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Razor Sharp, Razor Clean: The 1963-1965 Buick Riviera


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Razor Sharp, Razor Clean: The 1963-1965 Buick Riviera

Written by Aaron Severson

Saturday, 17 November 2007 15:50

From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s.

One of the best designs of Mitchell's tenure -- and one of his personal favorites -- was the 1963 to 1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if it had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn't have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.


The story of the Riviera begins not at GM, but at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1955, when Ford executive vice president and Ford Division general manager Lewis D. Crusoe ordered the development of a four-seat successor to the new Ford Thunderbird. The two-seat Thunderbird had never been envisioned as a high-volume seller, intended mainly to draw traffic to Ford showrooms. Crusoe felt the Thunderbird would sell better -- perhaps enough to become profitable in its own right -- if it had a back seat, and Ford's marketing research suggested a potential volume of 100,000 cars a year for a four-seat 'Bird. As a result, in 1958, the "Little Bird" was replaced by a significantly bigger model with room for four and a then-novel combination of bucket seats and center console (rather than the more customary bench seats). Although the "Square Bird" was far less sporty than its predecessor, its distinctive styling and relative practicality made it very popular. By 1960, the final year of the original Square Bird design, sales had reached 92,843. Although sales of the redesigned 1961 model dipped somewhat, the Thunderbird remained a popular and very profitable model, an image leader for the entire Ford line.

It took General Motors a curiously long time to respond to the success of the Thunderbird -- more than 200,000 four-seat T-Birds had rolled out of showrooms before GM fielded its first rival, the 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire. The Starfire was essentially a fully loaded Olds Super Eighty Eight convertible with different trim and bucket seats, nice enough, but nowhere near as distinctive as a Thunderbird, and only about 7,600 were sold. It was followed by the 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix, a tastefully cleaned-up Catalina hardtop that sold around 30,000 copies; far more successful than the Starfire, but still no threat to Ford. From the outside, GM seemed to be sitting on its hands.


The impression of idleness was not entirely accurate. In 1959, not long after taking over leadership of GM styling, Bill Mitchell assigned Ned Nickles of the Special Projects studio to develop a concept for a stylish new convertible in the Thunderbird vein. Nickles' first rendering featured distinctive fender nacelles with horizontal grille bars, evoking the last LaSalles of 1939-1940. Nickles labeled his rendering "LaSalle II."

Nickles was presumably aware that Mitchell had a soft spot for the LaSalle, a GM make that had been discontinued in 1940. The original LaSalle, launched in 1927 as a less-expensive "companion make" for Cadillac, had been styled by Mitchell's mentor, Harley Earl, and its success had lead directly to the creation of GM's Art & Colour department. Furthermore, Mitchell himself had been responsible for the vertical grille theme of the 1939 LaSalle, back when he was the head of the Cadillac/LaSalle design studio.



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There's a ton of context to note right here :

>>"Cadillac general manager Harold Warner was not interested;"<<

>>"Chevy management was no more interested in the XP-715 than Cadillac had been."<<

Understand what happened here?? Mitchell oversaw a special design, a beautiful timeless classic, and asked Cadillac if they wanted it. Cadillac refused it. Then Chevy refused it.

GM did not decree who would take it, they asked, and accepted the answers.

Completely different than recent times. Damn Roger Smith.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Ate with Motor has a good story on the 71-73 Riv, it was originally supposed to be on the G body [GP/Monte]. But, the Buick manager said no, wanted it to share LeSabre parts, it was was put on B-C body. The boat tail would have been a cooler car as a mid size, and the Riv name would have been used instead of Regal for the 1973+ mid sized car. Then again, if this occured, imagine the Riviera name on the 4 door W body?

Back then divisional managers had more say, but were not always right.

Edited by Chicagoland
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