Inspirations—Viewing The Buick Y-Job In Person

The Buick Y-Job is often described as one of the first—if not the first—concept cars. Designed by stylist George Snyder to show the late-1930s vision of GM design head Harley Earl, the long and low convertible had power windows, wraparound bumpers, and flush door handles. Its powered convertible top was concealed by a metal deck when retracted, and it lacked the running boards that were standard issue in 1938. Finally, the Y-Job had power-operated hidden headlamps—likely influenced by the manually-operated hidden Stinson lights in the mid-1930s Cord 810/812.

Unlike many concept cars that followed, all the features shown in the Y-Job were functional—Harley Earl drove it regularly until about 1951. This extravagance was made at least a little easier by the fact that the Y-Job used the same Dynaflash 141 bhp 5.2 liter/320 ci straight-8 as Buick’s Series 60 Century, Series 80 Roadmaster, and Series 90 Limited cars did in 1938 and was built on a stretched Century chassis.

1938 Buick Y-Job. Photo courtesy of Buick.

Over the years, I viewed many photographs of the Y-Job, but I never expected to see it in person. However, in 2011 I was able to visit the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, MI. There are many amazing cars in the Heritage Center’s collection, but for me, there were two essentials—with every other one of the 150 or so vehicles on display being a bonus. Those two cars were the Y-Job and the Le Sabre.

I got so close to the Y-Job on that particular day that I could lean directly over the rather basic interior. As expected, the car is heart-stoppingly beautiful—but smaller than it looks in many photographs. At 58 inches tall, the Y-Job is also stunningly low, something George Snyder accentuated by fitting 13-inch wheels instead of the 15-inch and 16-inch wheels that were in common use in the late-1930s.

As I continue my work on the Riviera Project, one of the common threads is the highs and lows of Buick styling over the years. When Buick’s exterior design is differentiating in a positive way, I see it as a spiritual callback to the timeless beauty of the Y-Job.

Indirect Inspirations—CARS: New York City, 1974–1976

The Riviera Project has many inspirations, both direct and indirect. An indirect one I’ll write about in this post is Langdon Clay’s CARS: New York City, 1974–1976, which I received as a holiday gift in late 2018.

Cover of CARS: New York City, 1974-1976
(courtesy Steidl, © 2016 Langdon Clay)

CARS: New York City has 114 photographs of automobiles—and they’re almost all cars, with just a few trucks and vans. The vast majority of the images are side views, nearly all were shot in New York City, and all of them were taken between 1974 and 1976. Langdon Clay shot the photos on Kodachrome using a Leica with a 40 mm lens and a tripod. The images have an unusual look (at least to me) because Clay used sodium-vapor lights and long exposures. As Luc Sante writes in his foreword, the cars are “arrayed like mugshots but lit like Hollywood stars.” Published by Steidl Books on high-quality paper, this book has given me pleasure in a way few of my automotive books do.

Langdon Clay, “White Tower car, Buick Electra, Meatpacking District” (1976) (courtesy Steidl, © 2016 Langdon Clay)

There is a Riviera in the book—a boat tail whose large front bumper makes me pretty sure is a 1973—but that’s not why I’m writing about this book. The point is Langdon Clay’s artistry from another place and time; as he says, “the cars sort of picked me.”

The selection of models seen in CARS: New York City is definitively from another age. A Datsun is the only Japanese car featured. No BMWs or Audis make the cut, though Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are reasonably well represented. Almost half of the photos are of General Motors products, with nearly half of those being Chevrolets of some sort. The sole SUV is a Jeep Wagoneer. “Dead” marques represent almost a third of the images and include AMC, Checker, Jenson, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Pontiac, Rambler, and Saab.

CARS: New York City is available in a hardback from many sources, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Echos Of Previous Books

When I’m working on a book, I often feel echos of previous books, whether ones I’ve read or ones I’ve written.

Yesterday the callback was to one of my older books. I was working on one of the introductory chapters of the Riviera Project, discussing the General Motors Technical Center. The Technical Center was designed by prolific and influential Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen. In a 13-year period between 1947 and 1960, Saarinen designed the Technical Center, the MIT Chapel, the TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport, the Bell Telephone Corporate Laboratories, the Dulles International Airport, the CBS Building in New York (otherwise known as Black Rock), and the Gateway Arch—among many other things.

The Gateway Arch was yesterday evening’s particular echo. On our third Route 66 trip, we made specific plans to get a picture with our 2012 Corvette and the Arch in the same frame. I’ll let the relevant passage from Slightly Slower 66 cover the details …

Ivelis driving Louis in front of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—April 2015

Ivelis and I got up, showered, dressed, had a good breakfast at our modern hotel, packed quickly, and checked out. We had decided the evening before that prior to leaving St. Louis we would at least attempt to take a picture of Louis and the always-spectacular Gateway Arch. A couple of blocks away from the hotel, I jumped out of the car with my Nikon and positioned myself across the street from the Arch grounds on the steps of the Old Courthouse (it deserves its name—circa 1839) as Ivelis drove around the block a few times. Despite the ongoing multi-year construction that is described as the “Gateway Arch Grounds Project,” I did manage to get a few at least somewhat reclaimable pictures.

from Slightly Slower 66

Inspiration: My First Riviera Writings

In June 2014, this entry was one of my first posts on the Eighties Cars blog. I believe it might look uninformed after I complete the Riviera Project—but this was one of my inspirations for choosing this topic.

“… the thrill of turbocharged performance and responsive handling.”

For 1984, the T TYPE (their spelling) version of Buick’s Riviera gained sequential fuel injection, yielding a respectable 190 bhp from the evergreen LD5 3.8 liter/231 ci turbo V6. Performance figures for the later Riviera T TYPEs are hard to come by, but I’m betting that 0-60 mph came in between 9 and 10 seconds.

Fuel mileage for the big coupe was decent by the standards of the day: 14 city/21 highway (13/20 by today’s standards). With the 21.2-gallon fuel tank, range was about 310 to 335 miles with a 10% fuel reserve. A T TYPE continued to be the only way to get your Riviera coupe turbocharged—you could get a “civilian” Riviera convertible with the turbocharger.

The $17,050 T TYPE (about $42,500 in 2018 dollars or about what a well-equipped 2019 Buick Regal GS goes for) came with a blacked-out grill, amber parking light and turn signal lenses, black mirrors, and P205/75R15 tires (a size still readily available) on 15-inch styled aluminum wheels. Additional instrumentation for the T TYPE included a turbo boost gauge and an LED tachometer. The 1984 T TYPE also included the Gran Touring Package which featured stiffer springs, re-calibrated shock absorbers, and larger diameter anti-sway bars front and rear.

Standard exterior and mechanical features on all 1984 Rivieras included a four-speed automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and a power antenna. Inside, every Riviera had air conditioning, power door locks, and power windows.

An extensive list of options included electronic climate control ($150), a rear window defogger ($140), and Twilight Sentinel ($60). Options available for every Riviera except the convertible included the Delco/Bose Music System ($895) and the Astroroof ($1,195).

Sales weren’t great—with only 1,153 made, T TYPEs accounted for only about 2% of the robust overall Riviera sales. T TYPE sales would continue to dip in the last year for the “big” sixth generation Riviera—there were only 1,069 made in 1985. My theory is that there weren’t a ton of folks searching for a big (206 inches long and 3,660 pounds) performance-oriented (but not really high performance) coupe in the mid-1980s and there was competition from vehicles like the brand new Lincoln Mark VII LSC.

Riviera page from 1984 Buick brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project's amazing brochures section.
Riviera page from 1984 Buick brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures section.

Unlike many other cars from the 1980s, folks are saving the sixth generation Rivieras. For example, there’s robust discussion and support on the AACA’s Riviera Owners Association sub-forum. T TYPEs also come up for sale every once in a while in the Hemming’s Motor News classifieds or on eBay Motors—when I last updated this blog entry in December 2018, there was a gray 1985 with 62,000 miles available on eBay Motors for $7,000.

According to Hagerty’s valuation tools, all the money for a 1984 Riviera T TYPE in #1/Concours condition is $15,500, with a far more normal #3/Good condition going for $5,400. Make mine the extra-cost ($210) Medium Sand Gray Firemist, please. I love those Buick color names and believe everyone should have at least one Firemist.

Outtakes: The First Day Of Spring

(this particular passage never made it into A 21st Century Road Trip, largely because I couldn’t figure out how to clear the rights to the lyrics)

For me, hearing a particular song can key off visceral memories …

… it is the mid-2000s. My wife and I are in our 2003 Corvette convertible, top down, moving fast somewhere out in the mid-west. The bruising (little if any refinement) Bose stereo is on and turned up, meeting (superbly) the only real design brief it ever had: to be heard clearly at 80 mph with the top down.

The CD changer (remember those?) has the title track from Simple Minds’ Real Life on, and Jim Kerr is singing:

All my love, you’re the best,
Every little thing that I possess,
It’s all emotion when you take control,
I can feel wild horses running in my soul.

Somewhere on Route 66—April 2005

The wind whistles and buffets us and the small block LS1 rumbles gently and the trick paint glistens in the bright sun.

Quit dreaming this is real life baby