1981 Buick Riviera Coupe: If ‘Fat Elvis’ Was a Car

I made a mistake. Plagued with financially-irresponsible characteristics and a healthy credit score, I find myself making impulsive purchases more often than not. This car marks number 28 on the list of cars I have owned in my lifetime. What started out as an offhand, “you should buy this” comment and a few old blurry pictures of the car in question (500 miles away) became a much-anticipated delivery of my new to me 1981 Buick Riviera.

To my dismay, this was in every conceivable way a classic “catfishing”. The previous owner had not been as liberal with the details of the car as I would like, so I now find myself on the cusp of a total loss, a full restoration, or something even worse. Hello, I’m Casey Wright and I have a problem.

This particular gray 1981 Buick Riviera coupe, with its gray landau half roof and gray velvet interior car was originally sold in Canada, equipped with a speedometer reading in kilometers rather than miles per hour. After spending what I believe the majority of its life up north dodging snow berms, the Northerner turned Snowbird eventually flew south for the winter, permanently bringing the Buick with him.

Several more years passing like stone from a kidney, the sweet Florida salt water kissed the Canadian rust blisters and began to erode under the cheap Maaco-like paint job. Fast forward to today and I have a car riddled with cancer, the deck lid unsalvageable and the windshield frame growing into Swiss cheese more and more with each passing day. While most would see this as in opportunity to test the question, “who would bail me out of jail if I killed someone?” I decided to roll with the punches and enjoy the car for what it is. A cheap-thrills, washed-up husk of a once great American brand turned mediocre.

For those unfamiliar with the Buick Riviera, it shined as a beacon of hope to the American automotive consumer that they were in fact on their way to the top. Its once-glamorous heritage was truly that of the classic Martini-drinking “American Dream.” Originally offered as a special trim package for the 1949 Buick Roadmaster hardtop coupe, it eventually became a pop icon seen driven by the elite Hollywood Socialites. In 1963 the Riviera had become a car of its own, based on nothing but GM’s head of design Bill Mitchell’s inspiration from Rolls-Royce and Cadillac’s once sub-brand LeSalle.

The car was an instant hit, offering a personal luxury cruiser to rival the Ford Thunderbird on every front. Standard equipment being a 325hp 6.6 liter (401ci) V8 or the optional ground spanking 360hp “Super Wildcat” Dual-Quad 7.0 liter (425ci equipped with two 4 barrel carburetors because screw you and your planet I’m off to get mimosas).

1981 Buick Riviera front

The styling of the graceful coupes was always the main focal point, but the bravado that came with this powerful coupe would turn heads and make the burliest of men whisper Daddy. But, like the star that shines twice as bright, it lasts for half as long. By 1979 all the dominance had washed away in favor of an image that looked like someone desperate to make it big no matter the cost. Its image was that of a has-been, no longer the bespoke gentlemen’s “hot rod”, the 1981 Buick Riviera shared the same front-wheel drive platform as the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado. Riviera’s power source varied in this generation, offering two Buick V6s and three Oldsmobile V8s (one being the fabled diesel 5.7 liter), lucky me mine has the tiny Oldsmobile 140hp 5.0 liter V8 (307ci). Heaven help me if I had more horsepower in a 3,700 lb car.

The sixth-generation Rivieras (1979- 1985) had a mobster-like feel to them, like the owners were carrying a kilo of Columbian Bam-Bam under their seat and a dead body in the trunk. You could get out of this car with a pencil-thin mustache and nobody would question a thing. Sure, while bad guys drive Chargers, their bosses drive Rivieras. You’d almost want to flick a cigarette behind you at a gas pump while driving away because that’s to be expected. And because my particular purchase has aged and rotted to such a degree, I feel as though it in itself is getting in character too, looking like the obvious choice for a drug mule. It’s giving itself personality through its patina.

So here I am, accepting things as they are. I bought a turd that mechanically seems trustworthy but is falling to pieces in my hands, and I’m okay with that. Rarely does one have a classic car that can be treated with zero abandon. You don’t care if you mow over someone’s mailbox, or tap dance on the hood 4 am after the bar has closed. It’s a perfectly disposable car at this point, that simply has to get me to point A to point B until it splits in two. It gives me an opportunity to live like someone in 1981, an excuse to play Kim Carnes as loud as possible, pretend to be Al Pachino and to enjoy the good things while they last.

It’s Elvis making a comeback, waiting for the stage and lights, spangly jump suit and all never thinking there might not be a tomorrow.

12 thoughts on “1981 Buick Riviera Coupe: If ‘Fat Elvis’ Was a Car”

  1. Well at least it runs? Having been around when this car made it’s debut, I would classify this (my opinion) as another example of the “lost in the wilderness years” that the American car industry had when it came to trying to design a good-looking car. The tail lights with their really ritzy, expensive look and grey velvet (mouse fur) interior, are two prime examples of misses. Please keep us updated on it’s future life in your care.

    • Thankfully after some minor servicing to the transmission and replacing a few tires she goes down the road great. Honestly its a real king of the road sort of car. It’ll be around for sometime, and who knows, I may end up saving it after all.

    • It’s not the first time I’ve done this to myself, but I had the highest expectations. It drives wonderfully however so I may try and save it in the end, but who knows? In the mean time I’ll just enjoy this old rig until it snaps in two.

    • I also had the “seller didn’t disclose” all the little faults with my ebay purchase of a 1979 Z-28. I did show up in person to tow it home however. So at least I was able to look him in the eyes as he said “well it is what it is, right? “.

  2. I am not a “car guy” but my neighbor has a blue 1981 Riveria in her driveway for sale and I think it would be so cool to buy it for my son, who gets his license in July 2021. He actually likes the idea lol

    • It might be a fine first car if you want him to stay in town and not wonder off. They’re usually great cars and heck, I’d even drive mine across country but I can also fix it if it were to break on the side of the road. It’s not that they’re unreliable (they are reliable ’cause old world technology) but they’re also 40 years old now and time takes its toll as well. Ultimately if you want a car that he will eventually have to tinker with and learn, I think an early 80s Riviera is a fine choice.

  3. These were nice cars, my parents had a 81 Riviera, mom drove it about 20 years, she took excellent care of the car , it really was a pretty car, in light sea Jade, and in the 90s was always stopped in parking lots with people complimenting her beautiful Riviera, usually with the, ” I always liked and wanted one of these.”

    • I think the reason for all the parking lot comment’s was the Riviera ,to me was better looking than the Toronado and even most Eldorado’s and everyone wanted one but couldn’t afford it back then.

  4. Hi guys, excuse me in advance for my English “googletraduct” … I am French and I read your comments with a lot of interest because I may be going to buy one! I really want to drive an “American”. The car I’m going to see is indeed from Canada. I like Brian’s last comment ^^ and the car looks great. The paint is redone, the clutch and the cylinder head too, with invoices, in a garage specializing in American cars. But is there any rust … I don’t know.
    If you have any advice for me, I’ll listen to you 🙂

  5. My parents had a 81 Riviera, they bought new, it was a great car, but they bought it with the diesel engine, , believe it or not, mom drove that car for 20 years no real issues. The body and paint was perfect
    (California car), and she was also stopped in parking lots with comment’s on her car, honestly it looked great, sat in garage when not in use. The car was light sea jade color with the matching top and interior. It was replaced with a Cadillac Seville STS with about 300hp, I’m really surprised mom didn’t get tickets in that Cadillac


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