The Legendary Buick Riviera Almost Made It to the 21st Century
Originally launched in the 1960s as a personal luxury car, the Riviera was a revelation for Buick, offering timeless modern style. It gradually evolved as consumer preferences changed, eventually downsizing and becoming a front-wheel drive coupe. Along the way, it continued as the flagship of Buick’s lineup, leading the way in both style and technology.
When Buick attempted to woo younger buyers, the Riviera spearheaded that effort until its unfortunate demise. With the rise in popularity of SUVs, personal luxury copes died out one by one, including the Rivieria in 1999.
The Buick Riviera: A design masterpiece
According to Driving Line, the 1963 Buick Rivieria was heralded as a design masterpiece and was well-received by both the press and contemporary designers. Famed Italian designer Sergio Pininfarina declared it “one of the most beautiful American cars ever built.” Produced from 1963 to 1965, the public agreed and bought over 112,000 copies. Today, the first-generation car remains popular as a collectible car and continues to appreciate in value.
Buick kept the Riviera’s styling fresh, launching the second generation in 1966, followed by the “boat-tail” cars of the early 1970s. Each new generation set the tone for Buick’s styling and remained one of its most popular nameplates.
Front-wheel drive arrives, and so does turbo power
By the late 1970s, sales for large luxury coupes had fallen off a cliff thanks to high gas prices and inflation. To combat this problem, Buick downsized the Riviera, cutting almost two feet off its size. It moved it to a front-wheel drive (FWD) platform, a first for the brand. Also a first for Buick, the Riviera offered a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 as one of the engine options. Sales responded, jumping to 52,191 in 1978, and it was awarded MotorTrend’s Car of the Year.
Early digital renaissance
In 1986, Buick redesigned the Riviera, giving it a more modern look to go with its new, futuristic technology. In addition to a digital instrument cluster, the center stack housed a CRT touchscreen that controlled several vehicle functions, including the stereo and HVAC. Known as the Graphic Control Center, this display got increasingly more sophisticated, eventually integrating a calendar and phonebook into its digital functions.
The Graphic Control Center never really caught on with the public, but it hinted at the future of today’s cars, most of which now include a touchscreen for infotainment and other functions.
A supercharged coda
Lagging sales of 1986 to 1993 Riviera models led Buick to return the car to its roots. Like the reboot of a classic movie franchise, the company gave the 1995 Riviera a total makeover, radically restyling it in the process. Performance took priority over technology, and Buick offered a supercharged version of the venerable 3.8-liter V6 that produced 240 horsepower. In supercharged form, the Rivieria was capable of 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. Car and Driver said it offered “Smooth power, tight construction, nice blend of ride and handling.”
The mixture of styling and performance resonated with buyers, and sales jumped from 4,555 to 41,422. On paper, it stacked up well against the Lincoln MK VIII and Lexus SC, even if it lacked some of those brands’ prestige. Today, the 1995 to 1999 Riviera has a loyal following, not unlike its original forbearer.
End of the line for the Riviera?
Unfortunately, the Buick Riviera reached the end of the line in 1999, dying off with many other personal luxury coupes, including competitors from Lincoln and Lexus. SUVs were fast becoming more luxurious and taking on an air of prestige.
Even so, the Rivieria left a lasting legacy, providing a dose of style every time Buick got a bit stogy. It’s still a popular car with collectors and enthusiasts, including many younger fans who see personal luxury coupes as the antithesis of crossovers or just like them because they are different.
Will Buick resurrect the Rivieria? The brand currently has no plans to do so. However, with the popularity of other recently revived nameplates like the Ford Bronco, anything is possible. However, one thing is certain. If the personal luxury coupe makes a comeback, there needs to be a Buick Riviera leading the charge.