The Buick Riviera, once a stand-alone model, traded more often than not on visual drama to draw in customers. The most unique, exquisite of Buicks offerings for the better part of the 1960’s offered opulence and decadence in a nearly bespoke as possible package for a mass production car.
Although this worked brilliantly for the first generation cars, it made life incrementally tougher on the 2nd generation cars as the market moved away from the most premium personal coupes towards everyday luxury offerings like the Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Change was afoot for all three of General Motor’s most princely private spaces, but the Riviera would continue to make the most splendid splash at trying things sporting and different.
Initial plans for the 1971 Boattail redesign had been planned for the A-body chassis that served under the Special/Skylark since 1968. However, like the Toronado in 1966, which also was conceived as a more mid-sized personal coupe, the 1971 Riviera remained tied in size to the equally gargantuan 1971 Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado.
The Riviera had grown from a relatively tidy 208 inches long for the 1963 original by close to a foot to over 218 inches. More chafing was the fact that the Riviera doubled down on a sporting emphasis while the Toronado gave up and became a budget 1967 Eldorado, and the Eldorado itself a full scale land locked motorboat. This sporting emphasis in general was relatively out of sync with where personal coupe buyers were taking their options lists with their purchases in general.
Tire burning performance and nimble handling were out, maximum isolation was in. More emphasis on acres of (fake) wood, velour upholstery and pillow top seats for as little cost as possible were the luxuries people called out for. The boattail Riviera may have caught more eyes in the later half of the 1960’s, but seemed woefully out of touch with its place int he market in the early 1970’s.
Which is to say its ironically, from todays perspective, is the most satisfying of the 3 large personal coupes from General Motors of the 1970’s. Where the Toronado and Eldorado tried their best to marry isolation with their Front Drive experience (and losing out to both the Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Mark IV in that sweepstakes), the Riviera was relatively unburdened to be an complete rolling sensory deprivation tank due to its sporting pretenses.
Always a decent handling cruise ship, the Riviera still maintained the ability to be gussied up and ready to be even more athletic in GS trim. Also optional was an early traction control system, Max-Trac, to limit wheel spin in acceleration.
Acceleration was still brisk enough to warrant traction control to boot. Despite switching to SAE Net figures for 1972, 0-60 figures still clocked in around the 8 second barrier for GS optioned models with the 250 horse version of Buick’s 455 V8. Non-GS versions weren’t exactly slouches either. All of the horses could still carry the Riviera well in excess of 125 mph on the top end as well, making still one of the most capable machines coming out of American factories as the malaise years set in as the 1970’s drug on. Of course, all of the sensational performance came with a premium at the pump. Single digit economy was typical in town, and little better on the highway.
Despite prodding, performance and prestige, sales of the Boattail Rivieras stayed relatively flat for all 3 model years. Sales failed to match the fender skirted (and oft forgotten for good reason) 1970 model, as both 1971-72 models clocked in with approximately 33,000+ sales each. The 1973 model, with a bit less of a prominent Boattail, saw a small uptick towards 34,000 sales.
It would be a long before the Riviera was so overtly unique, as 5 seasons of rather forgettable Rivieras were marketed, for 1977-78, they became gussied up LeSabres. It wouldn’t be until 1979 that Rivieras would once again rekindle some of the magic they were formerly associated with.
As they stand, the Boattail Rivieras are oft-overlooked, and oft-undervalued side stories in the Riviera legacy. Still brimming with the talents that made the original version so unique, with a jaunty sportiness that belied its behemoth size, they are one of many of those of so American, but extremely of General Motors cut of cloth type of cars.
Its a car that has many answers for question no buyers posed. Because General Motors, at the end of the 1960’s, thought their was a market for a fastback huge Buick Sting Ray Coupe. Absurd yes, Arrogant for sure, Timeless, perhaps not. But brilliant in the lack of care or concern for a point, is how one can look at the Boattail Riviera.