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.

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.

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.

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!

Experiences Matter: An Evening Road Tour in a 1968 Buick Riviera

On the first full day of the 2019 International Meet of the Riviera Owners Association, the final event was a Guided Rallye through Gettysburg and the surrounding country. I do not currently own a Riviera, and, though other cars were explicitly welcomed on the tour, my preference was to be in a Riviera. However, I didn’t know anyone from the ROA either than virtually before attending the meet, so I didn’t think my odds were good of achieving my objective.

As it happened, I met one of my virtual acquaintances from the ROA section of the AACA forums as we were listening to the pre-road tour briefing. Mike offered me shotgun in his striking Aqua Mist 1968 Riviera, and I jumped at the chance. In a total coincidence, his car was on all the meet materials, including the t-shirt. I wonder how many t-shirts I would buy if my car was on them …

Following four visible Riviera generations on the road tour.

We left the hotel parking lot slowly, with a total of about 17 Rivieras. My number one observation is that the second generation Riviera is a very comfortable car. At no point in our approximately two-hour tour did I feel remotely cramped, despite my 6’2″ and a little over 200 pounds.

Another thing I noted was how much visibility these cars have. I managed to take some decent pictures during the tour, primarily because of the wide views I had available to me in almost all directions.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that Mike’s 1968 is quite spritely. Even with an all-in weight that was likely around 4,700 pounds, The Aqua Zephyr (probably only a week older than I am—another wild coincidence) got up and went when he asked it to.

So, thank you, Mike, for giving me the experience of being in a sixties Riviera driving through the Pennsylvania countryside. I’ll never forget it.

Returning Home

Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve been celebrating the five year anniversary of the trip that inspired Lincoln Highway 101. As I’m sure you may have guessed, this will be the last of those posts—against (some, many, ?) odds, we made it back home.

Trip odometer photo
Final mileage—77,427 and change

Ivelis and I arrived home safely but quite spent at our house in Bryn Mawr on May 31, 2014, at roughly 3:40 pm. We had traveled approximately 6,314 miles, and we had (amazingly) made it in our 29 and a half-year-old car. I felt like both we and Lauren should have received some kind of medal!

The three of us had been on the road for a total of 15 days. One day was spent “staging” to Times Square, New York City, eight traveling from Times Square to Lincoln Park, San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, and six returning home (actually five and a half because we stopped for significant amounts of time at those two amazing museums on our second to last day out). I have to give credit to the weather in mid to late May of 2014—for the most part, it was near perfect. So many of our photos of this trip include beautiful blue skies.

For all of my worries and concerns about our ability to successfully complete this trip in this car, we ended up having only two major issues—the passenger door and the stalls. For the final eight days of our journey, I remained quite concerned that the passenger door would disintegrate even further than it had in Ely, Nevada. However, Ivelis and I were able to use both the manual door lock and the inside door handle all the way back home. Despite these problems, I’m very glad that we took this excursion in Lauren—I think that this choice of vehicle made the experience more special.

Lincoln Highway 101, Second Edition

We Made It!

It was precisely five years ago that we completed the Lincoln Highway portion of the trip chronicled in Lincoln Highway 101. As I’ve mentioned before, this was not a done deal and was fraught at points. But, we made it.

We finally arrived at Lincoln Park, the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway, on May 25, 2014, at 3:50 pm. Interestingly, Lincoln Park was dedicated in 1909—a few years before the Lincoln Highway came into existence. It seems hard to overstate the power of the 16th president of the United States’ name in the early 20th century.

According to the reasonably accurate trip odometer (it needed to be quite precise to pass an NCRS performance verification in June 2011), we had traveled a total of exactly 3,250 miles in nine days. Our Lincoln Highway portion had been about 3,150 miles in eight days or approximately 394 miles per day. The odometer also showed us averaging an absolutely astounding 26.0 mpg with that relatively large V8 and very rudimentary engine controls that were designed in the late 1970s. Still a little doubtful about this mileage, I confirmed the accuracy of the trip computer’s numbers with our gas station receipts after our trip was complete—it turned out to be off by well under 1%.

Jordan welcoming us to the finish in style

Despite our painfully substantial delay, our friend Jordan was (still) patiently waiting for us at the circa 1924 Legion of Honour in Lincoln Park with very unexpected but excellent champagne and tasty cheese—undeniably taking a lot of the edge off what had been an extremely trying last day of our Lincoln Highway experience. He did seem quite perturbed that he had somehow left some accompanying bread at his apartment, but we were certainly not complaining! The three of us spent a little more than an hour together eating, drinking, and talking on that breezy late afternoon. Afterward, we parted ways, with Jordan departing on his snazzy BMW R1100R motorcycle and the two of us driving a final five miles to our stop for the night.

Lincoln Highway 101, Second Edition

Amazing: The Bonneville Salt Flats

One of the strongest memories from our Lincoln Highway trip in May 2014 was our visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats. This also made it one of the easiest sections to write about.

Both of Ivelis and I had agreed quite early in our planning process for this trip that we positively wanted to visit the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah, something that has been on our automobile racing related “bucket list” for many years. If the salt is dry enough (and it isn’t always so), the land speed record attempts happen every year in the middle of August (a streamliner with a twin-turbocharged small block Chevrolet V8 was clocked at 437 mph in 2013). The rest of the year, the salt flats are a “special recreation management area” managed by the Department of the Interior.

Once we had passed the ghost town of Arinosa, we left Interstate 80 just east of the Nevada border and drove slowly out on a several-mile-long ribbon of asphalt. The speed limits are aggressively low—as if the civil engineers involved knew that there would be speed freaks driving along this road. The pavement ends in a kind of cul-de-sac, except there are (of course) no houses. What you do (if the salt is dry enough—and we were lucky that it was when we visited) is just gently drive off the asphalt and onto the actual salt flats.

Front quarter view of Lauren on the Bonneville Salt Flats
An outtake from Lincoln Highway 101—
I ended up making a poster out of this picture.

There were six or seven other cars and trucks of various types (we spotted everything from minivans and crossovers to late-model Mustangs) on the salt flats. Everyone present tried hard to avoid getting into each other’s camera angles—I believe because all of us understood the flats’ relevance. While Ivelis waited patiently, I spent about twenty to thirty minutes cleaning up Lauren’s exterior enough to make me comfortable with taking some (perhaps way too many) pictures.

The eerie silence for the entire distance you can see and the absolute emptiness of the famous salt flats were both impressive and also striking—and not just for the beautiful pictures it produced. Finally getting a chance to visit the Bonneville Salt Flats after so many years met both of our high expectations.

Lincoln Highway 101, Second Edition

Visiting Franklin Grove

Continuing with my “exactly five years ago” series—by this point we had made it to mid-Illinois and one of our carefully planned stops.

Parked quite stylishly outside the national Lincoln Highway Association headquarters in little Franklin Grove, Illinois

In the quiet village of Franklin Grove, about five miles southwest of Ashton, we stopped for a little over an hour in the early afternoon at the national headquarters of the relatively new but very active Lincoln Highway Association. Ivelis and I walked in and quietly signed the guest book. Already inside was another couple traveling the Lincoln Highway in what they told us was a far more leisurely fashion (measured in many months versus a few weeks) than ours. They were driving in an impressively well preserved and maintained (and evidently quite functional) 1980s Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia—I neglected to get the precise year.

An amiable woman named Lynn Asp (in general, folks were wonderfully gracious to us during this entire trip) spoke to us at length about the Association and their various upcoming events. It was only well after departing Franklin Grove that we realized that there is a picture of Lynn in one of the many Lincoln Highway-related books that we were carrying with us in Lauren’s rear compartment—we definitely should have gotten her to sign it!

Lincoln Highway 101, Second Edition

The relatively newly reconstituted Lincoln Highway Association’s online presence includes much useful information, context, and advice, but the absolute star of their site is a fantastic, stunningly detailed, and extreme accurate Google Maps overlay of all the Lincoln Highway routes.