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.

A Little Further Along

I’ve made some progress on the Riviera Project recently, but I am not as far along as I had hoped to be as April turns into May. The book does continue to form, and I am getting more of a sense of what it may end up being.

Typewriter icon

About a week ago, I pushed past a 20,000 word total for the entire book. I’ve done a good bit of background research over the last few days, including some on the Riviera’s competitors such as the Ford Thunderbird and the Cadillac Eldorado. I’m also continuing to gather relevant material—adding both primary and secondary sources. Finally, I’ve been asking a lot of questions on the Antique Automobile Club of America’s forums.

So, still moving along, but the results are not very visible. Hopefully, I’ll have more to report in a few days.

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 it 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.

Brochures: Important and Also a Lot of Fun

1963 Buick Riviera brochure cover.
Front cover of the 1963 Buick Riviera brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochure pages.

As I work on the Riviera Project, some of my more important primary sources are the brochures Buick published between 1963 and 1999. These brochures give me many things including specifications (though sometimes these are inaccurate or imprecise) and equipment (though sometimes this is inconsistent or misleading).

I think the most valuable feature these brochures offer is context. You get to see what features Buick was emphasizing for each model year and what they thought was important to their potential buyers. In the brochures that cover the entire Buick line, you can sense the Riviera’s place within the range. Some very draft text from the Riviera Project about the 1967 model year is instructive:

Front cover of the 1999 Buick Riviera brochure, linked from
Hans Tore Tangerud’s wonderful
lov2xlr8 website.

Buick brochures made significant mention of safety for the first time since the Riviera had been released. Four-way hazard warning flashers were now standard—a year in advance of the federal deadline. Brakes got a lot of attention; the Riviera now had a dual master cylinder system, the number of fins on the aluminum front brake drums were doubled, and the power brake vacuum booster was larger. Finally, front and rear seat belts were now standard equipment, with shoulder belts optional for the driver and one front passenger.

Rivera Project, late April

Aside from being valuable as source material, these brochures are also a lot of fun. I must confess that I especially enjoy the ones I’ve purchased in physical form—there’s something about opening a 68-page full line brochure from 1975 that someone has lovingly preserved for over 40 years.

Working On Consistency In Terms And Words

One of the things that I try to do—even though some readers may not notice or care—is to be consistent throughout any single book with how I describe things. In doing this, I’ve needed a lot of help from my long-suffering editors, but recently I’ve been trying to get at least a little out front of them.

Fairly early on in my Riviera Project, I’ve settled on a few guidelines. First, if the term is a trademark or brand name (like Turbo Hydra-Matic or Soft-Ray), I will spell it exactly as it was spelled in period descriptions. This decision makes things a little interesting sometimes as spelling didn’t always stay consistent—for example, I’ve seen Turbo Hydra-Matic, Turbo Hydra-matic, and Turbo Hydramatic in various General Motors materials.

Two Riviera-specific pages from the 1969 Buick prestige brochure,
linked from the Old Car Manual Project‘s amazing brochures pages.

Handling other more generic terms is different. I’ve got to make some judgment calls—an example is “air bag” versus “airbag,” where Wikipedia and NHTSA disagree (the AACA’s general forum leaned heavily toward the one word form). I think “blackwall” versus “black wall” is an easier decision, though my grammar checkers do not like blackwall. There’s also deck lid/decklid, roof line/roofline, trunk lid/trunklid, and name plate/nameplate—and I’m sure there are some more.

Decisions, decisions, decisions …

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.