General Motors styling boss Bill Mitchell had a taste for drama in automobile design, and few were more dramatic than the boat-tailed 1971 Buick Riviera.
The flamboyant styling of the 1971 Buick Riviera is formally credited to Jerry Hirshberg of the Buick advanced design studio (later, chief of design at Nissan) but the inspiration and driving force behind its radical look was GM design vice president Bill Mitchell. “It was his baby,” former GM design director David Holls told Collectible Automobile magazine in 1990. The ’63 Corvette Sting Ray was Mitchell’s favorite car, Holls explained. “He felt that cars were getting kind of ordinary and bland, and he wanted that kind of drama in a larger car.” The result, introduced on September 22, 1970, was the memorable ’71 Riviera.
Plans were originally laid to base the Riviera on the stretched-intermediate platform shared by the Chevy Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix. But in the end, the car got a full-size chassis with a 122-inch wheelbase and a full perimeter frame, discarding the cruciform frame used on previous Buick E-bodies. This GM studio model from April 1968 (above) exhibits all the key styling elements of the eventual production car in exaggerated form—note the deep checkmark line in the greenhouse and rear quarter panel.
Even in toned-down production form, the Boattail Riviera, as it shall forever be known, made a radical fashion statement. The giant two-door coupe was highly controversial even within the halls of the GM styling studios, but that was of no concern to Mitchell. At more than 218 inches, the Riverboat was nearly as long as a four-door LeSabre sedan, but without even a nod to packaging efficiency. The Riviera was above all an exercise in style.
The two-door hardtop, model 49400, was the only available body style, with a base price of $5,253, and while the standard equipment list was long, the list of available options was equally lengthy, including Cruise Master and GM’s vaunted thumbwheel Climate Control. One forward-looking $91 option was Max Trac, an early form of electronic traction control. Interior choices were many, all luxurious (below). Buyers who chose the bucket/console combination got a neat boat-throttle shift lever to command the standard Turbo-Hydramatic 400 transmission and 455 cubic-inch V8.
Despite the bombastic styling, or maybe because of it, the new Riviera was less than a sensation in the showrooms. Annual sales slipped to around 33,000 units in 1971, the worst year for Riviera to date, where they remained for 1972 as well. For ’73, the final year of the production cycle, the boattail styling was squared up and smoothed down a bit, in part to meet tougher federal impact standards, but sales remained planked in the 33,000 range. Mitchell’s boattail Riviera proved to be polarizing in the GM styling studios, polarizing in the Buick showrooms, and from what we hear around the campfire, the styling remains polarizing to this day. But for our part, we like it.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage