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1983 Riviera Convertible review by Car and Driver

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Transcript of Car and Driver Road Test published in 1983

Buick Riviera Convertible

Bliss on Wheels is what it is.

Here we are in the Eighties, an era rife with technical tumult – computers are calling the cadence under our hoods, the live axle is beginning to look like an endangered species, cars really are bigger on the inside and smaller on the outside, and all of them will go so far on a tankful that bathroom stops have become more urgent than fuel stops – yet what is the most wonderful new development in automobiling? The disappearing top, that’s what; the same thing that used to make motorists grin back in nineteen aught whatever, when engineers still weren’t sure how to make a universal joint that would last all day. The convertible top is an antediluvian device – normal automotive equipment in the period when the hinged door was looked upon as a great leap forward over what had come before, which was no door at all. In fact, the convertible is so old that it’s had time to go out of date and be heaped onto the pile of things they don’t make anymore.

But now – pow! – it’s back, this season’s monster hit in the motor city. Nearly every carmaker in Detroit is stumbling over itself trying to schedule a convertible just as good as the ones they stopped building in the middle Seventies. Before we are overcome by the strangeness of it all, you should know that this is a road test of one of Detroit’s new convertibles.

Not just any convertible either, but a Buick. Not just any Buick convertible either, but a pretty red one. And a fine thing it is. Red Buick convertibles were – and still are – made for the movies. Ford and Chevy convertibles were for kids and cruising – perfect for the prom, bitchin’ at the beach – but a red Buick was for celebrities and grand entrances. Cary Grant could ease up to the party entrance of the Beverly Hills Hotel in a red Buick convertible and the scene would be seamless. Nobody would know whether it was the movies or real life. It could be either, because a red Buick convertible has always been good enough for anybody and anyplace.

And the 1983 Buick Riviera convertible happily continues the briefly interrupted adoration. Bliss on wheels is what it is.

And there you have it, the nugget of bliss on this road test. From here on out it is going to be the nuts-and-bolts story of how Buick turned a coupe into a convertible, seasoned with some carping about how Detroit could ever have been so wrong as to abandon something as wonderful as the car with the top that goes down.

The Riviera convertible is, in fact, exactly what it appears to be: a Riviera coupe with the roof sawed off. At least that’s the way it starts. But Buick had high aspirations for this car. It was designed to be a no-excuses convertible: no excuses for the lack of a back seat, no excuses for the lack of rear quarter-windows, no excuses for anything. As a result, the Riviera convertible really is every bit as good as the convertibles you used to take for granted. It’s just that producing them is a lot more complicated.

The project starts at Fisher Body, which builds a Riviera sans roof. The body is then assembled into a car – as much as it can be, given its topless condition – at the Linden, New Jersey plant. From there it’s shipped to the American Sunroof Corporation in Lansing, Michigan, where all the convertible stuff is added. Then it’s onward to the Buick plant in Flint, Michigan, for a final laying-on of hands before shipment to the dealer.

Making a convertible from a Riviera is not as difficult as the job is with most other Detroit models these days, because the Riviera is still of the old-style body-and-frame construction. Cutting off the roof doesn’t damage the integrity of the structure anywhere near as much as it does on a unit-construction car. In fact, very little structure is added in the conversion; just a set of gussets where the rear wheelhouses meet the rear quarter-panels, and a pair of cowl-to-fender braces under the hood. And, of course, the door wedges, if you want to count them. Door wedges are SOP on American convertibles. Each set consists of a pair of ramps, one of which is mounted high on the door-lock pillar, one in the corresponding spot on the door. Convertibles having no roof for bracing, are inclined to sag in the middle; with door wedges, the door becomes a prop, acting as a beam in compression to prevent sagging. That’s when the door is closed. Most people don’t drive down rough roads and fly over crests with the doors open anyway, but the structure does have to be strong enough to hold its shape sufficiently to let the doors be closed. In this regard the Riviera has no problems.

There are a few other details in the coupe-to-convertible transformation. Harder rubber is used in the body mounts at the fire wall and at the rear frame kickup. Moreover, an extra mount is added at each side under the door, and area where no mount is necessary in the coupe.

The result of this modest reinforcing is a very solid convertible. The cowl and the windshield move around a bit over wrinkled blacktop, but the Riviera generally seems more solid and rattle-free than the high-volume convertibles of Detroit’s past. Our most serious objection is to the lateral shake in the front seats, but even that seems a modest complaint, given the joys of open air motoring. One of the most commendable features of the Riviera is its no-excuses design. The top is power-operated by a button on the dash (the transmissions must be in “Park” first). The fixed-in place quarter-windows of the coupe are power-operated in the convertible (you are requested to lower them before raising the top). The power windows and the retracting mechanism inevitably take a bit out of each side of the rear seat, but the cushion is still wide enough to accommodate two adults in comfort (Buick says room for three, we say the three should be good friends), The backrest angle in the rear is on the steep side, and the cushions feel harder than those of the coupe, but otherwise there is no lack of hospitality in the coach section.

The final mark of a good convertible, we think, is a glass back window, and the Riviera has one. It’ll never scratch or turn opaque as the plastic film ones do. And although it can be lowered separately from the top by un-Velcro-ing it, this operation is not necessary for lowering the top. We do have a complaint however: the bottom of the glass doesn’t extend low enough for good visibility to the rear. When parallel parking about all you can see of the car behind is the top half of its windshield.

Probably the highest compliment we can pay to a convertible is that, were it not for the sun on the head and the wind in the ears, we wouldn’t know it was a convertible. The Riviera drives very much like the coupe from which it is derived. The convertible’s extra 167 pounds soften the performance of the 4.1-liter V-6 somewhat, making the optional V-8 a good call if you ever plan to hurry. The four-speed automatic is a fine thing with either. The suspension rates have been increased in the convertible, primarily as an anti-shake measure, but the handling is also crisper as a result. Four-Wheel disc brakes are also standard equipment. Buick hasn’t held back on the good stuff.

Of course, given the price, you’d expect caviar; $23,983 is the number, plus the destination charge and all the other little ways Buick has to fatten the take. The convertible is about $7000 over the coupe. Buick says production is limited to 2000 cars, the capacity of ASC to make the conversion, but we expect the price will surely have a limiting effect all of its own. Twenty-four Gs is a heavy hit, even for a red Buick convertible. (White is the only other color choice, and red leather lining is standard with both.)

Why is the price so high? Buick has plenty of reasons: shipping between all those assembly plants is not exactly free, and of course, ASC expects to be paid for its efforts. But from the customer’s point of view, all that is Buick’s problem. All the customer remembers is that in 1975, when the last Buick convertible was built, it cost a few hundred bucks over the corresponding tin top. Convertible technology hasn’t changed in the intervening years – the new version is not burdened by on-board computers, exotic alloys or environmental-impact statements – so why does it cost an extra seven grand? One tends to worry about an auto industry that can’t efficiently handle something new when the new thing in question is really very old.

Putting aside the worry, we are pleased to report the continuation of one fundamental truth; a red Buick convertible is still a joyous mode of transportation. – Patrick Bedard




Edited by merrillcrosbie
Typo correction (see edit history)

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