, this new Riveria featured a slim, horizontal grille behind which the headlamps were hidden. The windshield was more sharply raked than before, and in a trendsetting move, vent wings were eliminated from the side windows.


The Bentley-inspired “razor-edge” effect was gone, and the roof was given a modified fastback configuration. At the same time, the standard Riviera engine was bored an eighth of an inch, raising the displacement from 401.2 to 425.3 cubic inches and the gross horsepower from 325 to 340.

Styling changes for the Buick Riviera were modest over the next few years, but for 1967 the company offered a new family of V-8 engines.

As fitted to the Riviera, the new mill had very nearly the same displacement as its predecessor: 429.7 cubic inches. The stroke/bore ratio was increased, however, from .844:1 to .931:1, and better breathing was provided by means of bigger valves and enlarged ports. Standard horsepower now was 360 -- 20 more than the 1967 Cadillac.

A number of modifications were made for 1969. The General Motors Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 transmission replaced Buick’s Super Turbine as standard equipment, and variable-ratio power steering made its debut.

At the same time, Buick featured a new front suspension system called "AccuDrive,” boasting that it provided “the best directional stability ever experienced in an automobile.”

As authors Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin have explained, “They accomplished this by utilizing the principle called ‘camber thrust,’ the side force generated when a rolling wheel is leaned or cambered. Buick used it as a stabilizing force by lowering the lower control arm inner pivot and raising the upper control arm inner pivot.

"Because of this relocation, when the wheel moved over an undulation, it tipped outward at the top, instead of inward, providing an opposing force. The two forces would effectively cancel each other out, keeping the car on a more nearly straight path.”

So good was this new suspension that by 1971 it would be adopted -- by corporate fiat -- at all five General Motors divisions.

By 1970, the Riviera was in its fifth year without a major styling change, and the public was obviously looking for something fresh and new from Buick.

The drop in Riviera’s 1970 production, which amounted to 15,506 units for the year, was offset nearly twice-over by a gain of 30,514 for the big Electra series.

But no matter, the time had clearly come for Buick to introduce a new Riviera. And when it did arrive, it was -- for better or for worse -- a sensation. Learn about the 1971 Buick Riviera on the next page.

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1971 Buick Riviera Design

1971 riviera front view
While everybody argues about the boattail's back end, it should be noted that the 1971 Riviera also tried for a bit of the 1930s classic look up front.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1971 Buick Riviera design was one that most people either loved or hated, and that’s still the case. The design was an attempt to capture the “classic” flavor of the old 1930s boattail roadsters, but critics argue that it just didn’t come off. Partisans, on the other hand, insist it did.

It has never been clear exactly who was responsible for styling the “boattail” Riviera of 1971-1973. Lee N. Mays, who fell heir to the car when he became Buick’s General Manager in 1969, cordially hated it. In later years, he wryly commented, “I could never find anyone who admitted they designed it.”


In retrospect, the concept appears to have originated with the Buick “Y-Job,” an experimental “show” car styled by Harley Earl and built during 1938; the resemblance to the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray is unmistakable.

Bill Mitchell, who had succeeded Earl as General Motors’ styling chief, was evidently the prime mover behind the boattail project, but it is unclear to this day who laid down the actual design.

Norbye and Dunne credit Donald C. Lasky, Dave Molls’ successor as Buick’s styling chief. But Jerry Hirshberg, in charge of Buick’s advance design studio at the time, has claimed the design as his own, while confessing that “I think the boattail was a mistake.”

In any case, according to Hirshberg, the original intent had been for this new Riviera to be a smaller car, based on the General Motors A-body. And when you think of it, a boattail built on the 112-inch chassis of the two-door Buick Skylark might well have been an exceptionally handsome automobile.

Over the years, the fastback design has generally been far more successful on smaller cars than on big ones.

A case in point is the American Motors Marlin of 1965-1967. AMC styling chief Dick Teague had developed a high-fashion show car called the Tarpon, to be displayed at the national convention of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1964. Based on the 106-inch wheelbase of the compact Rambler American, the Tarpon was a beautifully proportioned little automobile.

But Roy Abernethy, who in 1962 had succeeded George Romney as president of the company, liked big cars. At his insistence the fastback was stretched a foot and a half to become the Marlin. Teague’s exquisite proportions were lost in the process, and the car was a dismal failure.

The wheelbase of the Riviera had grown in 1966 to 119 inches, up two inches from its 1963 measurement. For 1971, it was stretched again, this time to 122 inches.

Overall length was also increased a couple of inches compared to 1970, bringing it to 217.4 inches overall -- nearly nine and a half inches longer than the original edition.

Width swelled to 79.9 inches, more than five and a quarter inches greater than that of the 1963 car. The 1971 Buick Riviera had become a highway cruiser, almost identical in overall dimensions to the 1971 Chevrolet Impala.

If there was any practical benefit in all this, it came in the form of hip room, which was greater by nearly six inches in front and by more than three inches for back-seat passengers. Trunk space, likewise, was increased by 35 percent.

But Bill Mitchell -- the man who had inspired the boattail in the first place -- caustically observed that “What hurt the boattail was to widen it. It got so wide, a speedboat became a tugboat.”

And yet, unlike many large fastbacks, the boattail Riviera was not ill-proportioned. Although the design was unquestionably controversial, many observers have called it one of the most beautiful automobiles to come along in many years.

Full wheel cutouts relieved what might otherwise have been an unacceptable slab-sided look, and the long hood served to balance the Riviera’s sweeping fastback rear.

For its part, Buick touted the “aerodynamic styling. Longer. Wider. Daring new design. The 1971 Riviera is motion-sculptured giving an image of movement even when standing still. In a word: "excitement.”

Learn about 1971 Buick Riviera performance on the next page.

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1971 Buick Riviera Performance

1972 riviera, left side
The 1972 Riviera received a minor facelift that included an eggcrate grille texture, slightly altered taillights, and a rubstrip following the bodyside sculpture line.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Despite its size, 1971 Buick Riviera performance was decent. Fortunately, since the 1971 Riviera’s power had been sharply reduced, the car’s weight had not grown commensurately with its size.

The 455.7-cid engine was retained, but in the interest of cleaner emissions the compression ratio was reduced from 10.0:1 to 8.5:1, dropping the gross horsepower from 370 to 315. Torque was similarly affected, slipping to 450 pounds/feet from 1970’s 510.


Not that the Riviera was suddenly suffering from constipation. The final drive ratio was increased from 2.78 to 2.93:1 in the interest of maintaining the Riviera’s reputation for sparkling performance.

Motor Trend, comparing the 1971 Riviera with the Toronado and the Thunderbird, found it to be the quickest of the three in acceleration, despite the fact that it had -- by a narrow margin -- the least favorable power-to-weight ratio.

As recorded in MT’s test, 0-60 mph came up in 8.4 seconds, no mean accomplishment for a car with a dry weight of 4,257 pounds. In fairness, let it be confessed that this figure could not be duplicated by the same publication in its test of the virtually identical 1972 Riviera. That one took 9.7 seconds to do the 0-60 sprint.

But then, that’s not too shabby, either. Buick would only comment that the Riviera’s performance was “Something to believe in.”

Other modifications for 1971 included a perimeter frame, replacing the cruciform type on which the earlier Rivieras had been built. Besides supplying side-impact protection, critical from a safety standpoint, the new frame made it possible for the Riviera to share the Electra’s excellent four-link rear axle suspension system.

Something else was revealed in Motor Trend’s tests: The Riviera’s brakes were superb. From 60 miles an hour they pulled the car to a halt in 135.2 feet, nearly 40 feet shorter than the Toronado’s stopping distance.

Check out the next section for details on the 1971 Buick Riviera options.

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1971 Buick Riviera Options

1972 riviera, gray
The 1972 boattail Riviera sported fully open rear wheelwells, which were emphasized by the sweep of the bodyside molding above them.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1971 Buick Riviera options were numerous and attractive. Air-conditioning, which Buick referred to as "Climate Control," was very popular, and of course there was the usual array of power equipment -- seats, windows, even door locks.

The AM/FM radio was a comparatively new idea, and the Buick version featured higher fidelity than most people had come to expect in an automobile. There was the inevitable vinyl top, of course, though it really didn't integrate very well with the Riviera's overall design.


And then there was Max Trac, a device designed to regulate wheelspin for greater traction. This computerized gizmo, complex enough to delight the heart of Rube Goldberg, functioned by interrupting the ignition any time the rear wheels got to going 10 percent faster than the front wheels.

It was abandoned after only two years, however, reportedly because its operation was incompatible with the new emissions systems.

Another intriguing option was the self-leveling rear suspension. When there was a heavy load in the trunk, or when the back seat carried its full complement of passengers, an engine-driven compressor would inflate a pair of pneumatic bellows mounted on top of the shock absorbers. This enabled the car to maintain a level stance regardless of its load distribution.

But to the performance buff, the most appealing option was the GS, or Gran Sport package. Consisting of a high-performance engine, specially calibrated Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission, 3.42:1 positive traction differential, heavy-duty suspension, and H78-15-bias-belted white sidewall tires, it was a bargain at $200.

Modifications to the GS engine included larger valves, and a high-lift camshaft with three degrees more duration on intake, resulting in a horsepower increase from 315 to 330.

Tom McCahill, evaluating the GS for Mechanix Illustrated, was enthusiastic. "This is a great road car," he wrote, adding that the lower compression ratio "has made the Buick 455 cu. in. engine much smoother and quieter than in the past . . . In desmogging Buick they haven't hurt its performance as much as the boys first feared. It just shows what ingenuity can do. From the sporty car standpoint the Riviera isn't Lamborghini, but then there's nothing better being made on these shores."

Find details on the 1972 and 1973 Buick Riviera in our final section.

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1972 and 1973 Buick Riviera

1973 riviera gs, black
This 1973 Riviera GS, resplendent in black and sans vinyl roof, also has the Stage I 455.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Having gone all-out in restyling the 1971 model, few changes were made for the 1972 and 1973 Buick Riviera.

Identifying the 1972 were a new eggcrate grille, mildly revised taillights, and standard vinyl moldings along the bodyside sculpture line. Gone were the Full-Flo ventilation louvers from the rear deck -- that flow-through system hadn’t worked very well.


However, if one wanted more air, an optional power-operated sunroof was now listed. Otherwise it was more of the same, at least visually.

Under the hood there was a new, solenoid-actuated throttle stop that prevented dieseling by shutting off air to the engine.

A new smog control system was aimed at California’s more stringent regulations, and for the first time horsepower was advertised only in net -- rather than gross -- terms, lowering that figure from 315 to 250. Performance was not appreciably affected, however.

The facelift for the 1973 Buick Riviera was more extensive than in 1972. Among the changes: a downturned hoodline and modified grille-work, large fender-mounted parking lights, thicker rocker panel moldings, rejiggered taillights surrounded by a trim panel, and a center-of-the-bumper rear license plate location (it had been way over to the left).

Most noticeable, however, was a softening of the “boattail” look up back and a heavier-looking bumper up front. The latter, adopted to conform with federal crash worthiness regulations, had the unfortunate side effect of increasing the weight of the 1973 Riviera some 240 pounds over its 1971 counterpart.

Mechanically, the car was basically unchanged, although the more stringent emissions standards had a negative effect on fuel mileage. Owners typically reported between eight and 11 miles to the gallon of gas, at a time when fuel prices were escalating rapidly. The only bright side was the fact that the engine would burn leaded regular without complaint.

These were good years for Buick, generally. During model year 1973 the division turned out 726,191 cars, very nearly equaling 1955’s record output.

But the Riviera failed to share in the prosperity -- only 4.7 percent of all 1973 Buicks were Rivieras, down from 8.7 percent a decade earlier. Whatever its merits -- and it had a lot of them -- the boattail Riviera was a disappointment where it counted most: on the sales floor.

Buick had been hoping for 50,000 sales per year for the boattail Riviera. Alas, they averaged 34,000. And things would get worse -- just 20,000 per year from 1974-1978, thus partially vindicating the boattail.

1973 riviera, yellow
Up front, the 1973 Riviera featured a horizontal-bar grille and a five-mph crash bumper mandated by the feds.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

There would be a new Riviera for 1974 -- a notchback. Styling was quite conventional, particularly in contrast to the boattail. And the new model was even heavier and more expensive than its immediate predecessor, but no less thirsty.

This was a difficult year for Buick, and a particularly bad season for the Riviera. But at least the boattail was exonerated. Clearly, it wasn’t the provocative styling of 1971-1973 that had caused the Riviera’s sales slump.

It would be nice to be able to report that the boattail Riviera has become a hot item on the collector car market, but it hasn’t. Still, there is a growing interest in this controversial, unconventionally-styled Buick.

So don’t be surprised if, over the next few years, the boattail becomes a highly collectible and -- ultimately -- a very valuable automobile.

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