Ask anyone who was licensed in the 1960s about some of the hottest rivalries in the car business and you’ll hear about the Chevy Z28/Mopar run-ins on the TransAm circuit and your might even hear about the Caddy Eldo/Lincoln rivalry at the upper end of the market. Those, of course, as the ones that everyone thinks about, but there was another one that was just below everyone’s radar that was every bit as ferocious as the battles for the hearts and minds of performance/luxury buyers – the four-place luxury/sports-touring market popularized by Ford’s 1963, four-place Square Bird.
In late 1962, Ford brought to market a four-place version of its popular T-Bird and two things happened:
- It became an instant hit
- Everyone else was playing catchup
Ford evidently thought it had this market segment to itself. After all, the 1963 Square Bird was gorgeous vehicle whose rounded lines swept back through a highly integrated body that was almost organic. It was the right car at the right time. Dearborn should have been looking over its collective shoulder, though, as a student of the great Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, became chief designer at Buick and decided, along with the rest of his team, that the automaker had to do something about the “Square Bird.” They did and the result was the 1963 Buick Riviera that some auto enthusiasts and connoisseurs believe is one of the best-looking vehicles to emerge from Buick’s design shop in the 1960s.
Indeed, some authorities have noted that Mitchell wanted this to be his statement for the era, and with that in mind he set out to design a four-place tourer that has become among the most-wanted vehicles of the 1960s era. It is a gorgeous piece of design work. The blend of curves and angles and the overall lines make the 1963 Buick Riviera a landmark car. Perhaps the most notable piece of the design is the horizontal bright grille. It does set the 1963 Riviera apart.
The whole design seems to work as the front bumper peaks in the center and flows in a reverse V toward the fenders. Integrated into this line, though, were a pair of single headlights that were fared right into the grille. The grille’s line then quickly reversed itself so that it met the front fenders that surrounded the and met the line established by the center point of the front bumper. The fenders themselves were topped by a slight angle that flowed down to meet the hoodline. The hood, itself, was topped with two air scoops, one on either side of a slight rise in the center-line of the hood.
The turn signals were fared into the front section of the fenders which established a high beltline that was carried through the body and out through the rear quarters and sail panels. Indeed, if you look at the fenders, you notice one thing thing that was common to many tourers of this era, the long front end, short rear deck and the Riviera was no exception to this design theme.
The front end flowed into a into a steeply raked windshield and on through a short, high greenhouse that did feature a roofline that sloped from the A-pillar to the rear window in a nice line. The rear window sloped down to a short rear deck and trunk lid. The taillights were integrated into the rear end which also picked up the line of the quarter panels and it all finished off nicely.
General Motors made no secret of its plans for the Buick Riviera. The 1959 GM Motorama in New York, the place where the automaker presented its forward-thinking designs, showed a mule that looked a lot like the 1963 Riviera. No one knew in 1959 that four years later it would actually be on the streets because GM needed a vehicle to compete against Ford’s highly popular “Squarebird.” The four-place T-bird sold 91,000 models in 1960 and the General knew it needed a competitive model in the “personal sports space” as Bill Mitchell termed it.
The Mitchell era of design began with the arrival of John Gordon as president of the automaker in 1958. He brought the Earl-trained Mitchell with him. In that one move, GM not only had one of the premier designers of the era, but it also had a bona fide car guy leading its Buick design house. Mitchell’s interest was broader than just design. He saw the marketing potential of a “personal sports/tourer,” as well as the fact that there were a hole in GM’s competition in Sports Car Club of America events.
Bill Mitchell was, some would say, a Renaissance car guy, and he wasn’t afraid of using internal competition to get what he wanted. The Riviera resulted not only from the mockup that appeared at Motorama (that mockup, by the way, did get some of its inspiration from the lines of the Rolls of that era) but also from an intense internal competition that led to the final product. The design team that was to produce the Riviera was locked away from other design teams in its own studio and, with urging from Mitchell, who also liked the finely chiseled lines of the Rolls, as well as its overall line, the Riviera appeared. It’s no small wonder that many of the design elements used in the final version were inspired by the Rolls.
Interestingly the competition to design the “personal sports/tourer” was opened to all GM Divisions and, though Mitchell was Buick design chief when he came on board, by the time the final competition was held, he had become the de facto design chief of GM, though technically still attached to Buick. Indeed, it was his design team – pulling out all the stops – that brought the 1963 Riviera to life. All the GM divisions had their shots – Caddy, Olds, Chevy and Pontiac – but Buick won the competition going away.
The importance of the Riviera can’t be underestimated because the early 1960s were time when Buick was just adrift in a sea of competing divisions and it watched as Pontiac and Chevy gained the performance mantle,while Cadillac reclaimed the luxury title. So, where did that leave Buick? It was left with a need for the Riviera in a very big way. The design team did its homework and they were the ones chosen to be the “Squarebird” fighters.
The overshadowing key, though, was that the Riviera had to be a corporate car. It had to use the corporate parts bin for its pieces and it did. Interestingly, the interior’s dual oval bright design environment for the driver was the result of the Buick styling house’s work as were a number of other innovations including a lowered stepover height for easier access and egress. The Buick’s interior was nicely styled and fit with the rest of the Riviera’s theme.
And, even though the Riv used the corporate parts bin, it did make some innovative changes as it used extra noise insulation in the right spots to keep road noise out of the cabin. It also used an independent rear suspension for better rear wheel placement and specially tuned bushings for a smoother ride. Disc brakes had been included in the planning but due to the cost and high maintenance needs, the GM division opted for finned aluminum drum brakes and shoes.
The Riviera was the first GM model to use frame-less side window glass, although there were sealing problems, which led to other firsts that the Riviera brought to GM, including the solution to the sealing problem that included special shims that kept the window glass in line. They also used lightened things up by making the front and rear windows part of the actual body design by using adhesives to lay the glass in it channel.
Powering the Riviera was the 401-cubic-inch Wildcat V-8. An optional performance package offered the engine bored out to 425-cubic-inches. Either way, the engine did move this 4,000-pound vehicle along smartly as an 8-second 0 to 60 run and a 16.5-second quarter-mile proved. The Dynaflow automatic was geared correctly for performance and the handling was good for a vehicle of this era.
The 1963 Buick Riviera introduced a number of first to GM including tuning the suspension for not only a smooth ride with different bushing settings, but also a quieter ride; the frame-less side window glass and a dual stator blade in the transmission that offered the driver the ability to set the transmission for performance or luxury performance.
All-in-all the 1963 Buick Riviera was a landmark vehicle. Inspired to a great degree by the Rolls-Royces of the era, the design team brought innovation to a vehicle that was designed using lots of parts from the parts bin and the way they used some of those parts – extra sound insulation, finned brake drums and the suspension tuning – made the Riviera a truly unique vehicle, one that was, in many ways, ahead of its time.