Required Riding: 1971 Buick "Boat-tail" Riviera

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The B-52's were wrong. The relatively sedate, B-bodied Plymouth Satellite didn't come from Planet Claire. It was the '71 Buick Riviera. I'm sure GM design supremo Bill Mitchell inhaled copious quantities of pink air before penning the infamous "Boat-tail." Drawing inspiration from '30's Auburn Speedsters and his own work on the 1963 split-window Corvette, Mitchell's team created one of the most interesting American cars of the 20th century. Whether that's "interesting" as "what do you think of my dress?" or "cool as Arctic diamond dust" is down to you. In either case, the Boat-tail Riv is the finest example of the WTF School of Automotive Design, and a class whip.

Back in the late '60's, Buick's Riviera was getting its ass kicked by Ford's louche Thunderbird. When Buick counter-attacked with its hugely dramatic Boat-tail — complete with forward leaning front grill, swoopy sides, wide open wheel arches, off-set rear license plate and a big-block V8 — the American car-buying public... kept buying Thunderbirds. During its three-year run, Riviera sales never climbed out of the thirties. This antipathy towards the Riv may have had something to do with its engineering. To meet new emissions regs and run on unleaded, Buick detuned the Riviera's 455 Big Block to 250hp (SAE). That's not much oomph for a coupe stretching over eighteen feet weighing-in at 4247lbs.

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Then again, maybe not. There was plenty of torque for jaunts to the country club. The Riv waltzed to 60mph in a shade over eight seconds. Powerful front disc brakes reined in the beast with ease. Self-leveling pneumatic bellows over the rear shocks delivered a cushy ride. A three-speed Turbo-Hydromatic gearbox swapped cogs seamlessly. The interior was a tad plastic fantastic — reflecting the beginning of GM's ruthless de-contenting campaign — but the leather seats were supremely comfortable and the two-door's cabin was large enough to carry a family of five.

Nope. The Riviera's failure in the marketplace was a style thing. Even the people responsible for the Boat-tail had serious "issues" with its looks. Designer Ned Nickles (Mr. Porthole) called the Boat-tail "a disaster." Buick's General Manager Lee Mays was equally enthusiastic: "Sure, people like it, some people like anything." And "I could never find anyone who admitted they designed it." Eventually, reluctantly, Buick's Chief Designer Jerry Hirschberg put his hands up. When asked about the boattail, Hirschberg mumbled something about how the shape would've worked on a smaller platform and then called the Riviera "a mistake." Love it or hate it, clearly, most people hated it.

And still do. I called the Barrett-Jackson auction house and asked one of their experts if Buick Boat-tail Rivieras were fetching any money. "No." The monosyllabic spokesman (who preferred to remain anonymous) said that cars from the early 70s are generally a drag on the market, due to their low compression, low mileage and barge-like demeanor. Sure, but doesn't the Riviera's style count for something? "No." So I asked him what he thought of the Boat-tail's design; you know, personally. "Different." Bottom line: you can pick up an immaculate, fully-restored Buick Boat-tail Riviera for 12 grand.

And maybe you should. If you're a musclehead, there's plenty of scope for upgrading the 455 big block into 400hp territory. Suspension mods are also available. But above and beyond any rumble aspirations, the Buick Boat-tail is a beauty, no matter what the experts say. Cruising down a local boulevard on a perfect spring afternoon, we encountered nothing but smiles, waves and nods of appreciation. I suspect the majority of these admirers do not have a velvet Elvis above the TVs. Like the Chrysler 300, the Riviera is a car that took some serious chances in the styling department. The '71 Buick Boat-tail Riviera deserves greater attention, and respect.

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[by Robert Farago]

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