“It’s just an iconic piece of American automobile design.”
The proclamation last weekend at the Detroit Autorama of a spectacular custom 1964 Buick Riviera, named Rivision, as winner of the coveted Ridler Award got us thinking about the first generation Riviera coupes, one of the most beautiful car designs of their era.
The 1963 Buick Riviera was a startling creation when it was unveiled in October 1962 as General Motors’ “personal luxury coupe” and challenger to the Ford Thunderbird. Today, the original Riviera is considered a true milestone of automotive design (officially pronounced so by the Milestone Car Society).
Lavishly proportioned with a look that was utterly unique, the Riviera was a product of GM’s design studio headed by Bill Mitchell and originally drawn by stylist Ned Nickles. It had been intended as part of Cadillac’s stable of luxury cars, but when the Caddy people said they didn’t need another model, Buick won the car in a GM-division shootout and dubbed it Riviera, a name Buick had used off and on since 1949 for trim and styling packages.
Highlights of the Riviera’s “knife-edge” styling include the Ferrari-like egg-crate grille flanked by towering fenders, a long and sharply detailed hood, bold flanks detailed with subtle chrome accents, a squared-off roofline akin to the contemporary Rolls-Royce, and small rectangular taillights decorated with the Riviera emblem.
The ’64 Riviera was essentially the same with slight trim variation, while the ’65 version wowed the public with hideaway headlights concealed behind the vertical features on either side of its sweeping grille. The covers opened like clamshells when the headlights were switched on.
The early Riviera has long been a popular collector’s item because of its looks, but the big coupe also boasts a decent level of performance. The standard 401cid “Nailhead” V8 made 325 horsepower and a prodigious 445 pound-feet of torque, while the rare 425cid V8 with dual four-barrel carburetion raises horsepower to 340. Zero-60 was accomplished in less than eight seconds despite a curb weight of around 4,200 pounds. GM claimed a top speed of 122 miles per hour.
Steve Evans of Anthem, Ariz., remembers when he first laid eyes on a Riviera when he was a teen-ager in Holden, Mass.
“A guy down the street from us, he had a Riviera,” Evans recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ When I got my license about a year later, I said, ‘I’d really like to have one of those Rivieras.’ ”
Fortunately for Evans, now 46, his father is a classic car hobbyist and was eager to indulge his son with the ride of his choice. First, it was a ’64 Riviera, but after about a year, his dad decided the car was too shabby and offered to supply a better one. That turned out to be a handsome ’63 model in a paint hue that GM called Glacier Blue.
“I found the car that I have in New Jersey,” Evans said. “My folks effectively bought it for me for my high school graduation. And I’ve had it ever since. I drove that car from Massachusetts to Arizona.”
“I had it out here for awhile, but I was young and not married and didn’t have any garage space. I was beating it up, so I shipped it back home. It sat on blocks in my dad’s garage for eight years. He took it on himself to do a little mechanical work to get it back on the road and had it painted.
“So it got shipped back to me. I’ve only had it out here with me about a year. In which time, I fell in love with it all over again.”
Another Arizonan who owns a Riviera is Ed Mell, an acclaimed landscape painter and sculptor. Mell has driven his Buick in such events as the Copperstate 1000 road rally. He has been the owner of several landmark cars, and his choice of the Riviera speaks to its appeal even under the most critical artistic eye.
Evans drives his Riviera on occasion around the Phoenix area and puts it on display at car shows. The coupe is painted in the Glacier Blue factory color with its original wire hubcaps (a $55 option) and powered by the 401cid V8. He has the original paperwork on the car, showing its base price as $4,300, which rose to a then-lofty $5,409 with sundry options, including a Wonderbar radio with electric antennae.
As with most enthusiasts, Evans is mostly intrigued with the Riviera’s looks.
“I love the styling,” Evans said. “It’s just an iconic piece of American automobile design.”
Despite its status as a stylistic breakthrough, the ’63-’64 Riviera has remained a fairly low-hanging fruit among collector cars, with average values starting out around $12,000 and topping off just above $40,000 for pristine examples, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Rivieras have provided the template for countless custom-car efforts, and it’s a popular model for custom lowriders. The magnificent Ridler-winnng Rivision is the latest example of the enduring appeal of these cars among customizers at the top of their game.