When it debuted as an all-new, stand-alone model in 1963, Buick's Riviera really turned heads. That continued for the next two years of the original, 'first generation' Rivieras, until the debut of a totally restyled model for 1966.
For Tony, the passion for Buicks runs deep, having owned one of those second-gen '66 models. The attraction to the uniquely-styled first generation Rivieras was there, but the New South Wales enthusiast only acted on it relatively recently, thanks to Australia's first ever Riviera Owners Assocciation (ROA) gathering.
"After attending the inaugural Australian ROA Meet in Coffs Harbour in 2010, I fell in love with the 1st generation Riviera," Tony explained. "But it's not like I hadn't admired them before".
That period in time proved to be a good one to think about turning that passion into something more tangible.
"The stars were aligned," Tony laughed. "I'd sold my '66 Riviera, the Aussie dollar was very strong and the idea of a new project appealed to me very much."
With a bigger pool of Rivieras to choose from in the US, Tony's plan was to seek out a rough example there, and have it shipped here for finishing, rather than try the slim pickings of locally-available vehicles. A wanted ad placed in the Riviera Owners 'Riview' soon turned up a lead, with Tony contacted by a gentleman from Maine in the far north eastern US, who had owned his car for 41 years.
The location, in 'snow country' with all the salted roads and corrosion that goes with it, was cause for concern, but the seller allayed Tony's fears somewhat, explaining that the car had been originally purchased in Texas and had never been driven in the rain or snow.
The seller's vehicle was a '65 model, the last year for the first generation body style, and arguably the most attractive of that generation, with its headlights moved into clamshell openings in the guards' vertical pillars. In combination with some other subtle body mods, this gave both the profile and front end a cleaner, less cluttered look. While that was reason enough to make this Riviera desirable, this particular vehicle had additional appeal.
"The seller claimed it was a Gran Sport. I wasn't looking for a GS, so if it was, it would be a nice bonus."
A new introduction for 1965, the Gran Sport package was available on both the Riviera and Skylark for that year, adding a more powerful engine, stronger Super Turbine Drive auto transmission, larger dual exhausts, posi-traction rear end with a modified diff ratio, wheel covers, and subtle 'Gran Sport' badging.
A step up from the standard 401ci V8 and optional 425ci 'Wildcat' V8, the standard engine in the Gran Sport Riviera was also 425 cubes, but the 'Super Wildcat' version with power boosted to 360hp thanks to a pair of Carter four-barrel carburettors, warmer camshaft and the improved exhaust system. The engine was also dressed up with chrome air cleaner cover and alloy rocker covers as part of the Gran Sport package.
Combined with a separate Ride and Handling package (which lowered the ride height, firmed up the suspension and sharpened the steering), the Gran Sport was a potent performance machine, which led to the 'iron fist, velvet glove' tag. In this instance, the catchline was more than just advertising fluff; the Riviera was the most powerful car in its class, and despite being equipped with an auto as standard, could out accelerate a 289-powered Mustang with ease.
For all its benefits, it took a while for the Gran Sport to gain traction on the showroom floor, with Gran Sports accounting for less than 10 percent of total Riviera production for 1965.
As the seller of this particular Riviera Gran Sport had no access to email, a 'snail mail' correspondence ensued, with photos and additional details sent to Tony, so he good get a better idea of what was on offer.
"The car had accumulated a lot of Sixties accessories; stickers, ribbons and pinstripes, but looked straight and heavily loaded with factory options."
So, Tony had a tasty (potentially VERY tasty) Riviera Gran Sport within his grasp. Knowing what he did about first gen Rivieras and this particular Gran Sport made the decision a no-brainer. Tony decided to take the plunge and purchase the Maine-based vehicle.
"I arranged to have the car transported to the West Coast and then it went into a 40-foot container with two other cars for its long sea journey to Sydney, arriving in August, 2011."
Initial impressions were good, but the car needed some work, both mechanically and aesthetically.
"It immediately needed mufflers and carbies overhauled because they were leaking," Tony explained. "I also cleaned it inside and out and scraped kilos of grime off the underside."
The aftermarket bonnet-protector, foglights, bonnet-mounted tacho and pinstriping also got the flick as part of the clean-up. The roof, Tony explained, had been covered in some sort of textured black paint to replicate vinyl. While a vinyl roof was a factory option on the Riviera for '65, this particular DIY job was awful, according to Tony, so it had to go.
"I took it to DreamWorks Vehicle Restorations (in Warilla, NSW) for a quote just to paint the roof, but ended up getting the whole car bare metal resprayed including the engine bay."
Happily for Tony, stripping the car back to bare metal revealed no rust or Bondo anywhere.
From the factory, the Riviera could be had in one of fifteen different colours, including four blues for 1965, but Tony chose what he called a 'punchier' metallic blue in the form of a mid-60s Corvette 'Le Mans Blue'. In harmony with this, the body was debadged, but the bonnet's 'gunsight' badge was retained.
The Riv's front and rear bumpers were rechromed as part of the restoration. The lower section of the front bumper, normally chromed, was colour-coded to the body to give the front end a slimmer look. The thick, ribbed sill panels, which extended into the lower portions of the doors for the '65 models, were good enough to re-use as is. Additionally, the wheels and whitewall tyres the car came with were replaced with American Racing 16 x7 Torq Thrust II rims and conventional rubber.
Under the bonnet, the stock 425 V8 and Turbo 400 trans the Riviera arrived with were retained, and aside from the carby and muffler overhauls, needed no other major work. The interior, however, came in for some special attention, to make it more luxurious and enjoyable.
"The whole interior was done in leather by Eastcoast Trimshop (in Brookvale), who also fitted matching cut pile carpet front and rear. We deliberately strayed from the original seat stitching design and deleted carpet on the door cards and kick panels."
Being fitted with the Custom Interior trim from the factory meant this Riviera carried the longer door armrests, with handles at the front, as well as the rear to assist back seat passengers. The timber trim in the dash, console and doors was replaced with fresh American Walnut veneer, but Tony personalised it a little, moving the 'R' logo from the door trims to the console. A new hood lining in perforated off-white vinyl was also fitted, along with new sun visors from Vinyl Specialties in New York.
For additional safety, a set of inertia reel lap/sash belts were fitted to the front seats, with static lap belts added to the rear. Steering wheel is the original Riviera Sports-style two-spoke wheel. With the high-quality leather trim, fresh carpets and timber veneer, the interior of this car is a very luxurious place to be!
Since completion in May of 2012, Tony says his mild custom Riviera has received a lot of positive feedback; not just amongst among the Riviera fraternity, but generally, too. The quality of the finish has come in for particular praise, with the bold blue and de-badged exterior giving this particular vehicle a real distinctive look.
Tony's actually a bit spoilt for choice in the Riviera department, with a bone-stock 1971 'boat-tail' model also in the garage. So, come the weekend, does he choose the '65 or the '71? That's a problem we'd like to have!