The Riviera that Cadillac didn’t want

Can it really be 55 years since General Motors rolled out one of the most elegantly styled cars of all time, the fabulous Buick Riviera?

When they pulled the curtains back on this little baby, there stood a confidently understated automobile featuring razor sharp edges, a crisply-sculptured roofline and, unique and innovative for the time, frameless side glass.

For Americans, it was the future arriving ahead of schedule.

Even the Europeans thought it looked stunning. Pininfarina said the new Riviera was “one of the most beautiful American cars ever built”.

Conceived in the early months of 1960, The Riviera was the way Bill Mitchell, the new head of styling at GM, stamped his authority across a company whose car designs had been ruled by his predecessor, Harley Earl, since 1927.

Earl liked his cars to have curves, lots of curves, and high-domed roof lines and plenty of chrome.

Mitchell was the opposite. He liked minimal decoration, fine crisp lines and tautly drawn clearly defined panels.

The “sheer look” he called it, and for 20 years it underpinned GM’s global styling language.

Mitchell passionately believed GM needed a two-door hardtop coupe to compete with the Ford Thunderbird which was selling a healthy 130,000 units a year, all at a price premium.

One of Mitchell’s best stylists, Ned Nickles, had the task of shaping the new car.

By May 1960 he had the basics in place. At this stage it wore Cadillac La Salle badges, as Mitchell figured that GM’s luxury division would want such a car.

They did not. So he took it over to Chevrolet. They didn’t want it either.

And so after some politicking and prodding, Mitchell lined up Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick managers, staging an internal contest to decide who got the car.

Buick won the competition with help from its adverting agency and by giving a promise not to fiddle with the styling.

The La Salle badges werecripped off, and Riviera logos affixed.

From there the engineers had barely 18 months to take the car from a full-size clay model to the showroom.

That meant little time for innovation, so they shorted a full size Buick frame, dropped in a standard V8 motor and automatic transmission, raided the suspension parts bin and threw the body over the top.

One area that did focus engineering attention was the frameless side glass windows.

This was quite an engineering feat and led the way for all hard tops and convertibles, even today, to adopt the technology.

Buick craved exclusivity for the Riviera, so it intentionally limited production to exactly 40,000 units.

They sold every one of them.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au

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