of the Riviera-
Concepts and Design
by Ray Knott #1
Originally published in The Riview Vol. 18, No. 1 Nov. Dec.
The Riviera was introduced to the public on October 4, 1962, and immediately
the Riviera received approval as the most brilliant automobile to appear in
years. Automotive writers praised the car for its style, engineering and handling.
Unlike most of the new models, the Riviera had its beginning in the styling
studio, with little thought given to engineering considerations. It wasn't
until Buick was awarded the car did they have to work out all of the mechanical
problems without altering the shape. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
|Ned Nickles' original drawing before Mitchell's trip to London
It should be said that the idea for a new personal luxury car at GM was most
likely influenced by the success of Ford's four-seat Thunderbird, which was
introduced in 1958. The new Thunderbird proved to be such a phenomenal success,
that GM president John E. Gordon realized the need for GM to have something
to compete. He looked to his styling studio and his new chief stylist, William
L. Mitchell, for ideas. Mitchell, who was trained under Harley Earl, had a
talented staff of designers including Ned Nickles, who had created the 1949
Roadmaster Riviera, Buick's first pillarless hardtop.
Actually, GM had already been working unofficially on a car they believed
would blow the feathers off the bird. According to Nickles, he had sketches
of a car that he made in his apartment, which he envisioned as being a Cadillac
LaSalle 11. There seemed to be no interest in the project until Mitchell showed
the concept to Buick's new General Manager Ed Rollert. In 1959, while the
preliminary design work was ongoing, Mitchell attended the London Auto Show.
There, it is told by Mitchell himself, that one evening on a foggy London
street, he was impressed by the silhouette of a Rolls Royce, with its sharp
lines and angles, which was partially obscured in the mist. He recalls thinking,
"That's it, but the car would look much better if it were lower. He then knew
the look he wanted to achieve with the new project. Upon his return, Ned Nickles
and his staff modified the original sketches to include the razor-sharp roof
and sides. The new project was assigned experimental project number XP-715,
and by August 1960 they had a full-sized mockup bearing LaSalle 11 nameplates.
|A second Nickles sketch with sharp roof lines
The preliminary drawings featured subdued or hidden headlights that were
concealed behind the fender grilles. Many solutions for headlight placement
were tried. Some were awful. The original plan to put the headlights behind
the fender grilles could not be engineered in time, and the headlights were
simply placed in the grille. The early grille designs varied, some even had
a solid front without a grille, and air intakes below the front bumper. Due
to Mitchell's influence, nonfunctional dual scoops were added to the side
panels. This was one of the first cars along with the Pontiac Grand Prix that
broke away from the excessive use of chrome.
Although the car was originally designed as a Cadillac, when the design was
complete, John Gordon, GM's president, allowed all the divisions to compete.
As it turned out, Chevrolet and Cadillac were doing so well they didn't need
another model, whereas Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were very interested.
Buick's sales were way down, and this new model was just what they needed.
In April 1961, after an energetic presentation and a promise not to change
the design, they were presented with the XP-715. However, the car was still
without a name. After dismissing such names as "Centurion" and "Drake," they
chose "Riviera," which evoked the elegance of the Italian and French coastline.
The name was not new to Buick, as they had been using the name since 1949
to describe their early pillarless models; however, this would be the first
time the name would appear on an exclusively designed model.