THE return of Buick's Riviera two-door could signal the revival of General Motors' moribund design department.
The original 1963 Buick Riviera was one of the most trend-setting cars on the road. Although never a contender for a spot on the Top 10 charts, sales ran as high as 54,000 units a year.
But Riviera's fortunes faded in the 1980s. Like so many other GM specialty vehicles, it became a victim of look-alike styling and an undefined mission. The coupe virtually vanished from the sales charts: In 1992, volume plunged to 11,478 and the car was dropped from production.
But Riviera won a reprieve, and the new 1995 model will play an important role in reviving not just a nameplate, but the image of an entire corporation. ``This car is very, very important for us,'' says Mike O'Mally, marketing manager at Buick. ``It opens a new era of engineering and design.''
The new model is being favorably compared with the original 1963 version. In an era of aerodynamics, when far too many cars look alike, it proves a design can be windswept but still unique. The theme is ``elegant ellipses.'' The sculpture is three-dimensional, with compound curves and rear fenders that hint - dare one say it -
``It's the most difficult car I've ever photographed,'' a photographer commented on a recent media preview in Phoenix.
``The Riviera is Buick's `vision car,' '' adds Bill Porter, Buick's chief designer.
But that vision is more restricted than in the past. General Motors President and Chief Executive Officer Jack Smith has promised that the automaker will turn a profit on its North American Automotive Operations this year, after running up more than $17 billion in losses since the late 1980s.
That has placed some serious constraints on low-volume vehicles like the Riviera. The coupe is built around a new chassis that will eventually be used for almost every other GM luxury product. One of those cars - the four-door Oldsmobile Aurora - will also make its debut this spring. Making sure the two vehicles do not look alike has been a formidable task.
``It's been a challenge,'' says Tony Derhake, Buick's engineering director. But also one that is critical, he and other GM executives acknowledge.
Too many of the products the automaker has introduced over the past decade have come in over budget and have been unable to return a profit - even when they did hit sales projections, he says.
With the Riviera, the emphasis was placed on what consumers want, rather than what GM says they should settle for, Mr. Derhake says. In the past, even when GM listened to its customers, the corporate structure made it difficult to implement what they said.
Take the Chevrolet Caprice. Long before it went on sale, focus groups indicated that it would bomb. Because the GM system had grown so cumbersome, there was no time to react. The car went into production four years ago to universally poor reviews.
Riviera has extensively used focus groups and other customer research from the moment the program was conceived. That has led to a variety of changes, some small, some as big as adding a dual exhaust.
``Five years ago, I was afraid of customer research,'' Derhake says. ``Now, as we're getting into it, I've gotten more confident.''
Buick officials admit that it will take a strong marketing effort to revive interest in a nameplate that many had written off. The division is looking at a variety of target marketing strategies.
It may take a cue from BMW and advertise on the Prodigy electronic data network. And potential customers in Detroit and Philadelphia recently received invitations to special presentations at their local auto shows.
``A lot of people showed up,'' Mr. O'Malley says. ``It was one of the best responses we ever had to a direct marketing campaign.''
Buick's goals are actually fairly modest: ``Our main purpose is to go after domestic buyers,'' says Buick General Manager Ed Mertz, adding that as Japanese prices continue to rise, more import owners will likely drop into a Buick dealership for a look.
The Buick's base price of $27,632 will prove particularly attractive. That is anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 less than comparable Japanese and German models.