US Road Trip Travelog: Driving the Riviera

I've been putting off doing this because I know it's the kiss of death - if I write about reliability one day there'll probably be a con-rod out the side of the engine tomorrow. But it has to be done. What started me writing this was the drive down from Tallahassee to Panama City Beach in the high winds and driving rain. The Riviera was absolutely rock solid all day, and never missed a beat. That does impress me much.

Riviera advert
Riviera advert.

I actually bought the advert (just a page torn from a magazine) the day before I bought the car itself. Proved to be quite prophetic though.

Engine

Very powerful, so much so that I sometimes forget. On one occasion, pulling out of a side road in Cape Girardeau, I floored the accelerator. The back tyres lit up, spinning away and making a huge amount of noise and smoke, but we didn't actually go anywhere. Lesson learnt there. The lesson being that you can have huge amounts of fun if you can afford the tyres. Is that the right lesson ..?

With all the problems with the water pump I'm very grateful that this is an old-style low-tech engine. Basically it was built to withstand a certain amount of abuse without detonating, which is exactly what it's had. And, as long as there's an older guy around, it can be taken anywhere for the basics to be done. Doesn't apply to anything complicated, as I've found, but the simple things aren't rocket science.

Power corrupts, of that there is no doubt. But as easily as power can get you into trouble it can also get you out of trouble. There have been many times, especially when joining an Interstate or needing to change lanes in a hurry, that I've been very grateful for what's under the hood. Older British cars can be an embarrassment in modern traffic but there are no problems like that with the Riviera. I think that sometimes it surprises other road users as well.

Transmission

Since the rebuild, just wonderful. Don't ask me about the technical stuff but I can tell you that it provides absolutely smooth acceleration from standstill until that annoying speed indicator warning buzzer cuts in. It does take some getting used to, as it's unlike any normal 'automatic' gearbox. There's no point trying to make the car go faster by shifting manually because the Dynaflow is smarter than that, and it might actually harm it if you do.

The most interesting thing when accelerating away from the lights - no, I haven't been racing - is watching the noses of other cars dip as they change gear. The Dynaflow doesn't do that, and the nose of the Riviera just keeps heading straight towards the horizon.

Economy

Over the course of over 8000 miles, 14 MPG (US) or 17.5 MPG (UK). If you want the exact figures, 8203 miles and 579.56 gallons of gas. I only started measuring after the transmission rebuild - prior to that it was a lot worse as there was obviously a lot of power going to waste.

I must admit those those figures don't seem to bad to me, especially as they cover a wide range of terrains and states of tune. I was, in the main, driving the car fairly gently and trying to avoid traffic jams - I'm sure if you use all the power all the time it would be a lot worse.

My basic rule of thumb was that I could cover 200 miles before looking for a gas station. Initially I wanted a bigger gas tank but in truth 200 miles, or 3-4 hours, is about all the driving I'd like to do in one go before I'd need to stretch my legs anyway. In some places, such as western Texas, I'd stop and refuel after 150 miles as there was no guarantee where the next gas station would be.

Brakes

When I first collected the car the brakes were a bit scary, biting erratically and causing the car to squirm around all over the road. On my first day I also managed to lock them up twice. What I forgot is that even if the brakes stop the wheels turning, that doesn't mean that the car itself will stop. I can't remember the physics I was taught at school, so I've made up my own equation which may or may not be near the truth:

momentum = mass x velocity

Even though the velocity may not be great, the mass of the Riviera is huge. Basically, if I stamp on the brakes too hard the wheels will lock up and the car will skid.

After the work in Memphis the brakes are much better and the car pulls up straight and true. However, and it's a big however, that applies only in the dry or normal rain. In really heavy rain, especially when splashing through standing water, all bets are off. The Rivera only has drum brakes all round, and drum brakes are affected by water much more than disc brakes. This is especially true at the front, where the least wet brake will bite first and cause the car to move in that direction. You can anticipate it by lightly applying the brakes beforehand to dry them off but, of course, sometimes that isn't an option.

On the Interstates I try to leave a lot of space between myself and the car in front. Which is normally ok until some dickhead in a Lexus or similar decides to put his tarted-up Toyota straight in front of me. I wonder if he realises that at the moment he hits the ABS he's eating an airbag and I have a new hood ornament? Somehow I doubt it.

Handling

Time for an embarrassing admission. I'd assumed that the Goodyear 'safety check' I had early on would have included checking the tyre pressures. That would make me a fool then. When, some miles later, I checked the pressures myself I found that the back two were a bit soft and, worryingly, one of the front ones was well over the safety limit for the tyre. Hopefully there's no damage done to the tyre itself. A lesson learnt for me.

With the tyres all at around the 30 PSI mark, it actually handles pretty well for a car its size and weight. With the reconditioned anti-sway bar, even better. That tendency for the car to dive around a bit was a bit scary and it's now much more stable. This is no sports car but it can be drifted around sweeping corners - including maybe a bit of squealing from the tyres - with a degree of confidence. I think a low centre of gravity helps and it certainly doesn't keel over at an angle or feel uncomfortable.

Electrics

I've been at the mercy of dodgy car electrics ever since I first started driving old cars. A succession of Alfas (rusty bodies) and Scimitars (fibreglass bodies) will do that to you. The rains of Florida and the snows of New Mexico did nothing to upset the Riviera. In fact, nothing on the electrical side of things ever gave me cause for concern. I think that's worthy of mention in itself, and a testimony to a car that was built properly in the first place and doesn't seem to have been messed with since.

Interior & Controls

When I first collected the Riviera I was a bit disappointed that the driver's seat didn't go back any further and that the angle of the back of the seat couldn't be adjusted. I've since changed my mind. Even after a few very long days at the wheel I've not had any back ache or any other aches worth mentioning. It is a very comfortable and easy car to drive over long distances. Much better, for instance, than that Cavalier rental car I had when I first arrived in the US and almost all the modern company cars I've driven in the UK.

If there's one thing I could change it would be to add intermittent wipe and move the wiper control a bit closer to the driver. Which may stop my trying to switch the wipers on with the cigarette lighter. Of course, intermittent wipe didn't exist in 1963 and any car this age won't have it. And if that's the only thing I can find to complain about, well it really isn't much is it? I think the easiest answer may be to find a co-pilot I can yell "Intermittent!" at to give them something to do from the passenger side.

The rest of the controls remind me most of a Rover P5 I used to own years ago (see Other Cars for details). In a word, albeit a hyphenated one, over-engineered. This is what cars used to be like before the bean-counters got their hands on things and started building cars to a budget. The switches are made of metal and have a positive action, even after 42 years, that the best plastics in the word will never equal. My personal favourite is the cam built into the ('clap hands') wipers that parks them at the bottom of the screen when they're switched off. That's just pure class.

Ventilation is also very good, with the ability to get fresh air on your face and even a vent down by the pedals to cool your feet as well. Neither the aircon or the heater are especially powerful - I expect that both could do with some attention after all these years - but that doesn't really bother me too much. The demisting does work quite well, however, which is a bit of a rarity in a car this age. I also appreciate having quarterlights ('wing windows') as an option to opening the main windows.

On the Road

There a few things that don't really fit into the above categories worth mentioning.

The first is that the Riviera attracts the 'right' sort of attention. Not the sort of people who want to race you, think you're a moneyed prat or want to steal your car. Just the genuine sort of attention that occurs when the person concerned either hasn't seen a first-generation Riviera before or hasn't seen one for a very long time. In the course of one day in Mississippi I chatted with a guy painting the doors of the motel, the chambermaids, a bunch of Harley bikers on a tour, a couple of people at traffic lights and then got some frantic waves on the road from a family in a more modern Riviera. That's not typical but it does sort of encapsulate the whole thing.

Secondly, this is a very easy car to drive in 2005. As mentioned above, there are a few idiots who don't realise that they can't just swerve in straight in front without taking their own lives into their hands but on the whole it was a very easy journey. One thing that always made me smile was the attempts to intimidate on the Interstates through cities (especially around Los Angeles) by sitting right on the back bumper. Don't you realise that you're still roughly half the length of a squash court away from me, and that it just won't work? Knowing that the Riviera has the power to accelerate away from danger also makes a big difference.

Thirdly, there is absolutely no way we would've had such an easy journey around the US without the support of the Riviera Owners Association. I dread to think how it might've been if I'd bought a Corvette or a Mustang because that level of assistance and encouragement simply would not have been there. I don't like to single-out individuals but I have to offer special thanks to Sean Cahill who runs the ROA, Larry Paisley at Rancho Riviera and Jim Cannon from Houston who offered advice at every step of the way. I hope to be able to thank you all at the Riviera Annual Meet in Arkansas. If any of you from the ROA ever make it over to the UK I hope I can show you the same level of hospitality that you offered me.

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