Fewer than twenty years after the first-generation Buick Riviera debuted, I was induced to write a chapter on cars for the Catalog of Cool, a cultural compendium assembled by an editorial team of swingin’ savants. One of the entries: “Buick’s hippest move was the Riviera (especially ’63-’65): two-door hardtops with bucket seats, sharp looking from every angle. Inspiration apparently struck style chief Bill Mitchell one foggy night in London town — a coachbuilt Rolls sliced through the mist, Bill flashed, and the Riv was born.” Another three decades on from those scribblings, Mitchell’s divine inspiration still has us fawning. His goal to combine the formality of a razor-edge Rolls-Royce with the aggressive stance of a Ferrari stands as one of the greatest styling triumphs of the midcentury.
The Riviera — with its expansive egg-crate grille, pontoon fenders, neatly creased formal rear quarters, and sumptuous interior — was more successful at recalling, not mimicking, styling of the classic era than the much-vaunted Continental Mark II. It also stole the spotlight from Ford’s four-place Thunderbird that had the personal-luxury segment to itself since ’58.
No two ways about it, the Riv was, and is, a scene-stealer of the highest order. Southern California resident Dan Gregg has lived with one such object of adoration for the better part of his life. His father acquired the breathtaking ’64 seen here around the time that the Catalog of Cool went to press and bequeathed it to his son, who undertook a thorough, although not frame-off, restoration thereafter. Upon bearing witness to its brawny beauty, strangers invariably lament, “I had one of those; shoulda kept it.”
The Gregg family chariot is a ’64, very similar to the first-year model but for the fact that it has absolutely no visible Buick badging. Even the stand-up hood ornament, new for ’64, was a stylized R rather than the Buick shield. These details underscore that the Riviera had a look all its own; it seemed to have come from a more tasteful automotive universe than its contemporaries. Even most Mercedes-Benzes still had fins at that time.
Gregg’s car is strictly stock and painted “tawny mist,” which, perhaps, sounds like a stripper’s “nom du pole” — and, truly, the car is one sexy beast, although certainly not in a tawdry way. At introduction, a commercial coyly called it “a great and rare machine that a woman can admire and enjoy…but only a man can really understand.” Sexist, sure, but there’s no doubt about the car’s masculinity on a very visceral level. Speaking of women, one of the options was a purse hook, a dash-mounted perch from which to hang milady’s handbag. Gregg added this accoutrement after an obsessive search yielded the correct piece. He asked his mom for a purse for his birthday, and she may have wondered if there might be something he was trying to tell her, but, of course, the desired handbag was to demo the feature at car shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The car’s pristine condition belies the fact that it has 99,000 miles and, for a time, pulled a horse trailer. There’s nothing on this Buick that is in any way anachronistic. The electrical tape on the wiring is the cloth type — plastic came later — and all headlights are sealed-beam T-3s, as originally equipped. Gregg literally blows folks away with a factory-correct four-note trumpet horn. The quest for correctness extended to the black California license plate’s vintage month sticker with a cross-hatched background — today’s are solid. The license-plate frame is from the Roseville, California, dealer that first sold the car. While pictured here with factory wire wheel covers, Gregg also has a set of authentic chrome-plated wheels, giving him a choice of two distinct looks. Other options on Gregg’s Riviera include an “Autronic-Eye” (automatic headlight dimmer), air-conditioning, a deluxe interior with a wood steering wheel, an inside trunk release, and a power antenna.
In the performance department, the two-ton Riviera holds its own very nicely. The engine, displacing 425 cubic inches, delivers 340 hp and, more important, 465 lb-ft of torque, good for 0-to-60-mph times of about eight seconds back when it was new. The three-speed “Super Turbine 400” automatic transmission, introduced in ’64, was a marked improvement over the old Dynaflow-based Turbine Drive. Freeway merges are no sweat, especially since traffic tends to part in the presence of such a ravishing machine. Passing is, likewise, a perspiration-free endeavor. Plentiful power notwithstanding, tire smoking is not the Riv’s raison d’etre; it is most at ease in its true role, which is that of an unflappable grand tourer. It stops, too, given enough runway and with minimal fade thanks to massive twelve-inch aluminum finned drums.
Gregg, adhering (pun intended) to his “stock ueber alles” ethos, has shod the car with period-authentic bias-ply tires, even though the radials on the other set of wheels give it more agile, almost modern, cornering ability. Steering feel, on the soft and fuzzy side, also firms up with radials. It’s not a car for autocrossing, but that’s beside the point — the Rolls-meets-Ferrari idea is borne out by the comfortable ride and a zest that belies its bulk.
Chrome, mostly absent on the outside, is plentiful in the cabin, where it’s slathered on the A-pillars and the steering column, places in today’s cars that are almost never interestingly finished. Upholstered in vinyl (leather was an option only in ’63), the seats are supple yet firm and keep the driver in a cosseted, upright position. Back seats are mock buckets, and there’s more legroom than one would expect. Rear passengers have the ability to let themselves out thanks to a second set of door levers, a feature you don’t know you need until you do.
Comfort, style, and a smooth ride are its hallmarks, and the Riv does better in those areas than just about any contemporary offering. As he also owns a ’66 Thunderbird, Gregg is in a better position than most to attest to this. “The ‘Bird feels much heavier and more sluggish than the Riv,” he opines. “You sit up higher in the Riv so visibility is better, and the Riv has more style and looks crisper.”
The final first-generation Riviera was further refined with headlights hidden behind fender clamshells, more integrated taillight placement, and the elimination of the decorative side scoops. The rare ’65 Riviera Gran Sport that offered enhanced performance was the absolute apogee of the model, but any Riviera of this era has presence unsurpassed for almost fifty years.
And there’s no end in sight to that beautiful reality.
6.6L OHV V-8, 325 hp, 445 lb-ft;
7.0L OHV V-8, 340-360 hp, 465 lb-ft
2- or 3-speed automatic
Control arms, coil springs
Live axle, coil springs
WEIGHT 4000 lb
(25 percent premium for ’65 GS models)
One of the most beautifully proportioned American cars of the last sixty years, it was reportedly lauded by contemporary cognoscenti including famous designers such as Sir William Lyons, Sergio Pininfarina, and Raymond Loewy and appeals to the aesthetic sensibility of anybody with a sense of grace. It’s not only something enjoyable to look at, it also has an active owners’ group (rivowners.org), is easy to drive, and provides solid, comfortable transportation. Fuel consumption is high, but the purchase price is comparatively reasonable for a true icon of midcentury design. Destined to appreciate and will always be appreciated.