1969 Buick Riviera. Photos by Richard Lentinello.
Vintage-car enthusiasts often debate which postwar cars should be recognized as hallmark designs, but there seems to be little argument about Buick's first-generation Riviera. It is almost unanimously lauded as the postwar automobile that transformed the personal-luxury-car market from an industry niche into a fashionable social statement.
Riviera's story can be recited with ease. Conceptualized as the La Salle II, it was refused by Cadillac, and then Chevrolet, because both divisions were operating at full capacity. It was then offered to Oldsmobile and Pontiac, but quickly retracted when both divisions made it clear they would make sweeping changes. Which left Buick: a division that—looking to alter its sales image— saw potential, grabbed the design, and, with only minor function-over-form tweaks, successfully transformed the Riviera from clay mockup to 40,000 street-legal units in 1963.
The part of the tale that few remember is how Riviera's first-year output was an early high-water mark. Despite tasteful visual refinements through 1965, and the availability of performance options, such as the Gran Sport package, production slowly fell to 37,658 examples for '64, and then to 34,586 a year later. Meanwhile, Fisher Body had been working with Oldsmobile since early '63, sculpting sheetmetal for the front-wheel-drive Toronado. The target year for the Oldsmobile's introduction was 1966. Since that project was similar in stature to the Riviera and was intended for the same market, GM stipulated, early in the '66 Riviera's development, that the Buick was to share the new E-body.
When unveiled, both cars had a uniform fastback roofline with an accentuated hardtop design, thanks to the elimination of vent windows, but Buick's designers set the rearwheel-drive Riviera apart from its corporate rival with crisp, forward-protruding fenders. Coupled with a new hood and bumper, the panels emphasized Buick's W-shaped front end. New running lamps flanked a deeply recessed grille, while headlamps appeared from under the hood lip when activated. A considerable reduction of polished exterior trim made the Riviera's appearance both aggressive and elegant.
The 211.2-inch-long body required a new 119-inch-wheelbase cruciform frame with a wider track that increased stability. Up front, there was an independent front suspension with unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, hydraulic shocks, and an anti-roll bar. In the rear were coil springs and hydraulic shocks anchoring a live axle. Buick's venerable 340-hp, 425-cu.in. engine was retained from '65, as well as the Super Turbine 400 three-speed automatic.
The interior was restyled too, finished with a bench seat, relegating buckets to a no-cost option, and an instrument panel that featured "cockpit-type controls." At the center of the panel was a 140-mph barrel-type speedometer, while "direct-reading" auxiliary gauges were set to either side. Flanking the gauges, and choice of radio, were paddle switches that controlled lighting and other accessories.
Bolstered by comfort and performance options, including the continuation of the GS package, response to the 1966 Riviera produced a sales figure of 42,799 units, surpassing Flint's expectations. Considered a perfect balance of visual appeal, size, and power, the second-gen Riviera was bestowed with mere mechanical improvements—such as the change to a 430-cu.in. engine and Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic—and minor visual updates though 1970, proving that the output of '66 was no fluke. By 1969, Riviera production numbered 52,872 units, including our feature car.
While built during an era known for a plethora of earth tones, this exceptionally documented Riviera left the factory wearing rare Twilight blue. According to the Riviera Owner's Association, just 1,679 (or 3.18 percent) were painted as such. It was also built with the bucket seat and center console options, the latter mandating the relocation of the automatic shift lever off the steering column. Along with 17 other options, it stickered for $6,218, or $45,010 in today's money.
Engine 430-cu.in. V-8
Horsepower 360 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 475 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 three-speed automatic
Rear axle Hypoid, semi-floating, Positive Traction
Tires 8.55 x 15-inch bias ply
Wheels 15 x 6-inch chrome five spoke
Wheelbase 119 inches
Weight 4,200 pounds
Total production 52,872 (includes 5,272 GS editions)
Base price new $4,701
2020 equivalent $34,029
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Matt Litwin.