Other Cars That Are Part of the Story: 1958 Ford Thunderbird

Writing the Riviera Project has emphasized to me how much of the Riviera’s story is also that of other cars. Of course, the first car to discuss is the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, whose release and success surprised General Motors and directly prompted the Buick Riviera.

Ford began a feasibility study for a four-seat Thunderbird in October 1954. Designated as 195H, the new direction was approved on March 9, 1955. Aside from essentially creating a new market segment, the second-generation Thunderbird was also the first Ford Motor Company vehicle to use unibody construction. This technical innovation allowed it to be astoundingly low for a mass-market late 1950s four-seat coupe—at 52.5 inches, more than half a foot shorter than Ford’s Fairlane 500 Victoria coupe and only one and a half inches taller than Chevrolet’s Corvette sports car.

Rumors of a four-seat Thunderbird started showing up in the press in early June 1957. On Wednesday, October 16, 1957, Ford formally disclosed that the glamorous and acclaimed two-seat Thunderbird would be replaced by a four-seat version for the 1958 model year. The new Thunderbird was unveiled to a select group on New Year’s Eve 1958 at the prestigious Thunderbird Golf Club in Palm Springs, CA. The 1958 didn’t show up at dealers until late in January 1958, with an official introduction on February 13, 1958.

Cover of the 1958 Ford Thunderbird brochure

The first of the four-seat Thunderbirds sold very well, despite a down year for the industry overall and only nine months of production. Ford moved 35,762 hardtop coupes at a base price of $3,631, proving that there was considerable demand for a brand extension well above the previous four-seat top-of-the-line—the $2,435 Victoria hardtop coupe. Indeed, the Thunderbird cost more than many Mercurys in an era when there was usually strong price separation between brands—only the Park Lane models and the Montclair Voyager four-door station wagon were pricier.

At the time, the 1958 was lamented by automotive enthusiasts as a horrible corporate change from the lovely 1955-1957 two-seat convertible, but Ford’s management knew they had made the right decision—sales of the two-seater had peaked at 21,380. General Motors marketers and product planners must have noticed what was going on—and been aware that they had no competitive vehicle. The new Thunderbird was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1958, and it continued to sell well over the next few model years: 57,195 hardtop coupes in 1959 and 80,983 hardtop coupes in 1960.

Hue … and Cry?

As I continued to work on the exterior paint color charts for the Riviera Project, I have been thinking about arranging the colors I display. I’ve been trying to sort visually using ROYGBIV, with some degree of success. After a few months, a seemingly obvious concept finally came to mind—why not just use the color hue values to place them?

I’ll expand: one of the many ways to describe a particular color is the HSB color space—Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. Also named as HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Lightness), HSB is a different way of measuring the RGB color space. The interest here is that it nicely separates hue from other color factors over 360 degrees, with the red in ROYGBIV starting at about 345 degrees.

HSB was initially conceived as a way to add color to black-and-white television transmissions without changing the signal that the black-and-white sets were receiving. It has been around for quite a while—French engineer Georges Valensi invented it in 1938, pre-dating the first consumer color televisions by 16 years. Those first color televisions were astoundingly expensive—the Admiral C1617A’s $1,175 price (about $11,200 in 2020 dollars) gives a hint of why substantial color television adoption would take almost 15 years.

fifth-generation Riviera color chart

So far, I’ve charted the exterior colors using the print-oriented CYMK color space. Still, Adobe Illustrator (which I’ve been using) and a plethora of other applications have no trouble converting the values displayed to HSB so that I can see the hue value. It was time for some testing—what could go wrong?

I tried this new-to-me color sorting method out on the current beta of the fifth-generation chart. It seems to work decently, but more exploration will be needed. The early results are shown to the right.

While I’ve been testing these sorting revisions, I’ve added the appropriate Buick-assigned two-digit color number and an asterisk if the color is metallic to each paint swatch. So, the charts now also have higher data density.

The charts also show the somewhat confounding color naming inconsistencies that prevailed throughout the Riviera’s life. A color can keep the same marketing name (i.e., Medium Green), but be a different painting formulation (changing from PPG 2694 to PPG 3062). Another color can alter its marketing name but remain the same paint formulation. Finally, the same Buick-assigned color number (63) can change paint formulations (PPG 2970 to PPG 3090) and color names (Gold to Dark Gold) from year to year.

Details, details, details, …

Why the Riviera Project?

I’ve managed to publish three travel books over the last 15 years, but now I’m working on an automotive title. Why this particular book? Why the Riviera Project?

The first hint is in the draft dedication:

For my glorious wife, who told me that she always thought
I should write books about automobiles

—but there’s more to it. As I write this book, I have not yet owned a Buick Riviera (though I am currently searching for one). However, the Riviera has been on my radar since I was a young child.

Cadillac La Salle XP-715 prototype

When I was attending elementary school in the late 1970s, a local public library that I visited often had a few books on automotive styling. In one of those books was a grayscale picture of the side profile of a Riviera prototype. I remember to this day the precise point when I became aware of Buick’s coupe—though I can’t find or even identify that book (how does one search for such a thing?). I am quite sure it was the photo shown here, or a variation thereof.

My Riviera predilections became known—and have been known for decades. An encounter with an ex-girlfriend shortly after the eighth generation version was released led to a seemingly out-of-the-blue question: “What do you think of the new Riviera?” she queried. “I really like it.” was my reply. “I thought you would,” she said with a knowing smile.

When Buick announced the end of Riviera production in the fall of 1998, I remember writing an angry email to the corporate office telling them that they were losing their soul. I then inquired with our local Buick dealer about the availability of a Silver Arrow, but all 200 made were already long gone.

Over the (so far) sixteen month process of writing this book, I have found myself becoming steadily more enamored with the romance of the Riviera. I am now rooting for all eight generations—even the ones I was previously disinterested in.

Progress: 45,000 Words

Yesterday evening, the Riviera Project went over 45,000 words. With that number written and the 140 pages currently created, I can estimate that completion will come when I get to at least 53,400 words and 166 pages—and likely considerably more.

1977 Riviera advertisement

I have made significant progress on several fronts. Appendix Two, which displays the Riviera’s exterior colors, now has placeholder displays for half the generations—details on some of the color diagramming considerations are here. With those colors tables now in place, there’s now more precise analysis by year in each of the separate generational chapters.

There’s also been notable work on further rationalizing and extending the index and adding to the books discussed in the annotated bibliography.

Likely the most time-consuming effort over the last two months has been the attention I continue to give the options tables, both adding more data and refining their display. I’ve put extra time into the tables that show the complex 1982-1985 period when the Riviera offered coupe, T Type, and convertible versions.

Some 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 short (only two years) fifth-generation now leads, driven by its notable options lists and the 75th Anniversary Package. The eight chapters on each generation currently make up 86% of the book.

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!