By Mark Sabourin
Our cars became a real cousin to the Toronado and Eldorado in 1979. For the first time the Riviera had Front Wheel Drive and for the first time since it's introduction, the Riviera was smaller and it's outside dimensions were almost nearly the same size as the original 1963 Riviera.
With an overall length of 204 inches, the 1979 Riviera was a huge change from previous versions. Sitting on a 114 inch wheelbase, the new E-Bodies were designed to be more fuel efficient without requiring their owners to sacrifice interior room or luxury.
In profile, the front end was angled back at the top above the bumper and the rear angled forward top to rear above the bumper. The rear roofline was almost vertical, and wheel wells became more like the Toronado's typical open well look, and like all open wells, gave the car a sporty flair.
Styling changed very little during the 1979-1985 period, most changes were in the grilles and slightly in the interior. The Landau style roof was standard unless you got one of the sport options which also included HD suspensions ....etc.
Changes from 1978
The new Riviera was 14 inches shorter in length, 1.9 inches shorter in wheelbase, 1.9 inches narrower, and 0.7 inches lower than last year, it weighed about 200 lbs.less depending mostly on the engine choice. The difference in the length alone would mean a big difference in handling, but there was much more than just the loss of the front/rear overhang that came into play.
Probably the best mechanical aspect of this generation of E-Bodies was the new Cadillac engineered Independant Rear Suspension. The rear end was also equipped with an electronically controlled air shock system (the ELC) that automaticaly brought the rear level to the correct height by increasing or decreasing the shock pressure. Along with the Front Wheel Drive, it allowed the new E-Bodies to be as spacious inside as earlier models in it's new smaller body shell. For a very good article about the rear suspension see this Hemmings article on their site.
The cockpit became a 2+2 configuration even with the 45/55 front bench seat. It had a fold-down armrest that separated the two seat sections. The optional 45/45 bucket seats with the abbreviated center and narrow (10% width) console and fold-down armrest really made it feel like a 2+2, and with the rear seat which had a raised area in the center which made the seat look like a bucket style, especially when the standard fold-away armrest was down. This rear seat was standard, and came with both the 45/55 split bench and the 45/45 bucket front seats.
For a 2+2 "Personal Luxury" car, the new 1979 Buick Riviera's leg, shoulder, and head room dimensions were excellent. Having ridden in the right rear seat while my son drove, I can honestly say that I felt that I was "Important" at the least, and remember that the "Personal Luxury Car" was meant for the driver, not for the rear seat passenger.
The new dashboard was a cowl type that extended over the instrument panel to prevent glare. Built from two sections of vinyl covered foam, the larger top piece was flat across the top and sides. The lower piece went from side to side. Both sections were attached to a steel frame-work by screws and it was this frame that actually bolted to the body. The instrument panel comprised three pieces of flat painted-on wood grained finish with chromed edges. The first section covered the instrument cluster, the second the radio and heater controls and the third the glove compartment.Dash controls were good sized chromed round knobs that were easiliy gripped even with Winter gloves. A special "Sport" steering wheel was an option, having three aluminum spokes and a thick leather-like vinyl covering. Various forms of this wheel would be real leather covered and standard on the "S" and "T" type options.
With the lighter 350 cubic inch Oldsmobile V-8 gas engine and with the reduced body weight, the car was much better on fuel economy and in some ways in performance.
The Oldsmobile 350 c.i. Diesel V8 was also available.
Flag style side view mirrors were changed and became an integral part of the door replacing the "stalk" mounted mirrors of the 1979 model. They were available in chrome or painted to match the body color.
A new egg crate grille replaced the more traditional Buick vertical bar style. It had seven vertical bars separating five square horizontal cells.
The Olds 350 gas engine was dropped being replaced by the new Olds 307.
The new "T-Type" replaced the "S-Type" but was essentially the same.
Some interior changes happened. The steering wheel remained a two spoke design but it had an inverted "V" style and the seat pleats were changed from a vertical to a horizontal direction. Having had both a 1980 with the vertical and a 1982 with the horizontal I can say that the horizontal is more comfortable and keeps me in place better, at least with the leather surfaces.
The big news was the introduction of the convertible. A factory authorized and dealer sold model, the Convertibles were made from assembled Coupes right out of the Linden, New Jersey E-Body plant. The only thing they lacked were the headliner and the rear seat and rear trim. These coupes were modified by American Specialty Company, and they were available in only two paint colors, White and Red Firemist. The canvas tops were white and the interior was "Maple" which was changed to the darker "Claret" in the later years.
The egg crate grille remained for the standard and on the inside the door pulls where a hinged bar that layed flat in a recessed area of the door panel, in contrast to the long pull straps before. The steering wheel became an "off-center" two spoke design with the spokes well below the center, that would remain until the end of the generation.
The T-Type continued to use the vertical grille from previous years,
Three Coupe models were made for 1983, the standard version, the T-Type, and the "Special Edition "XX" (Twentieth) Year Anniversary" commemorative model. For the standard version the egg crate grille was different again. It had thirteen vertical bars separating two horizontal squares or cells for each vertical column.
The T-Type would still come with the older vertical ribbed grille.
The "XX" Anniversary Edition was quite different. The front Fascia's leading top edge was a more rounded version than the 79-82 car's sharp angle. The grille now had vertical bars which had 32 narrow bars on each side separated by only one thicker vertical bar in the center. The sides of all the bars were painted black with the faces chromed.This would become known as the "Waterfall" grille and it was used on all versions of the cars in 1984 and 1985.
The Anniversary Edition also had other differences from the Standard. The chrome headlight surrounds were now painted to match the body color, which was a two-tone, tan on the upper body and a light golden brown below the beltline. The "Riviera" script in the lower right hand corner of the grille (as you look at it from the front) now was gold plated and had the "XX" added.
In the interior, the cars remained the same except that the long door pull strap came back. The radios became a major change in that they went from the rear mounted shaft type on the bottom of the center dash to the front mounted "Double DIN" type in the middle of the center dash. The DIN standard (Deutsches Institut fur Normung) Enabled newer technologies like the C.D.player to be incorporated into the radio. The top center section area also was changed from a black vertical ribbed insert where the earlier Engine Monitor controls (from 1979 to 1981) would have been to an integrated section of the rest of the center dash panel.
As mentioned above the "Waterfall Grille" and rounded top edge of the front fascia became standard except that the grille bars weren't painted black.. Although it's not apparent in the photos the '84 to '85 tailights are larger than the earlier years. Notice that the '84-'85 tail lights divide the top and bottom halves by a horizontal bar. Lens color difference is exagerated. They are actually the same.
Last year for us. There were no major changes.
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