Analyzing and Displaying Exterior Automotive Colors

If a possible thesis of the Riviera Project is that exterior design matters, then by definition, the exterior colors matter. A detailed study of these colors turns out (surprise!) to be another rabbit hole.

I have decided to build visualizations of each generation’s colors, trying to get all the years and colors on a single page (though that may be challenging with the lengthy sixth and seventh generations). Building accurate visualizations means some attention to detail: the same color name may change painting codes from year to year, while the same painting code sometimes applies to different color names.

Riviera color chart
Very draft second generation Riviera exterior color chart

I’m using (mostly) scans of the original paint samples from PPG and others. These samples have, of course, aged—and accurately restoring them is non-trivial. There’s also the whole issue of how to depict different textures of paints—metallics, Firemists, etc.—one I have not yet solved.

There are many reasonable ways to sort and display these colors. I have chosen to organize the colors in the traditional ROYGBIV fashion, with the blacks, grays, whites, and various beiges and browns on top. I also combine color names across multiple years if the paint code stayed the same.

Building the visualizations in this way clearly shows changes in color fashion detailed in The Secret Lives of Color and other books. For example, note the pronounced movement toward more beiges and greens as model years moved from 1966 to 1970 in the chart above. There were also no yellow second-generation Rivieras, though the prior and following generations both offered various yellows.

Thus, we proceed, with the one guarantee that the charts as currently designed are probably not in their final form.

40,000 Words

I recently passed 40,000 words on the Riviera Project. Looking from the current 41,300 words and 126 pages, I can estimate that completion will come when I get to at least 47,900 words and 146 pages—and likely considerably more.

This 1991 is of the most beautiful seventh-generation cars I’ve seen

Progress continues to be made beyond mere word count; I’ve gotten even more work done on the chapter that covers the second-generation Rivieras and also made progress on the often stunningly ill-documented seventh-generation cars. These cars were initially very unsuccessful as far as sales when they debuted for the 1986 model year, but an “emergency” exterior restyle for 1989 at least partially turned things around.

There’s also been notable progress made with completing the options tables, with more years added, greater consistency across the years, and additional useful detail. A challenge, but not an insurmountable one, has been how Buick both changed the names of the same option and also used the same name for different options.

A few statistics while we’re at it; the two most lengthy chapters remain the ones on the sixth-generation and the seventh-generation cars, which were the Riviera generations longest in production at seven and eight model years, respectively. Unsurprisingly, by far the most pages per year are for the first generation, though that count is generated when I include both the Riviera’s initial development and the actual three model years from 1963 to 1965. Otherwise, the fourth-generation leads, driven by its endless options lists. The eight chapters on each generation currently make up 85% of the book.

The Curious Case of the First-Generation Airbag

As I do more research for the Riviera Project, I’ve been getting into the weeds with some details. One of the areas that I’ve spent some time researching is early airbags, one example of which showed up in 1974-1976 Rivieras. These driver and front passenger airbags—designated Air Cushion Restraint System (ACRS) by General Motors—were also available in other full-sized Buicks, Cadillacs, and Oldsmobiles over the same three model years. They were marketed as a replacement for shoulder belts, and ACRS cars had only lap belts in the front seat. In 1974, they were also a way to avoid the much-despised and soon to be repealed seat belt starter interlock system.

For the mid-seventies, the Air Cushion Restraint System was bleeding-edge technology, and General Motors spent $80 million on their development. The airbags themselves were dual-stage, which didn’t return to airbag design for almost 25 years and wasn’t mandated until 2007. They were also far more substantial than modern airbags are, with the passenger airbag extending across more than half of the front seat. General Motors piloted the ACRS in 1,000 fleet-purchased Chevrolet Caprices and Impalas in 1973.

Interior of a 1975 Buick Electra 225 with airbags

Choosing the ACRS led to many changes inside the car—the factory fitted a different four-spoke steering wheel with horn buttons mounted on each hub and a substantial padded hub in the center which held the airbag. Further changes located a small storage compartment on the left side of the steering column, moved the glove box to the lower center section of the instrument panel, and both redesigned and relocated the ashtray below the radio.

Only 329 1974 Rivieras—less than 2% of production—were made with the Air Cushion Restraint System, and it seems to have been about the same for other models. General Motors produced a total of 10,321 vehicles with airbags over the three model years, and many that were so equipped sat unsold on dealer lots. In general, the public was not ready for airbags, and the American Automobile Association (AAA) and other similar organizations offered little encouragement, with the AAA claiming that airbags were being sold “irresponsibly and prematurely.”

Bitter in its typical corporate way over the failure of an expensive new technology to find a substantial number of buyers, General Motors would not offer airbags again until the 1988 model year. At that point, driver’s side airbags were offered an option in Oldsmobile’s Delta 88 Royale sedans and coupes. By then, GM was no longer a leader in technology or safety.

Interestingly, the seventies General Motors airbags turned out to be very well built, with substantial longevity. In 1993, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-tested two of the original 1973 Chevrolet fleet cars. Both cars had over 100,000 miles and were in bad shape otherwise, but all four airbags worked perfectly.

Unexpected Sources: The Secret Lives of Color

One of the things that has surprised me as I work to write the Riviera Project is the varied sources I’m working with—and not just the usual automotive-centric ones. One of these unexpected sources is The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair.

This beautifully laid out little book carefully treats the histories of 75 separate colors, among them Avocado, Gold, Indigo, Taupe, and Violet. It also includes an extensive preface which discusses how we see different shades, the history of artists and pigments, and other topics around color.

I’m using The Secret Lives of Color to get some overall idea of the history of various individual colors and color theory itself. This information provides context for the Buick Riviera’s often spectacular exterior paint colors, which include Seafoam Green, Aqua Mist, Sunset Sage, Medium Sand Gray Firemist, and Dark Jadestone Metallic.

The Secret Lives of Color is available in a hardback from many sources, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is one book I would definitely suggest getting in paper form—making sure the colors were accurate for it was likely demanding.

35,000 Words and Nowhere Near Completion

I recently passed 35,000 words on the Riviera Project, and with that came the realization that I am nowhere near complete. Looking from the current 36,700 words and 112 pages, I can estimate that completion looks like at least 43,300 words and 132 pages—and likely more.

1966 Riviera brochure picture

Progress is undoubtedly being made; I’ve gotten a lot of work done on the chapter that covers the second-generation cars that were sold in the 1966 through 1970 model years. These interesting cars were very popular when new, with almost a quarter of a million sold over five years. I secured a scenic ride in a 1968 last year at the Riviera Owners Association International Meet in Gettysburg, PA, and came away quite impressed.

The second-generation story isn’t merely interesting for the Riviera itself. Part of the story is the arrival of new direct competition over those years; the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, and the 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III. That’s not even considering the attacks from below from the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix—and a substantial revision of the Ford Thunderbird. This makes this chapter a question of balance; the primary story remains the Riviera, but the context of its competitors is important.

End of 2019 Report

2019 is over, so it’s time to assess the overall state of this tiny press for this calendar year.

A lot has gotten done, though my internal clock always tells me we’re slow. The Riviera Project currently sits at 34,500 words and 106 pages. 2019 was definitely a productive year of writing, though it slowed toward the end, because of the holidays and some unanticipated (and completely external) issues.

Over the year, substantial progress has also been made with the Riviera Project‘s overall layout and with data display.

I also did a ton of background research on the Riviera, with perhaps the most interesting part of those studies being my attendance at the Riviera Owners Association’s International Meet in June.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Highway 101, Second Edition has continued to find an audience—reinforcing my belief that it was worthwhile to revise it in the first place. I also spent some time recapping some of the basics of the trip Lincoln Highway 101 writes about on this blog.

Finally, the J3Studio Press website itself has taken a reasonable amount of hits, though I have discovered that it’s hard to build an audience for a small press from nothing. I’d tell you the percentage of increase from 2018, but the site took zero actual hits in 2018 …

… on to 2020!

It’s Been Slow …

The truth is that I’ve made little progress on the Riviera Project in the last two months—a combination of work, travel, and the holidays have slowed things to a crawl.

Things haven’t been all quiet: I have managed to substantially improve the readability and space utilization of the option tables. I’ve also gotten a better handle on mapping the exterior colors.

I’ve also done some more statistical research. I plotted Riviera prices from 1963 through 1999 against monthly changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Unsurprisingly, the sixth-generation convertibles were the most expensive Rivieras of all, with the 1983 being the absolute peak. What did surprise me was that the 1999 was the most costly coupe even when adjusting for CPI. In constant dollars, the 1974 was the least expensive.

I have hopes of making some more progress before the end of the calendar year. We’ll see what happens.