Car of the Week: 1963 Buick Riviera

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Bill Mawbey sure loves his 1963 Buick Riviera these days. He just can’t figure out why he didn’t love Rivieras years ago.

“My step-dad was the head mechanic at the local Chevy-Buick garage, and for the life of me I do not remember the Rivs,” chuckles the resident of Stevens Point, Wis. “I was die-hard Pontiac. I liked GTOs before it was fashionable, and I was bound to get another Pontiac, but I’m really glad we got this. I’m learning every day new things about the car and how things go together. It’s really been a lot of fun.”

The stunning Arctic White Riviera coupe has also turned Mawbey’s affection for cars into more of a family affair by recruiting his wife Liz. She had a sentimental attachment to the Rivieras that ultimately made their ’63 Buick a perfect choice as a hobby car.

“She had the tie to this car because her parents had a ’63 Arctic White Riviera just like this one, and they gave it to Grandma, and Grandma had let her drive her Riviera when she was 15 and had her temporary license,” Bill said.

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“That was basically the tipping point to have us get this car. I had a ’63 LeMans that was kind of like my car. She didn’t have any attachment to it. With this, she had that attachment, and I wanted her to be involved in it, too. She likes going to shows now and she never liked going before. That’s been a nice thing.”

The Riviera was sort of a fall-back purchase for the Mawbeys after their car shopping led them down several dead ends. Even though there had been a Riviera in the family, the couple wasn’t on the lookout for another one.

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“I was out looking for a GTO. I’ve been a Pontiac guy since I was 17,” Bill recalled. “And so we had looked at a couple GTOs and were disappointed. It was like wasted trips. They just weren’t what we were looking for. Then I saw this on eBay and kept going back to it. We actually talked to a guy in Illinois and we were going to buy [a different car], and we had made up our mind, but he said, ‘You are a little bit late, somebody just came to look at it.’

“I just kept going back to this one, but I didn’t quite have enough money. So I said to my wife, ‘Geez, I’d really like to get that Riviera.’ And she said, ‘Just do it.’ She kind of loaned me the money. That was December of 2013.”

Mawbey hadn’t seen his Riviera in person, however, and even though it looked spectacular in the many photos he was shown, he found many more problems than he expected when he had the Buick delivered from Michigan. The car had been hastily repainted and given some cosmetic help, and it was a straight and rust-free, but Mawbey knew right away he wouldn’t be happy unless he made some changes.

“He had like 80 pictures, and of course it looked perfect,” he said. “Then we got it, and of course the troubles started. They had repainted it and they had put some carpet in it. But the radiator was bad, the heater core was bad. The power steering pump and power steering gearbox had to be replaced. It was the original stuff, but supposedly this car had been gone over front to back, top to bottom.

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“It had stuff on it, little things, that weren’t from a ’63. So it wasn’t restored like he said it was. He claimed it had a dual-stage paint job on it, and I had a body guy show me that it wasn’t. And he had claimed all the chrome had been removed from the car when it was painted and it wasn’t. Lots of little things like that.”

Mawbey was particularly put off by the fact that the Riviera apparently hadn’t even had a tune-up in many years. “It ran well, but the plugs in there must have been 20 years old!” he said. “They were old AC plugs. Usually, when you bring a car in, that’s one of the first things you do — give it new plugs ad wires.”

The Mawbeys’ Arctic White example was one of 40,000 new Rivieras built for the 1963 model year. Buick purposely limited the production run to make the Rivera seem more exclusive. They came only as two-door sport coupes with a base price of $4,333 and a shipping weight just a tick under 4,000 lbs.

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The Thunderbird was evolving into a bigger, more luxurious machine in the early 1960s, and General Motors really had no similar personal luxury coupe. The plan initially was for Cadillac to build a production car based on the XP-715 concept car and inspired by Rolls-Royces of the day. The new personal luxury model was to be called the La Salle. Cadillac execs didn’t embrace the idea, however, and eventually the project landed under the Buick banner. With the exception of eliminating that hidden headlights that were part of the original design, Buick went largely with the plans drawn up by stylist Ned Nickles under the direction of Bill Mitchell.

The Riviera nameplate would last all the way to 1999, always occupying a high place in the Buick lineup.The racier 1963 design and sharp angles were certainly different than anything in Buick’s menu at the time, but the new Rivs did share the 325-hp 401-cid Nailhead V-8s with their Buick siblings. After production had started, Buick also made the 425-cid Nailhead available and it reportedly went into 2,601 new Rivieras.

From the front fenders, whose leading edges were vertical grilles, to the razor-edged rear contours, the Riviera looked both elegant and fast. A coupe for Buick’s most affluent customers, the Riviera was delivered with a host of standard features, including two-speed wipers with washers; back-up lights; glare-proof inside mirror; parking brake signal light; safety buzzer; Riviera wheelcovers; electric clock; license frame; padded instrument panel; trip mileage odometer; smoking set; front and rear bucket seats; courtesy lamps; deep-pile carpet; foam-padded seat cushions; center console; heater and defroster; and frameless side windows.

And there was plenty of dash to go with the flash. Car Life magazine tested a 425-cid/340 hp Riviera for a 0-to-60 mph time of 7.7 seconds. The 401 cid/325 hp Riviera could do the same in about 8.1 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in 16.01 seconds.

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Mawbey never plans to go that fast in his Riviera, but he found out how effortlessly it travels at high speeds during a trip from Wisconsin to Colorado two summers ago.

“My brother-in-law and I drove this car to Colorado Springs to the Riviera Owners Association Convention,” he said. “It did great. This thing is built for the highway. On the way back we had four guys in this car, and the trunk was as full as it could get … I rode all the way back in the back seat of this car, and it’s over a 1,000-mile trip, and it’s very comfortable. We consistently cruised 80-85 and it didn’t miss a beat. That’s where it runs best, at those highway speeds.”

The Buick still carries its original engine, which is still going strong and largely untouched after 76,500 miles.

“I’ve had my engine plate decoded and I can’t recall everything, but the engine is a 401 four-barrel, which is the 325 horse,” Mawbey said. “They call it the Wildcat 445 and the 445 is the amount of torque. The 425 [-cid] is the Wildcat 465… It has the standard engine and standard dual exhausts.”

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One thing Mawbey had to immediately adjust to was the Dynaflow transmission, which doesn’t provide the driver with the same sensations as a traditional automatic. “The Dynaflow doesn’t shift like a normal transmission. And when you drive, your body kind of tenses like you are anticipating it to shift like every other car you’ve owned, so that was kind of interesting to get used to,” he noted.

“It’s got power steering, power brakes. It’s got a tilt wheel…. air [conditioning], a speed-warning buzzer. It came with an AM radio, but I have since added a ’63 FM radio that I had refurbished. I don’t think the car was ordered with power windows. It looks like they were added later. It may very well have been a dealer-added option. And this has the standard interior, but there is also what they called Deluxe Interior, which was a little different.”

Mawbey has continued to tinker with the car and fixed things a little bit at a time. He found some correct wheels and wheel covers, put on a few new NOS brightwork bits, had the paint touched up, and replaced the rear bumper. He’s still planning to install the correct carpeting in the trunk and do a few other little odds and ends.

“’I’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time. Now I think it’s in the shape that he claimed it was where I bought it,” Mawbey says.

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One bit that the Mawbeys plan to leave in place is the plate on the console that says “Expressly built for Lois Knapp.” She was the wife of Bill Knapp, a Michigan restaurateur who owned the now-defunct chain of Bill Knapp’s family restaurants. Apparently, the Knapps were taken with the first-year Rivieras and had one built for themselves.

“The guy I bought it from said a collector had owned it previous to him buying it. Between Lois and the collector, I have no clue as to who owned it,” Mawbey says. “I wish I knew.”

Mawbey says he will always be a GTO lover, but he has also become a card-carrying Riviera fan. The Riviera may have been a car he knew nothing about during his younger years, but Mawbey admits he is now permanently smitten with his white coupe.

“This style has held up well over time,” he says. “Some of the old cars look like old cars. But I think this design is timeless.”

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