Riviera, a Clean Break for G.M., Is Still Fashionable at 50

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FIFTY years ago this month, General Motors cast off the overchromed tailfinned excesses of its postwar auto designs and shocked the Paris auto salon by slipping into a clean, crisply tailored new suit. The 1963 Buick Riviera made its world debut, winning rave reviews even from Europeans who had been scornful of Detroit's irrational exuberance in the 1950s.

The legendary coachbuilder Sergio Pininfarina said the new Riviera was "one of the most beautiful American cars ever built," adding that it "marked a very impressive return to simplicity of American car design." Sir William Lyons, the founder of Jaguar and a respected designer, called it "a very wonderful job." Raymond Loewy said the Riviera was the best-looking American car -- except for his own Studebaker Avanti, introduced at the same show.

Ed Welburn, vice president for global design at General Motors, knows that first-generation Riviera from the inside out: after spending part of his childhood in the back seat of his father's '65 model, he grew up to help design later generations of the car.

A "personal luxury" coupe created to clip the wings of Ford's hot-selling Thunderbird, the Riviera was a watershed G.M. design.

"It combined a luxury car with a sports car," Mr. Welburn said. More than that, it signaled a major shift in style for a company that had set automotive fashion trends for decades under Harley Earl. In 1958, William Mitchell succeeded Earl, eager to leave his stamp on the auto giant.

The Riviera was the first fully realized statement of Mitchell's style. After the voluptuous forms, baroque grilles and fighter-jet tail ends of the Earl era, Mitchell went for a taut, crisp look -- he called it "English tailoring," but it came to be known as the Sheer Look. Sheet metal was sharply stamped and body planes were bold, largely unencumbered by chrome.

"I put the crease in the trousers," Mitchell was fond of saying.

By 1959, G.M. designers were grasping for a response to the Thunderbird, which for the previous year had grown from a sporty two-seater into a four-seat personal luxury car.

Mitchell envisioned the T-bird fighter as a junior Cadillac -- a revival of LaSalle, which had been a Cadillac sub-brand in the 1930s. In many interviews later in his career, Mitchell recalled turning to Ned Nickles, who had been head of the Buick studio before moving to the advanced design department. Nickles is said to have casually drawn up his first ideas for the car at home. One sketch that survives shows a convertible, longer and lower than the final car, but with the projecting front fenders, W-shape front end and forward-leaning face that would eventually reach production. Nickles's design paid homage to the upright grille of the 1938 LaSalle and the projecting fender lamps of some of Mitchell's own sketches from the 1930s.

Soon after he saw the sketch, Mitchell went to London. He recalled that he came back with an order for Nickles: "Make it look like a Ferrari combined with a Rolls-Royce."

Mitchell, who retired in 1977 and died in 1988, explained his inspiration this way: while thinking about the Riviera, he spotted a Rolls-Royce pulling up to Claridge's hotel. "He saw the silhouette of that roof," Mr. Welburn said, the image inspiring his notion of combining sport with luxury.

Top management enthusiastically received the design, by then called the XP-715 special coupe. But which G.M. division would get it? Mitchell's idea to market the car as a new LaSalle was rejected; Cadillac sales were already strong. Nor did it seem a good fit for Chevrolet. G.M. management ordered the other car divisions -- Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile -- to compete for the right to sell the car. Mitchell loved seeing the engineers and managers following the lead of the designers, for once.

Buick made its case using artwork by Melbourne Brindle, who had painted Rolls-Royces and Packards for impressionistic advertisements, and it got the car. The Riviera name was one the division had previously used for sporty hardtops, and it gave the coupe a suitably European tone.

The egg-crate grille said Ferrari, as did the long-hood, short-deck proportions. The elegant roof showed the Rolls influence. But the car's character derived from its forward-leaning face, which evoked the shark-nose 1930s models designed by Amos Northup for Graham and Willys.

The Riviera's frameless side windows -- without the metal trim previously found on hardtop models -- started a trend.

"The interior was years ahead of its time," Mr. Welburn said. The center console swept up between bucket seats, and the two-spoke steering wheel was both sporty and elegant.

In the same model year, G.M. introduced the Corvette Sting Ray. The two cars sealed Mitchell's reputation as one of the world's top designers, and they set G.M. -- and eventually all of Detroit -- on a course that would play out for the next 15 years and produce some of the enduring classics of American automobile design.

In a 1985 interview, Mitchell recalled being overjoyed when the Riviera and Sting Ray both received management's blessing for production. "Those were my two pets," he said, adding, "I could have got drunk for a week."

The Riviera's design was refined for 1965, receiving the hidden headlights that Nickles had originally envisioned. "The rear was cleaned up by moving the taillamps to the bumper," Mr. Welburn noted; the decorative side scoops were removed.

The second-generation Riviera looked heavier and less elegant; the boat-tail version of 1971-73 suffered from a change in its underlying platform and ended up grossly malproportioned. The final eighth-generation Riviera was designed by Bill Porter with more rounded Jaguaresque lines.

Buick has been silent about future use of the name, although a Riviera concept car developed in China made its debut in 2007.

After a recent interview, Mr. Welburn spoke with his father about the '65 Riviera the family once owned, and quickly reported back. Ed Welburn Sr., who is 94, "usually drove Chevrolets and station wagons," his son said. "He said he bought the Riviera because it was great-looking car, a great driving car, and had a great interior. It had plenty of room for all four of us, and a big trunk."

When he turned 16, the future head of G.M. design moved to the driver's seat himself. "It was one of the first cars I drove," he recalled. "It had so much energy. It was a real driver's car with a great exhaust note. I got two tickets in it."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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