BUICK RIVIERA REVIEW

Fancy a car with V8 muscle-car grunt but more sophisticated styling, better road manners and a proper cabin? Welcome to the Buick Riviera, the closest Sixties America got to building a Bentley Continental. We’re looking at three different Rivieras; the original 1963 to ’65 cars, the Cadillac-based second generation from 1966 to ’70 and finally the distinctive ‘Boattail’ 1971 to ’73 versions.


There's not much out there, as you’d expect. But there are upsides to this – the Buick Club UK will know most if not all of the cars offered for sale, so joining up is a wise move. Secondly, hardly anyone bothers to import something rusty, so most Rivieras are well-preserved. 
If you’re open-minded about your preferred model, shop in the UK but if not, try finding the right car in the USA and importing it yourself. Shipping starts at well under £1000 from the East Coast, although import duty and VAT push up the cost. A good shipping agent will remove all the hassle for you.
 

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine 7046cc/V8/OHV
Power 360bhp@5000rpm
Torque 475lb ft@3200rpm
Top speed 118mph
0-60mph 10.7sec
Gearbox 3-speed automatic

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK

All three phases mounted a steel body on a hefty separate chassis. This makes for good durability but high kerb weights and it also means that if you find a car corroded enough to fail an MoT, you’ve probably got a major project on your hands. The hassle and expense of finding a good secondhand body in the US means you should try to try to find a recent dry-state import. Look where you’d check on any Sixties car – sills, floors, wheel-arches and door bottoms; be very thorough.
The first generation featured innovations like bonded front and rear screens and frameless side glass, so be sure everything still seals and you don’t get howling drafts or wet carpets. Second generation cars shared their basic shell with the FWD Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado, but remain RWD. Like all Rivieras, tired chrome parts will have to be sourced from US breakers.
The boattail cars obviously have some rather special glass in that elegant pointed tail, which is not impossible to find. A total respray is a considerable undertaking on a car this size and a nice job can double the cost of a decent, solid car if you’re determined to have perfect paint.

ENGINES

The engines fall into two families, the ‘nailhead’ units, (their small valves resemble nails sticking out of the head when you remove the rocker covers) of 401 and 425 cu in (6571cc and 6964cc) used from ’63 to ’66, and the big-block V8 that replaced it from 1967. This appeared in the Riviera in 430 cu in (7046cc) and 455 cu in (7456cc) version. All Rivieras made 300bhp or more at the flywheel, and though horsepower dropped off a little after peaking at 370bhp 1970, all are quick enough to be exciting. Gran Sport options with twin four-barrel carburettors are prized but reduce the economy from poor to terrifying – single figures are possible.
Worn engines smoke, especially nailheads, but unless it continues long after start-up you should be more concerned with rumbles or rattles indicating bearing damage or oil and water mixing thanks to failing head gaskets. There’s no temperature gauge and the idiot light sometimes doesn’t give owners enough warning. Water pumps can fail as worn drive belts are over-tightened – check for play in the pulley and look for drips.  

TRANSMISSION

The first year of Riviera production, 1963, had Buick’s Twin-Turbine drive automatic, a version of the fluid-drive Dynaflow from 1948 with enough unfamiliarity to scare off some of today’s transmission specialists. From 1964, Rivieras used the ubiquitous General Motors Turbo Hydramatic, called the Super Turbine 400 in Buick models. They’re tough and reliable, with only the iable-pitch torque convertor stator used up to 1967 causing any problems.
1963-1970 Rivieras have two CV joints in their long driveshafts, which should be lubricated with high-pressure grease via a needle-type fitting on a grease gun. Suspect trouble here if the car shudders when moving away from a standstill.

SUSPENSION, STEERING AND BRAKES

It’s a typically American set-up of twin wishbones and coil springs at the front, live rear axle with twin trailing arms and (less common) a lateral track bar and coils at the rear too. The ’66-’70 cars were larger and a little softer on their Cadillac-based platform, while the 71-’73 Boattails were just full-size standard Buicks underneath and are the softest of the lot. Brakes were large, finned aluminium drums which were good by contemporary standards but can be made to fade away with hard use. Front discs were an option from ’67, standard from ’71, but weren’t vastly better. Standard power steering was a little light to be sporting, even on the first model, but is reliable and familiar – just watch for leaks or howling steering pumps.  

INTERIOR

There’s so much iation in trim year-by-year that it’s safer to enquire with specialists and clubs about missing or damaged interior trim before you buy a car, if the one you’re offered is afflicted. Seat fabric for old American cars is remarkably obtainable though, as are carpets, so a total re-trim is probably not impossible on any Riviera.

ELECTRICS

The desirable ’65 models with stacked headlamps concealed in the ‘fender pods’ at the outer ends of the grille suffer failures after the electric motor that drives each one burns out. This usually happens when owners fail to lubricate the mechanism. The hidden headlamps on the 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69 models are in the grille, covered by hydraulically-actuated covers which are more trouble to sort out – be sure they work. The interiors were loaded with electric luxury items like powered windows and seats, a speedometer safety buzzer to warn of excessive progress, a map light, a clock, courtesy lamps and so on. Check them all and use failures as a bargaining point.

VERDICT

If you can live with the thirst, you certainly should. Even people who don’t ‘get’ American machinery will admire them, because the looks, luxury and performance really did set them apart in their day, and still do now. This is especially true of the ’63-’65 models and Boattails are certainly eye-catching.

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