1971 Buick Riviera Classic Car Review Oct 11, 2016 by Cedric (Driver Weekly)
The 1971 Buick Riviera was the beginning of a new generation for the popular luxury car. This model was heavier and had a longer wheelbase than the previous version. Instead of a conservative design like those typically associated with Buick, the new model aimed to stand out from the crowd. This two-door model with its “boat-tail” was instantly recognizable—for better or for worse. The dramatic styling was controversial but created a noteworthy vehicle that still draws attention to this day.
An Attractive History
1967 Buick Riviera
The Riviera was introduced in 1963 as a two-door personal luxury car with sleek styling. The nameplate had been used for prestigious trims on Buick cars since 1949 and from 1959 to 1962 the “Riviera” denoted the premium six-window hardtop style offered only on the Buick Electra 225. The new ’63 model capitalized on the allure and elegance implied by previous trim for an independent model that offered the best of Buick in one package. The first generation was the first personal luxury car developed by General Motors to compete with the 1958 Ford Thunderbird. These popular vehicles emphasized their looks and comfort rather than practicality or fuel economy.
General Motors first considered launching a new Cadillac for the personal luxury market but, luckily for Buick, the division management passed on the new segment. In 1960, the project was opened to the manufacturer’s other divisions and Buick leapt at the chance to revive flagging sales with a unique offering. Desperate to win the new vehicle from Oldsmobile, Buick went so far as to hire advertising agency McCann-Erickson to create their presentation. Victorious, Buick adapted the finished design and released the production model in October 1962.
Immediately, automotive journalists and customers praised the first generation for its sleek style and luxurious interior. It was the only product from General Motors with a unique body shell that it didn’t share with any other vehicle. Instead of the “Sweepspear” styling used on the Riviera trim on older models, Buick adopted “Coke-bottle” styling and a tapered appearance. With the same Nailhead V8 and reliable Dynaflow transmission as larger models but less weight and increased agility, the Riviera offered unprecedented performance for a luxury car from Buick.
In 1966, the second generation was revised with a longer and wider with a subtle version of the “Sweepspear.” Four years later, Buick redesigned the car again—and this time with a whole new look.
The third generation Buick Riviera received a bold restyling in 1971. The new model was larger and heavier than its predecessor despite the fact it was built on the smaller A Platform, stretching the car to its limits. Penned by Jerry Hirshberg, the designer had to tweak and pinch the car to fit the smaller platform while retaining the styling elements directed by Bill Mitchell. This included a more dramatic rendition of the “Sweepsear” and the rear of the car had a curvaceous boat-tail and two-piece fastback window inspired by the Corvette Sting Ray. The long lines of the car were reshaped by the prominent “pinch” in the belt line, drawn to match the similar chrome embellishments on 1950s Buicks. Whether you love the new look or hate it, there is no doubt that the ’71 Riviera was instantly recognizable.
Powertrain and Specifications
The 1971 Riviera received the same 455 cubic-inch Buick V8 engine as the second generation. The only difference was that the engine had a lower compression ratio, meaning that the engine was only rated for 255 horsepower or 265 horsepower for the Gran Sport. While the compression ratio had to be lowered so drivers could use lower-octane unleaded fuel, the base mode is still capable of an unofficial rating of 315 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque in the right hands. While performance still was still acceptable for the era, the Riviera’s image as a surprising performance car still took a huge dent.
Every Buick Riviera from this generation has the same transmission, a Turbo Hydra-Matic 400. This was a durable three-speed automatic with its shift lever right on the steering column with the option of moving it to the center console. Because this transmission was the only option available on this car, it is very easy to find replacement parts and a skilled mechanic to work on it.
You may also stumble upon a 1971 Riviera with a Gran Sport Package. This package took the same base engine but was equipped with .125-inch oversized valves, heavy-duty valve springs, a deep sump oil pump, and a special camshaft. The result is 330 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque. You can recognize it by the engine code TA. The GS could hit 60 miles per hour in 8.1 seconds.
Inside the Riviera
Sitting inside the Buick Riviera provided drivers with upscale comfort and a unique wrap-around control panel that emphasized the model’s combination of sporty feel and personal luxury. Like many models of the time, it came standard with a bench seat in front and optional bucket seats. You can find this model with vinyl or cloth fittings. The full-length center console was a popular option for those with bucket seats. Every model had power steering, but air conditioning and power locks were options so you may or may not find them. The luxurious feeling was enhanced by the leather upholstery and soft plastic touches.
The 1971 Buick Riviera has a few key features that were innovative for its time and not found on most other models, starting with rear-wheel drive and an independent suspension. These included a traction control system known as MaxTrac. This innovation didn’t last long, but it was an effective electronic wheelspin-control system for the early 197-s. It connected electronically to various components, including the ignition system, and could be switched off and on. The Riviera also had a new ventilation system complete with special louvers on its trunk lid.
The 1971 Buick Riviera remains a popular choice among classic car collectors and enthusiasts for its distinctive look and sophisticated features. Unsurprisingly, however, the new style was immediately controversial and proved to be too much for some buyers. The car was restyled in 1974 after declining sales.
[Updated 7 September 2017.]