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 In 1974, they were also a way to avoid the much-despised and soon to be repealed seat belt starter interlock system.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.

30,000 Words In

A few days ago, I made it to 30,000 words in the Riviera Project. I’ve made a few more design decisions, including solving a basic book formatting issue that had been bothering me for months.

I’ve been getting more of the option tables done, which only reveals how inconsistent some of the data is. I’ve also become resigned to the statement under Selected Available Equipment in many Buick brochures:

This is a partial list.
See your dealer for details.

One thing that helps with getting accurate options data is scans and photos of the original window labels (the famous Monroney sticker), which sometimes turn up in the strangest places. I’ve gotten to the point where I hope for a heavily optioned car when I do find a window sticker—it’ll give me more data!

Options available in a Riviera of any generation are somewhat strange to our modern eyes, where reduced choice is often the watchword. Even at the very end in 1999, the Riviera was available with 12 exterior colors, six optional accent stripe colors, and five interior colors. Contrast that with Buick’s current top-of-the-line car, the 2019 LaCrosse sedan: 10 exterior colors, no accent stripes, and four interior colors.

A few statistics while we’re at it: revision 12 of the book sits at 106 pages. The two longest chapters are on the sixth generation and the seventh generation cars. Unsurprisingly, by far the most pages per year are for the first generation. The eight chapters on each generation currently make up 82% of the book.

Solving a Basic Book Formatting Issue

My process when writing a book is, I think, unusual. Very early on, I move from raw text to content formatting, creating chapters and moving to a desktop publishing application (I’m currently using Adobe InDesign). This approach helps me with my visualization of what the book is going to be.

It also serves to remind me of when I have fundamental formatting problems. As long as I’ve been working on the Riviera Project in InDesign, I’ve had a big issue; the body text display with my chosen font was simply too wide, both for legibility and looks. I know I’d have to fix this, but I wasn’t sure how.

Sometimes it just takes looking at prior art. I decided to page through a few of the many single-marque books I own for ideas. After viewing quite a few, I found inspiration from the interesting and enjoyable Camaro: Fifty Years of Chevy Performance, written by Mike Mueller and published by Motorbooks. In particular, the layout for the text in the chapters on the various Camaro models and generations seemed close to what I’m looking for.

The new base layout

I saved a new version of the Riviera Project and went to work. Essentially, I divvied what had been the basic single-column page into three even columns. I then set the body text to the two inner columns, with photographs, graphics, and tables aligned to the outside.

At this point, I’m happy with the fundamentals of the new base layout, though I’m sure I’ll refine it further over the next few months. It’s definitely more legible than it was and the new text alignment is visually freeing up the graphics and tables.

Overall status for the Riviera Project as of mid-August 2019: 29,000 plus words over 97 pages with 15 tables and 53 photos and images.