Fifty years ago, 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.
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 GM design.
"It combined a luxury car with a sports car," Welburn says. 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, GM 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' 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."
In the same model year, GM introduced the Corvette Sting Ray. The two cars sealed Mitchell's reputation as one of the world's top designers, and they set GM — 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. "I could have got drunk for a week."
After a recent interview, 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 says. "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 GM design moved to the driver's seat himself.
"It was one of the first cars I drove," he recalls. "It had so much energy. It was a real driver's car with a great exhaust note. I got two tickets in it."