20 December 2013

Design Analysis: First Generation Buick Riviera (1963-1965)

Ironically, it was Cadillac’s design and sales boom during the early 1960s beginning with one of Harley Earl’s (GM design boss until his retirement) last vehicles, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado (think tail fins), which led to the Riviera seeing production as a Buick. Designer Jock Twombley intended and penned the Riviera as a Cadillac. But because Cadillac was on a hot streak, and perhaps more importantly because Buick was becoming a bit staid, the Riviera was given the thumbs-up as a Buick by Earl’s protégé and successor Bill Mitchell.

Looking to take GM in a different direction, Mitchell began moving away from Earl’s voluptuous forms and coined the term “knife-edge” design, referring to planar surfaces and transitions that were stiffly creased rather than gently rounded. Along these lines, the Riviera was meant to be GM’s personal luxury answer to Ford’s Thunderbird, which was growing larger every year and no longer very competitive with the Chevy Corvette. The personal luxury concept allowed Buick (as well as Oldsmobile) to approach Cadillac’s levels of extravagance without really decreasing Caddy’s market share.

Business analyses aside, the Riv was successful for one reason only: It was beautiful. The overall proportion is inherently elegant due to the length of the wheelbase relative to its greenhouse, and the long rear overhang. While maintaining a long, luxurious profile it still manages to look sporty because of the negative front end (it appears to be leaping forward) and the a-pillar’s position so far aft of the front axle.

In profile, much of the visual mass exists up front, speaking to the car’s large 401-ci (6.6L) V-8. However, unlike Cadillacs of the era, the visual mass increases again over the rear tires because of the flare in the bodyside and character line combined with where the c-pillar meets the body. The shape clearly speaks to the performance-oriented rear-wheel-drive of the car.

If considered candidly, the surfacing of the 1963 Riviera GMs isn’t that radically different from the models designed during Harley Earl’s twilight. The tautness that gave Earl’s cars their visual speed from the early/mid-1950s until his retirement is still very present in Mitchell’s Riviera (along with the rest of GM’s offerings). Mitchell may have stretched the surfaces a little bit more, but the main difference between the Riv and GMs five years older is the that the surface transitions are much sharper, the creases more crisp. You can immediately understand what Mitchell meant by “knife-edge” design if you compare the hood/fender transition on 1959 Buicks to the top of the Riviera’s front fenders.

Buick did away with the “Delta Wing” (their term, not mine) styling of the late 1950s and moved to much more restrained, tailored forms. Additionally, GM’s management tried to differentiate the brands more strongly to keep Buick and Oldsmobile from simply looking like decontented Cadillacs. This was accomplished by limiting detailing on all cars (which, happily, also saved some money).
The detailing that was included functioned to enhance the length of the car. For instance, the lower bodyside light catcher runs almost the entire length of the bodyside beginning with the front wheel flare and terminating in the rear bumper. The “Riviera” script between the front wheel and door accentuates the size of the front end. Perhaps the only questionable details are the ornate side pods that hide the headlamps on ’64s and ’65s. Don’t misunderstand, they’re not ugly, I’d only question their necessity in such a pure form.

By the time Buick was developing the Riviera, Mitchell was already in firm command of GM’s design studios. He was certainly a believer and product of his predecessor’s, but he was also keen on moving styling in his own, more modern direction. Along with the 1963 Corvette, the Buick Riviera made it clear that round, feminine forms were out and a sharp, muscular era was beginning.

12 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Adam The Motor City December 21, 2013 at 22:40
    As an owner of a '63 (nearly identical to what's shown, except I have a blue vinyl interior), it seems this article missed some key points... 1. The Riviera design was inspired during a trip Bill Mitchell took to Europe, intending to combine the best elements of Ferrari and Rolls Royce 2. The Riviera was not just designed to be a Cadillac, but a LaSalle; hence, the chrome turn signal housings on the '63 and '64 models are intended to resemble the LaSalle grille. 3. The Riviera was the only Buick of its era without portholes, real or otherwise. 4. The Riviera used the same dashboard of the other large Buicks, but cleverly managed to integrate a European style center console and gearshift.
  • 2
    Ken Rivers Edge, TC, MI December 22, 2013 at 17:35
    Interesting article on the 1963 Buick Rivera but not exactly as I remember the development. This Rivera was a pure Bill Mitchell design, created under the watchful eye of Ned Nickles, former Chief Designer of the Buick Studio. The “Riv” was designed and modeled in Advanced Studio #1 on the second floor of the Styling (Design) building southwest corner. Mitchell had initially envisioned the Rivera as a Cadillac LaSalle and the front fender grilles emulated the original LaSalle front radiator grille, developed when Mitchell was Chief Designer of the Cadillac Studio. But Cadillac declined the offer so Mitchell “bid it out” to the other car divisions in a show in the domed auditorium and Buick expressed the most interest. The name of the designer Jock Twombley does not ring a bell in my memory but then again, this all happened 50 years ago. But as Staff Assistant to Director of Design Ed Glowacke, I was often in the studio when the Rivera was developed.
  • 3
    Dave Doyle Lynn, MA January 1, 2014 at 15:11
    Actually, the "Ornate sidepods" don't hide the headlamps on the '64s, just the '65s. The '64s look pretty much like the '63s....the major differences being the 425cid engine in all models, and the first use of the THM 400 transmission.
  • 4
    Anthony USA January 1, 2014 at 21:45
    It was thought the '65 Riviera was the first hide-away headlamp year, but the article states '64 & '65 Riviera's had the hide-away headlamps. Is this correct?
  • 5
    William Northern Michigan January 2, 2014 at 10:05
    This article is way over complex,for the average car guy I could state that the Buick motor division has always marched to a different drum with ideas of it's own.The Riv is a fine example of luxury styling that no other company has emulated and that it has certainly not plagurized any other designers thoughts.The front has the long appeal of an aircraft and the door opening being rearward on the car gives a somewhat appealing look(passenger compartment) of a aircraft cockpit.The rear of the car is proportional to the front in parallegram syncronization with a abrupt roof to bumper distance.Understated elligance that holds up well after 50 years.
  • 6
    Bruce Alexander Texas January 2, 2014 at 10:06
    I thought the headlights were only hidden in the 65 model?
  • 7
    Dave Cappa Pa. January 2, 2014 at 10:33
    I have always enjoyed the reasoning and origins of automotive designs. The Riv is a excellent example of these historical concepts being brought to life and sinergy with the unique American influence. Thanks for the article.
  • 8
    Steve Evans Arizona January 2, 2014 at 10:59
    I've had a 1963 for over 25 years. These are wonderful cars that until recently have not been greatly valued in the market. The design was originally conceived to revive the LaSalle name under the Cadillac line. However, as the article states, Cadillac didn't need another model at the time (they were selling all the cars they could produce). The remaining divisions competed for the design and Buick called in their advertising agency - McCann-Erickson - who is said to have made the difference in Buick getting the car. They limited 1963's production to be sure they sold them all and create a bit of demand (4000 cars total). The Riviera never challenged the Thunderbird in sales, but it did help Buick sell more cars.
  • 9
    Jim Larson Waterford Mi January 5, 2014 at 14:27
    This article is about the '63 Riviera. But, lets not forget the 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix!! Seems GM was on another design hot streak with the all new ; Corvette, Riviera, GP! I've had my '63GP for 10years, and it still turns heads.
  • 10
    Robert Largo, Fl January 18, 2014 at 15:24
    Had a 63 and a 64. They loved gas ! The onlly model with the hide away lites was the 65. Wish I still had at one of them.
  • 11
    Bill US February 10, 2014 at 23:42
    There is so little real information in this article that the misinformation gets emphasized.
  • 12
    Cary Taylor US March 24, 2015 at 19:53
    All credibility was lost when you said 64's had hideaways... Any Riviera enthusiast knows that didn't come to fruition until '65

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