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Evolution of the Riviera - 1971

by Ray Knott #1

Originally published in The Riview Vol. 19, No. 4 May./Jun. 2003

After five years of having the Riviera share similar body styles, Buick took a big risk with one of the most radical production designs ever. The 1971 model was different from anything manufactured since the thirties. It was over 40 years since a major manufacturer designed a car that could be called a “boattail” This large car with radically tapered front and rear quickly resulted in a love –hate response from the buying public. These mixed feeling were felt not only by the public, but within General Motors as well.

I had the pleasure of contacting John Houlihan, who was on the design team responsible for the 1971 Riviera. John was willing to share his memories as well as some original sketches. John recalls that a radical design for the new Riviera had been on the mind of GM’S styling chief Bill Mitchell for some time. Mitchell was also credited with the inspiration, which resulted in the original ’63-65 Riviera. John relates that Mitchell, who was always trying to introduce new and drastic styles, came across a 3/8th scale model of a concept done by another stylist

At this time I was assigned to advanced design studio headed up by Jerry Hirshberg, when Mitchell assigned us the project. Originally the car was designed to be a bit larger than an “A” (Skylark) body and smaller than the “E” (Riviera) body. The shape of this concept was extreme. It had an elliptical body section, nearly separate front fenders, a steep peaked and raked windshield and of course the boattail rear. Houlihan stated that it actually looked good. Houlihan recalls that there were at least two other designers beside him and they all shared their ideas for the new look Riviera. Hirshberg was also very hands-on with the shape of the design. It developed along the lines of the original 3/8th scale model with modifications to accommodate the engine and suspension. Mitchell added the “sweep spear”, which was one of his favorite themes throughout the years. The first version was very dynamic and quite handsome. We were all excited about the car, including Mitchell, but others thought it was too radical
Ed Cole, GM’s President was concerned about the economics of introducing an all-new car with virtually no common panels, glass or even driveline elements. He decided that we needed to make the car larger to accommodate inner panels and glass from the B (La Sabre/Wildcat) body. This was a total disaster! Glass is the single most expensive component and one that dictates the shape more than any other parameter. We were permitted to keep the boattail and wrap around rear glass, but had to conform to the B-body windshield and side glass. This turned out to be the initial kiss of death to the original sleek shape.
Weeks turned into months to make the conversion to the new size. It’s a tribute to the talent and tenacity of Hirshberg, designers, modelers, and tech stylists that we were able the make the car as good looking as we did. When the final product was completed and detailed by the Buick production studio, we got the word that Lee Mays Buick’s GM absolutely hated the design. We heard that Mays and Mitchell nearly came to blows. However it was too late to change the body for the 71 & 72 model years. It wasn’t until 1973 that the body was modified and in Houlihan’s opinion it virtually eliminated the true boattail design.

Total Production
Engine Size
33,810 (Includes 3,175 GS Option)
455 cu. in. V8


GS Option:
Curb Weight




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Notice: BUICK and RIVIERA are trademarks of GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION used with permission. The Riviera Owners Association is independent and not affiliated with GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION or its BUICK MOTORS DIVISION    —Copyright 2007 Riviera Owners Association—