The Buick Riviera concept car will make its North American debut at next month’s Detroit Auto Show, technically called the “North American International Automobile Show.”
For it, General Motors is bringing in the Riviera concept car that it showed, as a Buick, at the Shanghai, China auto show almost a year ago, in April of 2007.
Of course, it was only right that the car was first displayed in China. That’s where it was designed and built.
It is said, however, that the look of the Riviera concept presages the design direction for the United States versions of the Buick line – which ain’t all bad, because the current Chinese LaCrosse puts the one they sell here to shame.
But, there’s still something profoundly sad about a Buick Riviera styled in China coming to Detroit, the place where the whole concept – not this concept, but the concept of a “Buick Riviera” was born.
I speak as one with a certain fondness for that name. There’s one in my driveway: a 1966 model. It’s been in the family since it was new, and I distinctly remember the effect that car had when it was new. It turned heads, wherever you went. It was also fast. You wouldn’t challenge a GTO, but you could take just about anything else. It came with a “barrel speedometer,” one that rolled to display the numbers. It was great fun to punch it and then wait for the speedometer to catch up to the car’s real speed.
The Riviera was entirely Bill Mitchell’s idea. Contrary to popular myth, it was not a calculated response by GM to the four-seat Thunderbird. Rather, its inspiration was the British vehicles that GM styling chief Mitchell saw when he visited London. He liked their looks. (Those influences defined the first two generations of Cadillac Seville, as well, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)
So, when Mitchell returned from his trip, he had a new concept developed – one that he saw as a logical product for Cadillac. Mitchell had once been the head of the Cadillac studio (when he was still in his twenties, incidentally) and had been the designer of the first Cadillac “Sixty-Special,” still considered one of the most beautiful cars ever. Unlike his mentor and predecessor, Harley Earl, he was an accomplished artist and draftsman, and could sketch exactly what he envisioned.
But, even with the Thunderbird selling very well, Mitchell could not interest the men running Cadillac in the idea of a smaller car. They had no interest in Mitchell’s concept.
But, Buick did. So, too, did Chevrolet. Buick won by staging a very elaborate and dramatic presentation for GM brass, showing exactly what they’d do to make that car a sales success.
Which they did. The original Riviera, with a formal roofline, sold from 1963 through 1965 and remains another of Mitchell’s contributions to the usual lists of most beautiful cars of all time. The name, however, wasn’t original: it had been used on the two-door hardtop version of the Buick Roadmaster in the early 1950’s.
The Riviera after 1965 shared a platform with the Olds Toronado and the Cadillac Eldorado. By this time, the people at Cadillac were screaming for a version of the car – but they didn’t get theirs until 1967.
Over time, as has always been the way at GM, the Riviera was diluted, in an effort to retain some of the glamour of the name but at a far lower cost to the manufacturer. By the late ‘70’s, it was nothing more than a gussied up LeSabre (a Wildcat with more standard equipment.) Then it became a study in ovoid shapes, underpowered by a V-6 in a V-8 world.
It is nice that, even in China, there still seems to be a special place in the GM corporate heart for one of the most glamorous names the company ever placed on an automobile. 
But the concept lacks any of the distinction of the original Rivieras. In many ways, it looks like a chopped and channeled Enclave. It is not predicting a design direction. It is copying the one that Buick has already taken.
It won’t see production, either.
But, at least it reminds us what General Motors used to be able to do, when it was great, when it had confidence in itself and in America.
When GM had people like Bill Mitchell, people who developed the cars they’d like, and then found that people bought cars felt the same.
Like the real Buick Riviera.

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