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Das Boot: The 1971-1973 Boattail Riviera


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Das Boot: The 1971-1973 Boattail Riviera

Written by Aaron Severson

Sunday, 10 February 2008 11:31

Bill Mitchell, styling chief of General Motors from 1958 to 1977, presided over quite a few hits and a number of duds in his long career. There are a few of his designs that still spark controversy -- none so much as this. Critics were sharply divided on this design when it first appeared, and even today there's a love-it-or-hate-it attitude towards this car.


As we have seen, the original Buick Riviera was introduced in 1963 as a belated response to the four-seater Ford Thunderbird, which had created a lucrative new market segment for "personal cars." A "personal car" was a relatively expensive car -- typically, though not necessarily, a close-coupled two-door hardtop -- aimed at the buyer who wanted something with more dash than a standard sedan, even a luxury sedan.

Although it was conceptually innovative, the four-seater Thunderbird was a decided ordinary car in many respects. Its performance was no better than a contemporary Ford sedan, its handling was soggy, and its assembly quality and fit and finish were not necessarily in keeping with its elevated prices. Nevertheless, it struck chord, and many affluent American buyers clutched the new T-Bird to their collective breasts.

It took GM and Chrysler a remarkably long time to join the party, but by the late 1960s, nearly every American manufacturer had rolled out their own personal car. The genre would become one of the only unalloyed growth areas of the 1970s.

The 1963 Riviera. The sharp-edged roofline was inspired by a Hooper-bodied Rolls Bill Mitchell once saw through a London fog.

Within this elite class, the original, razor-edged 1963-1965 Riviera was probably the most convincing effort at blending genuine sporting flair with luxury posh. It was swift, distinctive, and, particularly in Gran Sport form, reasonably agile for a big American car. It sold over 100,000 units in three years, a respectable total, though the Thunderbird still outsold it by nearly 50%.


By 1970, the Riviera had succumbed to middle-aged spread. It was bigger in every dimension than its 1963 predecessor, with fussy rear fender skirts and a decidedly matronly air. GM styling chief Bill Mitchell, who had shepherded the original car, realized that the Riviera was becoming rather anonymous, a cardinal sin in the personal luxury class. He determined that the third-generation car, released for 1971, should make a bolder statement.

Mitchell, who had begun his GM career in 1935, had a habit of looking to the past for inspiration, to cars like the elegant "boat-tailed"Auburn Speedster. A few years earlier, Mitchell had directed stylist Larry Shinoda to incorporate boattail cues in the tail of the 1962 Corvette, a theme that would become even more noticeable in the Corvette Sting Ray coupe. The Sting Ray, in turn, would become the stylistic progenitor of the third-generation Riviera.

A 1972 or 1973 "boattail" Rivera. If you look closely, you'll see that there's a stress line down the center of the backlight, to keep the glass from snapping as the body flexes over bumps.

As with all the cars designed during his tenure as VP of styling, Mitchell set the tone for the Riviera's styling, but he did not design it himself. The new Riviera was supervised by Buick advanced studio chief Jerry Hirschberg; the design was based on a concept by stylist Don DeHarsh. Mitchell suggested the side sweep that carried through the doors, a Buick trademark for many years. Mitchell, Hirschberg, and stylist John Houlihan thought the results were very striking, although Hirschberg later described the design as a terrible mistake.


The original plan was for the third-generation to switch from the E-body shell (shared with the contemporary Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado) to the smaller A-platform of Buick's Special and Skylark intermediates. Had things gone according to plan, it probably would have ended up something like the 1969-1970 Pontiac Grand Prix or the 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which used a stretch "A-Special" version of the intermediate chassis, with a heroically long hood.

Unfortunately for Mitchell and Hirschberg, Buick general manager Bob Kessler, who had approved the original boattail design, was replaced in late 1969 by Lee Mays, formerly the general sales manager of Chevrolet. Mays was deeply conservative, and he neither liked nor understood personal luxury cars. Mays despised the boattail design, and while it was too late to order a complete redesign, he determined that Buick was not going to invest in a lot of unique tooling for a car he was certain would be a flop.

At Mays's orders, the boattail design was shifted to the B-body platform of the contemporary full-size Buicks. As a result, the new Riviera would share the floorpan, windshield, and side windows of the Buick LeSabre and Centurion. The stylists considered it a disaster, but they had no choice.

If the Riviera had been built on the A-body platform, it probably would have been about the same size as the '69 Grand Prix, which was 210 inches (5,334 mm) long and 75.7 inches (1,923 mm) wide on a 118-inch (2,997-mm) wheelbase. As it turned out, the 1971 Riviera was 217.4 inches (5,522 mm) long and 79.9 inches (2,030 mm) wide, on a 122-inch (3,099-mm) wheelbase, with unfortunate consequences for its proportions. Worse, it was saddled with the front and side glass of other Buicks, which did not fit the design themes.

The boattail Riviera rides the same floorpan as the full-sized Buick LeSabre and Centurion, and it shares many of their components, although the Riviera's wheelbase is two inches (51 mm) shorter, 122 inches (3,099 mm) versus 124 (3,150 mm). It is enormous by modern standards: 1973 models were 223.4 inches (5,674 mm) long, more than a foot (33 cm) longer than stylist Jerry Hirschberg and his team originally intended.

The Riviera's standard engine was Buick's 455 cu. in. (7.5 L) V8, which was rated at 315 gross horsepower (235 kW); Buick also quoted a more realistic net rating of 255 horsepower (190 kW). Like all Rivieras since 1964, the sole transmission was the three-speed Turbo Hydramatic. Front disc brakes were now standard, and you could buy Buick's good-looking styled steel wheels for about $80 extra. Prices started at $5,253, but a typical load of options brought the final sticker close to $7,000, still in the same ballpark as a Thunderbird.

The front end's angular hood contours don't match the curvaceous tail. This particular car is a "Frankenstein"; its front clip is from a 1973, identifiable by the heavier bumper, distinct grille, and side-marker lights, but the tail is a '72.

The Riv had one unusual technical novelty: GM's new and short-lived Max Trac traction control system. Max Trac used rear-wheel sensors to detect wheelspin; it responded by reducing the engine's spark advance, reducing power. Testers found it helpful on slippery surfaces, although it made fast starts impossible. (It could be turned off with a dashboard switch.) It carried a price tag of about $90, and was not especially popular. Buick quietly dropped it a few years later.

If you wanted a sportier Riviera, for about $200 extra you could order the Gran Sport package, which brought a somewhat more powerful engine, initially rated 330 gross horsepower (246 kW), 265 hp net (198 kW), later restated as 260 net horsepower (194 kW). It also included a higher numerical axle ratio (3.42) and a marginally firmer suspension. The new Riviera GS was neither as fast or as agile as earlier Gran Sports, but it was an improvement on the rather soggy standard suspension tuning. The Riviera was too heavy to be very quick off the line, but it ample passing power and a top speed of more than 120 mph (195 kph).


Buyers responded coolly to the new design. First-year sales, which totaled 33,810, were actually down about 10% from 1970, which had been a warmed-over, five-year-old design. Even as the boattail went on sale, Lee Mays was pushing hard to kill it as soon as possible, but, automotive lead times being what they are, that meant 1974.

During its three-year lifespan the boattail Riviera received only modest changes. '71s had louvers on the rear deck, on either side of the boattail "stinger," which were deleted in '72; '72s had a distinct eggcrate grille; and the '73s got a slightly restyled tail and an even bigger (and uglier) front bumper to meet new federal crash standards. Emissions and safety equipment made each year progressively heavier, while engine power eroded. By 1973 curb weight with a full load of options topped the 5,000-pound (2,270-kg) mark. The GS Stage 1 engine provided adequate power, but the cost was grotesque fuel consumption. Cars magazine's February 1973 test of a Riviera GS Stage 1 found that vigorous driving could push mileage as low as 5 mpg (47 L/100 km).

From this angle you can see the exaggerated length of the 5-mph (8-kph) bumper. It's missing the front bumper guards that were standard -- if you look closely at the front edge of the bumper, you can see the gaps were they would attach. This car's mixed provenance would not win it any points in a concours event.

In 1974, Mays finally got his way, and the Riviera was hastily restyled with a new roof and tail. Thus altered, it was little more than a bigger, pricier LeSabre coupe, and sales plummeted nearly 50%. Business wouldn't recover until the considerably downsized FWD Riviera of 1979.


The Riviera and other personal luxury cars would fall on hard times in the late eighties and early nineties, eroded by the growing popularity of SUVs. The Riviera died for good in 1999, and if recent styling studies for possible revivals are any indication, it would be for the best if it stayed that way. Big coupes are all but extinct now, except for those handful wearing upscale badges, like the BMW 6-Series and Mercedes CLK.

The boattail Riviera looks better to modern eyes than it did in its day. Big as it is, it's an attractive and interesting-looking car from most rear aspects. The side windows seem too tall, a consequence of having to share glass with the contemporary LeSabre and Centurion, but the biggest failing is the front end, whose blunt angularity is at odds with the swoopy tail; the '73's heavier front bumper only make it worse. Overall, the design is clearly compromised, but even so, it isn't the disaster Lee Mays thought it to be.

It looks better from the rear than from the front or side, although the sheer size is daunting, and the tall side windows seem too large for the shape, giving it a gawky quality. The downward sweeping beltline is shared with its Buick siblings, although the kick-up of the rear fenders is unique to the Riviera. Although the front clip of this car is from a '73, the shape of the rear bumper and taillights mark the tail as being from a '72; '73s had a less peaked tail with the the tail lamps integrated into the bumper, rather than above it.

There are a number of boattails in the L.A. area, and they have a certain cult following. A third-generation Riv in good shape is still a head-turner. They are not cheap to run, though -- the 455 and the two-and-a-half-ton curb weight give the Riviera the dubious distinction of being even thirstier than modern SUVs, although at least it will subsist on regular fuel without much complaint. If you think global warming is a good thing, and if you're not too concerned with maintaining originality, it's not difficult to extract 400 or more horsepower (300 kW) from this engine, although you may need your own tanker truck.

Whatever your opinion of its styling, the '71-'73 Riv stands as the last really distinctive American car design of its era. The 1970s were a depressing time for automotive design, and many of the decade's big hits -- the Cadillac Seville, the downsized Thunderbird, the Chevy Monte Carlo -- have not stood the test of time. Even the boattail's designers may have disowned it, but the Riviera deserves a little credit as the last gasp of a more adventurous styling era.



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The '71-72 Riv is one of my favorite GM design of the '70s. So huge and uniquely sculpted..it wouldn't have had the same visual impact on the smaller A/G platform, I think. It would have made a great Pontiac design if the front had been as pointy in the center as the rear.. :)

The '70 Riv was an oddity--they frumpified the clean '66-69 design for 1 year only. The '68-69 was a bit busier than the '66-67, but was still a beautiful car, IMHO.

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Incomplete. Everyone knows the first Buick Riviera was built well before 1963.

Well, the name was used to signify hardtops in the '50s, right, like the Roadmaster Riviera.

The first distinct, unique Riviera model was the '63.

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The '71-72 Riv is one of my favorite GM design of the '70s. So huge and uniquely sculpted..it wouldn't have had the same visual impact on the smaller A/G platform, I think. It would have made a great Pontiac design if the front had been as pointy in the center as the rear.. :)

The '70 Riv was an oddity--they frumpified the clean '66-69 design for 1 year only. The '68-69 was a bit busier than the '66-67, but was still a beautiful car, IMHO.

Well put, and agreed. Also about the Pontiac idea. 8)

I had a '72 for a short while- it was hit hard in the rear quarter and I bought it for the engine/trans.... but even so- tho generally 'too new' for me, I was strongly smitten with it inside & out. I definitely could own one.

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