The design origins of the 1963 Buick Riviera can be attributed to Ferrari 250 PF coupes that General Motors Vice President of Design Bill Mitchell admired in Europe in 1959. Mitchell decided that GM’s new personal coupe should have a “coke bottle” shape, Rolls-Royce razor-edges, minimal brightwork, and a luxurious interior.
The Riviera attracted conservative, wealthy buyers, and delivered steady sales. Quality control was excellent, and the survival rate has been surprisingly good. Even today, long-term ownership frequently ends with estate sales, and survivors often have all their accessories functioning.
However the car is too restrained, too large, and too thirsty for many collectors, with gas mileage seldom exceeding 10 mpg. It’s the self-effacing classmate who became a rich bank executive, and is hardly noticed at high school reunions.
Designer Ned Nickles delivered a sharper Riviera concept in 1960. Dubbed the XP-715 Silver Arrow, it featured a long hood, short trunk and wide C-pillars, like the 250 PF. Mitchell wanted a new LaSalle, (whose tall grilles were copied in the front fender screens for the headlights) but Cadillac showed no interest, so the design was offered to Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick.
Only Buick accepted the XP-715 unchanged and revived its Riviera name, which had launched the hardtop category in 1949. GM was frustrated by the success of Ford’s Thunderbird personal coupe. The T-Bird two-seater of 1955 eclipsed the first Chevrolet Corvette, then added two seats in 1958 and doubled its sales to 38,000. Ironically, GM chased T-Bird customers for 40 years.
In 1963, both the Thunderbird and the new Riviera had powerful engines, unique body styles and many luxury options, but both were overtaken by value. The 1964 Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO “muscle cars” revolutionized American motoring. Drivers bought the youthful images (and cars) in record numbers. Fifty years later, the cars’ popularity is reflected in higher prices.
The first generation Riviera was built from 1963-65 with a unique body and shorter X-frame. It was powered by a 325 hp, 401-cid “Nail head” V-8, and a 340 hp. A 425-cid V-8 was offered shortly thereafter. Production was limited to 40,000 units in 1963—maintaining exclusivity—and cars were fitted with automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, and multiple power options including air conditioning. The Riviera was priced from $4,333, though most listed over $5000 – twice a Mustang or GTO’s price.
For 1965 the Riviera headlights were hidden in vertical positions in the fenders, like the concept. Side trim was simplified, taillights moved to the bumper and new wheels designed. The Rivera was quick, with 0-60 mph in 8 seconds, but the new 360 bhp Gran Sport had dual four-barrel carburetors, and was timed at 125 mph. A total of 112,244 Rivieras were sold in three years but 230,750 Thunderbirds found buyers.
The Riviera was redesigned to share GM’s wider E-body with the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1966 and the upcoming ‘67 Cadillac Eldorado, though the others had revolutionary front-wheel drive. The Riviera’s engine grew to 430 cubic inches, then 455 cubic inches, as the body gained a heavy chrome loop grille in 1968-69 and a clumsy side spear and fender skirts in 1970.
For 1971, Buick completely revised the Riviera with a radical boat-tailed body with a pointed tail and rear window similar to the 1963-67 Corvette Stingray. The design is polarizing, and though it’s been on the list of future collectibles forever, $15,000 buys the best of them.
First-generation Rivieras are affordable; most sell between $10,000 and $20,000 in good to excellent condition. The 1965 is on a faster track, with Gran Sports edging into the middle $30,000 range. There’s little interest in 1966-69 models, due to the Toronado’s FWD cachet, and the 1970 Riviera typically appeals only to kustom kar aficionados.
Mechanically, the main complaints about early Rivieras concern cooling, and a good radiator solves that. Rust can be problematic, but many were garaged, which helps. It’s also not unusual for garage finds to be driveable, thanks to the quality of basic mechanics and accessories. If you can afford the gas mileage and want a stealth cruiser, early Rivieras are relative bargains.