How Buick Works

1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 Buick Riviera

The 1987 Buick Grand National couldn't help Buick's slumping sales.

New for 1986, the sixth generation Buick Riviera, the third downsized personal-luxury Buick in 10 years laid a gigantic egg. Sales plunged to an 11-year Riviera low, the '86 tally off a whopping 70 percent from model-year '85. The 1987-88 results were even poorer.

In a way, this was curious. On a tighter 108-inch wheelbase, this new Riviera was far more nimble than the old, and its quiet, well-mannered drivetrain was basically the same as found in Electra/LeSabre. But it was evidently a bit too small for Riviera customers. An unfortunate styling resemblance to Buick's N-body Somerset/Skylark didn't help, and hardly anyone liked the gimmicky Graphic Control Center, a touch-sensitive TV-type screen that needlessly complicated even simple tasks like changing radio stations.

Hoping to turn things around, Buick made the '89 Riviera look more "important," adding 11 inches to overall length, ladling on chrome, and restyling the tail to resemble that of the 1979-85 models. Did it work? Yes and no. Production leaped from about 8600 for '88 to over 21,000 for '89, but the latter ­wasn't even half the total of a decade before. The 1990s sold only about 1300 units better. A more-conventional dash was a welcome change that season.

All this must have greatly disappointed Flint executives, who'd seen the 1981-84 Riviera average 50,000 model-year sales and the '85 over 65,000 (the increase no doubt due to buyers learning of the shrunken '86). Like the last rear-drive Buicks, these cars changed little after 1980.

There was a mild facelift for '84, and an optional Olds-built 350 V-8 was offered through '82, but turbo and nonturbo V-6s were available all along (the latter a new 4.1-liter from '81), as was a 350 Olds diesel V-8 (a troublesome beast, and thus rarely ordered), and choice of standard and T Type coupes.

Riviera's most interesting '80s development was the advent of its first convertible, bowing at mid 1982. A coupe conversion performed by an outside contractor, it was a handsome rig, fairly solid for a droptop and as luxurious as any Riv. But it was heavier and slower with its standard 4.1 V-6 (fitted to most examples, though the turbo 3.8 was ostensibly available) and found few takers at $25,000-plus.

Production was predictably limited -- just 1248, 1750, 500, and 400, respectively, for 1982-85 -- scarcity that guarantees this as a minor future collectible at least. Of course, the ragtop Riv died with the '86 E-body, which was deemed too small to be a practical four-seater in convertible form (though Buick later showed a prototype of just such a car).

For more on the amazing Buick, old and new, see:

  • Buick New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Buick Used Car Reviews and Prices
  • 2008 Buick Lacrosse
  • 2008 Buick Lucerne