Classic Cars A to Z

Buick Riviera - First Generation Models

Article by Mark Trotta

The personal-luxury car niche, pioneered by Ford in 1958, had become a viable market in the early sixties. After 200,000 four-seat Thunderbirds had sold, GM's first response was the 1961 Olds Starfire, followed by the Pontiac Grand Prix a year later. In late 1962, Buick unveiled the Riviera, a beautiful two-door sport-coupe that could out-corner, out-brake, and out-accelerate the T-bird. But it couldn't outsell it.

Buick Riviera History

Buick Riviera History

In December of 1958, Bill Mitchell succeeded Harley Earl as General Motors Vice President of Styling. One of his first challenges was to produce a car to compete head-to-head with the Ford Thunderbird. It was to be comfortable, powerful, and have styling so unique that anyone could tell what it was. That last assignment went to Ned Nickles, who had designed many previous models for GM, including Buick's first pillar-less hardtop, the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera.



In a year's time, a two-door, four-passenger concept car became a full-size clay model. Code-named XP-715, the project was given the green light for production, but there was still the issue of who would build it. Cadillac and Chevrolet were both doing well and didn't need another new model, so the XP-715 was offered to the three other GM divisions. Buick got the nod, naming the new car after their 1949 Roadmaster hardtop, the Riviera.

Buick Riviera History

Slated for 1963 model year introduction, chief engineer Lowell Kintigh and his team had less than a year and a half to turn the clay model into a production car. The short schedule necessitated using an existing platform. A full-sized Buick Electra frame was modified to accept the Riviera's shorter 117-inch wheelbase. The rear-wheel-drive chassis used conventional double-wishbone suspension up front with a solid rear axle unit in back.

Although the original XP-715 design featured concealed front headlamps, technical problems and cost factors would see the first-year Riviera with conventional quad headlamps.

Relatively new at the time, the frame-less side windows presented another challenge for body engineers. To be fitted properly, a door assembly with detachable outer panels had to be designed, allowing the doors to be hung and windows adjusted before the outer panels were attached.

1963 Riviera

Stretching out over 17 feet, the Buick Riviera was introduced to the public in October of 1962. The rear-slanted nose, low-profile roofline, and wide roof pillars gave the car a look all its own. Headlamp's mounted in the grille kept the car's sharp profile intact.

1964 Buick Riviera interior


Like its Thunderbird rival, the Riviera interior featured four bucket seats, center console, and floor-mounted shifter. Upholstery was vinyl, with cloth/vinyl or leather/vinyl available. Rear passengers could let themselves out with the second set of inside door handles.



Underneath the center of the sloped instrument panel housed an array of heating and air conditioning controls, allowing no room for a front speaker in the dashboard. Because of this, the radio had its one speaker mounted between the two rear seats.

Engine Options

Base motor on the 1963 Riviera was the 401 cubic-inch 'Nailhead' V8, so named for the unorthodox vertical position of its valves, which resembled large nails. The valves were tiny for an engine of its size, but helped produce lots of low-end power. With a 10.25-1 compression ratio and single 4-barrel carburetor, the 401 motor produced 445 ft-lbs of torque and 325 horsepower.

The larger 425-cid Wildcat 465 engine (so named for its torque output) produced 340 horsepower and was available at extra cost. Transmission on the first-year Riv was the Twin-Turbine automatic, which would be Buick's final version of the fabled two-speed Dynaflow unit.


Buick Nailhead V-8

Instantly recognizable by it's vertical valve covers, the "Nailhead" was Buick's first-generation V8, and was produced in several displacements (264, 322, 364, 401, and 425 cubic-inches).

cutaway illustation of the Buick Nailhead Motor

The name "Nailhead" was never an official factory designation, but it stuck. Being relatively light and narrow, Nailhead engines were a popular engine swap back in it's day.



By having accessories such as power windows, power seats, and tilt-wheel extra-cost options, the Riviera's base price was kept lower than the Thunderbird's. Other popular options included air conditioning, cruise control, power door locks, AM/FM radio and automatic trunk release. Whitewall tires and wire-wheel covers were also available at extra cost, as were 15"x6" finned alloy wheels. For the first model year, Buick had a production cap of 40,000 Rivieras. All were sold.

1964 Riviera

Nearly identical from the outside, interior upgrades for the second-year Riv included several new color options, as well as wood veneer on door panels, quarter trim, and radio face plate. The 425-cid Wildcat motor was now the standard engine.

By relocating the heating and air conditioning controls, a radio speaker was now housed in the instrument panel. Although removed from the option list, some 1964 models still came through with leather upholstery.

Buick Riviera History

The Twin-Turbine transmission was gone, replaced by Buick's version of the GM's new three-speed automatic, the 'Super-Turbine' 400.

Gran Sport/Super Wildcat

New for 1965 was the Gran Sport, powered by a 425-cid Super Wildcat V8, featuring dual 4-bbl Carter AFB carburetors, a large chrome air cleaner and finned aluminum valve covers. Engine output was 360-horsepower at 4400 rpm, with 465 lb. ft. torque at 2800 rpm. 2,122 Riviera's left the factory with the Super Wildcat engine.

In road tests of the era, a Super Wildcat-equipped Riviera hit 115 mph, with 0 to 60 times in eight seconds. Average fuel mileage was about 10 miles-per-gallon.

Despite the many improvements to the car, Riviera sales were a disappointing 37,658 units. Over at the Ford dealers, the new 1964 Thunderbird was selling in near-record numbers.

1965 Riviera

As originally drawn out on the XP-715 concept car design, concealed headlamps arrived on the Buick Riviera in 1965. Operated by a single electric motor mounted under the hood, top and bottom clamshell doors would open and close to expose or hide the headlamps.

The 1965 Buick Riviera had comfort, power, and style

A re-designed rear bumper housed the taillights, and the fake side scoops found on the 1963-1964 models were deleted. The 401-cid Nailhead V-8 was back as the standard engine, with both Wildcat and Super Wildcat engines optional. This was also the first year of the popular chrome "road wheels".

Buick Wildcat 425 nailhead motor

Riviera Gran Sport

The Gran Sport option, available two months into regular year production, included the dual-quad 425-cid Super Wildcat V8, free-flowing dual exhaust, posi-traction differential with a 3.42 ratio, and wider 8.45x15" tires. A total of 3,354 Riviera's were so equipped.

The optional Ride and Handling package featured stiffer front and rear springs, firmer shocks and quicker steering ratio. The R/H package was offered on every Riviera, and was often selected in combination with the Gran Sport option.

Buick Riviera Performance

A 1965 Riviera equipped with the Super Wildcat engine was faster than any Thunderbird, with 0-60 times in about seven seconds, and a top speed of nearly 130 mph. With the optional suspension package, the Riv could out-handle the Bird as well. Stopping the 4,000 pound car were finned-aluminum 12-inch drum brakes on all corners. The aluminum/cast-iron brake drums were some of the best ever produced for passenger car use.



Buick Riviera Production Figures

Buick sold slightly over 112,000 Riviera's between 1963 and 1965. In those same three years, Ford sold over 230,000 Thunderbirds. A second-generation Riviera, which had been in the works for several years, would debut for the 1966 model year.

1965 Buick Riviera


Articles of Interest:

Ford Thunderbird (1958)
Olds Toronado (1966-1970)