Rare images of secret styling proposals.
I think the 1963 Buick Riviera is one of the best-looking cars ever designed. It set a styling template which General Motors (GM) used time and time again for the next three decades.
This Retroautos story reveals the design to driveway history of 1963 Riviera. With the help of the archivists at the GM Heritage Centre in Michigan, I’ve been able to uncover images of the two “XP” projects, XP92 and XP715, which led to the Riviera.
XP is the code used by GM for eXPerimental projects. Many of the photos you see here are published for the first time.
But there is an aspect of the Riviera which has been long overlooked. For me, the Riviera is a high-profile example of GM being caught off guard about future trends, and then having to run hard to catch up. Said GM’s styling boss Bill Mitchell in a 1984 interview with David Crippen of the Benson Ford Research Centre in Dearborn: “Out comes the Thunderbird. Oh, (they) caught us.”
Mitchell pinpointed the issue. Given GM’s global resources and development capabilities, the company ought to have foreseen the growth of the market for a car like the Thunderbird. As the market leader they ought to have moved to claim it ahead of the competition.
It would not be the last time GM’s product planning was caught out by Ford, which had the ability to identify emerging market segments and take the risk of filling them with stylish models that generated significant revenue. I’ll have something more to say about this towards the end of this feature story.
To begin this chronicle of the Riviera’s styling, let’s go back to 1958 and the brand new four-seater Ford Thunderbird.
The idea of a larger Thunderbird was championed by two of Ford’s most senior executives, Lewis Crusoe and Robert S. McNamara. Both were early adopters of market research and data evaluation techniques to predict consumers’ automotive desires.
At the time the two-seater Thunderbird made its debut, Crusoe and McNamara were reviewing data which pointed to the much larger sales potential for a four-seater version.
The information had been compiled by Chase Morsey. At age 29 he was the first boss of Ford’s fledgling product planning department. It was he who first used the term “personal car” to describe the original Thunderbird.
In his book The Man Who Saved the V8, Morsey tells of a 1954 memo to Ford’s senior managers in which he stated that the Thunderbird “will be planned as a personal car, not a sports car.”
Morsey recalls telling McNamara not to worry about the financial aspects of upsizing the Thunderbird. “The four-seater offered a better balance of prestige and profit, because it would appeal to a lot more customers. I told McNamara that it would allow us to double or even triple our volume.”
And Morsey was absolutely correct. During its three years on the market the “Square Bird”, as it became known, went to 197,500 customers. The 1960 sales alone were twice the entire sales of the two-seater Thunderbird.
Meanwhile, other car makers were testing this market segment.
Since 1953, Studebaker had been selling their Starliner Hardtop coupe, giving it names like Speedster and Golden Hawk. These cars were advertised as luxury sporty cars, for the family: Thunderbird territory.
Over at Chrysler, the famed 300 letter cars had been available since 1955, combining luxury and power in a hardtop coupe and convertible.
But neither car maker was really able to leverage their offerings. Studebaker was in a precarious financial situation and could not afford to make significant changes to differentiate their “halo” car from less expensive two door Studebakers. The price of Chrysler’s letter cars was 40% higher than a Thunderbird, putting it on a par with Cadillac and out of reach to most buyers.
In 1958 Chevrolet debuted its range-topping luxury/sports Impala. More than 181,000 were sold, making it a big success.
Pontiac released their upmarket Bonneville in 1957 as a convertible. Costing almost as much as a Cadillac, it sold only 630 units that year. Cutting the price by $3000 in 1958, Pontiac saw 12,240 Bonnevilles exit dealer showrooms that year.
Let’s pause for a minute: In 1958 GM sold 193,000 Impalas and Bonnevilles compared to Ford’s almost 38,000 Thunderbirds. If you were at GM and reviewed these numbers, you could be forgiven for underestimating the threat of the Thunderbird.
But, as always, the numbers do not always tell all of the story. By mid-1958, GM’s dealers could see what GM’s planners had not. They began complaining to GM’s President, John Gordon, that they needed a special car, with unique styling, to match the Thunderbird.
With GM’s design boss of 30 years, Harley Earl, retiring in December 1958, the task of styling a Thunderbird competitor fell to Bill Mitchell, Earl’s successor.
In that 1984 interview, Mitchell describes what happened next. “We didn't have a four passenger (car like the Thunderbird). Well, Earl had retired then, and the dealers got after him (John Gordon), and letters came in, so Gordon told me see what we could do.”
By March 1959 Mitchell had a fibreglass proposal ready for evaluation. Given the internal code XP92, it was shaped by Ned Nickles. The fussy styling, bumper bar “bombs” and convoluted panel shapes were motifs that Harley Earl would champion. It was not what Bill Mitchell was seeking.
Mitchell commissioned two new XP92 proposals. They looked alike, but one was longer and wider and featured a “double bubble” back window. Both had a flat roof. They were sleek and lithe. Fibreglass models were ready by June 1959. They carried the name El-Tigre and, later, Phantom. Had either of these cars been approved, it is likely that it would have been on the market for the 1962 model year.
During late October 1959, Mitchell visited the British International Motor Show. He returned with a sharper clarity about the design direction he wanted to pursue. In an interview in the April 1976 issue of Special Interest Autos magazine, Mitchell said “I was over in England for the auto show and I happened to be coming out of the Claridges (hotel) on a damp, foggy evening. Here was this Rolls parked out front. I looked at those corners and sharp angles and I thought 'My God, if that car were just a foot lower--there's our silhouette.'"
Mitchell ordered work on the XP92 project to be halted. A new project, XP715, was instigated, with Ned Nickels as chief designer. His first XP715 proposal had elements of the Corvair in its body shape. That’s not surprising, because he had a large influence over the Corvair design. But Mitchell was not satisfied, so they went back to work. In May 1960 the basic shape of the Riviera was captured.
Let’s hear more from Mitchell’s interview with David Crippen. “I worked down in a room with Ned Nickles, who was a good senior designer……We did the Riviera, but I did it as a LaSalle. That's why those two grilles are on it. Anyway, we got it all done, and showed it in the auditorium one night to (Fred) Donner (GM Chairman) and Gordon, just the three of us, and Donner said, ‘Well, I think we should build it, but who's going to build it?’
Yes, indeed. Who was going to build it? None of GM’s car divisions had actually asked for it. Two had already raced ahead with their own Thunderbird competitors.
Again, the stories differ slightly as to how Mitchell proceeded to “sell” the XP715 to each division, but one detail is consistent. He had a stipulation: the styling could not be changed.
Cadillac said no. They were enjoying excellent sales and did not see the need for a “small” coupe in their line-up. Limited spare production capacity also crimped their desire for the car.
Chevrolet were not interested. Their hands were full with the new Corvair, and the 1962 Nova and 1963 Corvette Stingray were in the pipeline.
Oldsmobile had not waited for Mitchell to create a Thunderbird clone. In January 1961 they unveiled their Starfire. It was the first US production car to have a floor mounted auto shifter as standard. In return for developing the XP715, Oldsmobile’s top brass wanted to supercharge the engine and make other changes. Mitchell’s response? “No way” he told Crippen. At that same time, Oldsmobile’s engineers were deep into the development of a front wheel drive package which they believed had the potential to underpin their Thunderbird competitor beyond the Starfire. That car would become the Toronado.
Pontiac, led by John DeLorean, had not waited for Mitchell either. They’d been developing the Grand Prix since 1959, and the 1962 debut model was within 12 months of being shipped to dealers. Plus, DeLorean wanted to make changes to the XP715. Said Mitchell to Crippen, “DeLorean had some crazy ideas….I wouldn't let him touch it.”
It was a smart move to launch the Starfire and Grand Prix. Until the Riviera arrived, they delivered combined sales of 73,600 cars, which might have otherwise gone to Ford. The new “Bullet-Bird” recorded 151,000 sales across the same time period.
And so, to Buick. It’s boss, Ed Rollert agreed to leave the styling untouched, so Mitchell said they could have it. But it was not a slam dunk. GM’s senior executives were not sure of Buick’s longevity back then.
It is hard to imagine now, but the numbers were starting to go against Buick. From a high of 739,000 sales in 1955 they had dropped to 254,000 by 1960. The 1958 US recession and some serious styling errors had customers ignoring their chromed land yachts. Rollert knew he needed a success to ensure his and the division’s future. He needed a car to entice customers into dealerships.
The GM’s executives were sceptical of Buick’s ability to deliver the car. To settle the matter they staged the now legendary competition between Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick. In the end, Buick’s pitch was successful.
So, what to make of the 1963 Riviera? It sold out its 40,000 (limited) production run and helped draw buyers into showrooms and sell 458,000 Buicks in 1963 and 511,000 a year later. Buick was back in business!
Elements of the Riviera’s styling filtered across all of GM’s and other makers’ cars. GM’s 1965 four door full-sized hardtops carried the roof line design cues of the Riviera. It pioneered frameless door glass for hardtops, which was then used progressively across GM’s divisions. The distinctive “W” front end became a Buick design standard for the next five years. Holden used the “W” on the HK-HG models. The 1967 Ford Galaxie boasts a very definite “W” front end.
As I wrote in Retroautos May 2018 edition, even the EH Holden was given a Riviera roof line. Maybe that’s why it is acclaimed as Australia’s favourite classic car. (Here’s the LINK to the EH story).
For Bill Mitchell, the Riviera’s shape was an emphatic statement of his design philosophy, known as the “sheer look”. Combined with the 1963 Corvette Stingray and GM’s handsome 1963 line up, Mitchell established his authority over GM’s design future. By the mid-seventies the “sheer look” was being copied by most car makers. Even the Thunderbird’s sheet metal succumbed.
At the beginning of this story, I mentioned that the Riviera story reveals some of GM’s weakness at that time.
One major weakness was that GM was not an active pioneer of new market segments. It generally followed others. Mitchell mentioned this in his interview with author C.Edson Armi for his book The Art of American Car Design. Said Mitchell about the years before he became the boss of styling: “We had no advance rooms; we just did one after the other. We did not look forward. We worked relative to the demands of the salespeople, the more chrome, the more cars……we had no advanced design. When I became in charge, I made sure we had studios that worked years ahead.”
The “creative competition” between GM’s divisions was another drawback. After World War II GM’s brands had become companies-within-a-company—personal fiefdoms, almost. Despite the sharing of bodies, inter divisional competition resulted in GM wasting an incalculable number of dollars to inefficiencies and needless duplication. (See Retroautos March 2018 for an analysis of this weakness as it applied to a 1963 idea of Mitchell’s for Holden, Vauxhall and Opel to share models and save costs. It is an idea that might have saved Holden in the long term. Here’s the LINK.)
Ford, although not perfect, was more practiced in being able to identify emerging market segments, and then design and market a stylish car to meet those customer needs. Rather than being a slave to “the demands of the salespeople”, as Mitchell described it, Chase Moresy saw his product planning role as being “the voice of the customer inside Ford.”
This predictive ability enabled Ford to identify and gain a “first mover” advantage for the personal car (Thunderbird), intermediate size (Fairlane) and pony car (Mustang). Ford’s product planners also identified the market for the mini-van. This insight was ignored by Henry Ford II, and ended up saving Chrysler during Lee Iacocca’s reign there.
Despite belated entry into new segments, GM did so with technically brilliant and/or exceptionally stylish cars from all divisions. GM literally surrounded its competitors.
From 1961 onwards, the Thunderbird (and its Lincoln Mark III clone) was encircled by the Starfire, Grand Prix, Riviera, Toronado, Eldorado and, in 1970, Chevrolet’s Monte Carlo. These cars provided the consumer with a wide choice of design, engineering, performance, image and price.
It may have taken GM over a decade to fully exploit the personal car segment, but once they got rolling, they dominated it. Between 1967 and 1971, 278,000 Thunderbirds and 78,000 Lincoln Mark IIIs were sold. But here’s the stunner. GM built over 1,000,000 of their comparable personal cars.
To me, the story of the Riviera is that of an iconic car and lost opportunities. By not moving quickly in 1958-59, in unison, GM’s divisions allowed Ford to leverage its product planning capabilities and gain a significant competitive advantage.
Think of all the money, time and effort GM could have saved if they had co-operatively assessed the future. What if every GM division had said “yes” to the XP715, fast tracked its development, on two or three wheelbases, for release in 1962, and given it names such as Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Toronado, Riviera and Eldorado? Or even Firebird and Camaro?
Would such co-operation have overwhelmed the Thunderbird and maybe made Ford think twice about releasing the Mustang?
Retroautos is written and published by David Burrell with passion and with pride. A special thanks to John Kyros at GM Heritage for researching the images used in this feature. The Retroautos feature on the 1966 Buick Riviera, including prototype photos can be found in the September 2017 edition. Here’s the LINK. You can read Dr John Wright’s story showcasing all Riviera models through the decades at this LINK.