by Bill Vance
General Motors got into the sports car business in 1953 when it introduced the Chevrolet Corvette, although being offered with only an automatic transmission, it wasn’t much of a sports car.
Ford countered with the two-seater Thunderbird in 1955, and it was on the pretty soft end of the sports car spectrum, too, being more like a lowered version of a Ford sedan.
While Chevrolet worked at making the Corvette a real sports car, Ford took a different tack with its Thunderbird. Rather than pursue the two-seater route, Ford concluded (correctly as it turned out) that there was more money to be made by transforming the Thunderbird into a bigger four-seater.
Thus, the original two-seater T-Bird was built for only 1955, ’56, and ’57. When Ford moved it to a four-seater in 1958 it established what became known as the “personal luxury” segment of the market.
GM’s response to the fast-selling large Thunderbird – the Buick Riviera – didn’t come until the 1963 model year. The Riviera name wasn’t new to Buick; it dated back to 1949 when the Buick Roadmaster Riviera Hardtop Coupe (along with the Cadillac Coupe de Ville and the Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Coupe) ushered in the “pillarless” hardtop convertible model.
Originally intended to be a revival of the LaSalle name, the “Junior Cadillac” built from 1927 to 1940, the new Riviera was given to Buick when Cadillac didn’t display very strong interest in it. Buick had the enthusiasm, and more importantly, the production capacity that Cadillac didn’t.
The 1963 Buick Riviera turned out to be a real success, although its sales didn’t quite match the established Thunderbird in the marketplace. It is for its aesthetic qualities that it is remembered. Styled under the direction of GM styling chief Bill Mitchell, it was the standout car of the year. Its only real competition was the Studebaker Avanti.
The Riv’s leading edge front fenders, with their vertical parking light “grilles,” flanked four headlamps and a handsome Ferrari-like eggcrate radiator grille. At the rear the knife-edge lines seemed Rolls-Royce inspired.
It came in a four-seater coupe model only and was, over-all, a beautifully integrated styling exercise, an indication that Detroit was putting the chrome and fin excesses of the 1950s behind it.
Although large by today’s standards, the Riviera was not as big as its full-size siblings. Its wheelbase was 2,972 mm (117 in.) compared with the biggest Buick Electra’s 3,200 mm (126). Over-all length, at 5,283 mm (208 in.), was about a foot and a half shorter than the Electra’s. And the Riviera weighed in the 1,905 kg (4,200 lb) range, depending on equipment, about the same as the Thunderbird.
Speaking of equipment, the Riviera came well fitted out, including standard power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmission. The option list was also extensive, with available air conditioning, cruise control, power locks, power windows and tilt wheel.
All of this heft and opulence required a substantial powerplant to move it. In the grand Detroit tradition, Buick obliged. The base engine was a 6.6 litre (401 cu in.) overhead “vertical-valve” V-8 that developed 325 horsepower. An even bigger optional version of the same engine, with a slightly larger cylinder bore to yield 7.0 litres (425 cu in.), gave 340 horsepower. The 7.0 litre would be made standard for 1964.
The Pontiac GTO had not yet introduced the “Muscle Car” era, but this big Motor City prime mover gave the Riviera performance that would be knocking on the door of those later road burners.
According to Car Life magazine’s Oct. ’62 road test the 340-horsepower Riviera could accelerate from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.7 seconds, and would go on to reach 160 km/h (100 mph) in 25.0 seconds. They also reported that this personal luxury car had a top speed of 197 km/h (123 mph), although it’s a question of how far one would want to drive at that speed, given that its 7.10 x 15 tires had a total rated carrying capacity of only 1,796 kg (3,960 lb). That was pretty quick performance, and the Riviera could certainly be dubbed an executive hot rod.
With its outstanding styling and high performance, the Riviera would seem to be a natural as a popular collectible. It is smooth, quiet and luxurious, and can easily keep up with modern traffic flows, although it would no doubt drink gasoline at a rapid rate by today’s standards. (Car Life estimated 11.5 to 14.0 miles per U.S. gallon, or about 14 to 17 per Imperial.)
Those early Rivieras are among the most beautiful of General Motors’ designs. Although a belated entry into the personal luxury market, the “GM T-Bird” was a lasting tribute to stylist Bill Mitchell.