After affixing the Riviera name to various cars in the 1950s, Buick finally made the Riviera a full-fledged model for the 1963 model year. Seven more generations of Buick’s personal luxury coupe followed during of the next 36 years, but only one ever had an oil engine available from the factory. Today’s Junkyard Gem is one such car, a bright purple ’82 Riviera with 105 Oldsmobile diesel horsepower under its hood, recently found in a Denver-area self-service boneyard. .
Beginning with the 1966 model year, the Riviera lived on the same platform as the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado, both of which featured radical front-wheel-drive powertrains that used longitudinal V8s powering the front wheels via sturdy chains. However, despite the common platform, the Riviera single-handedly retained the traditional front-engine/rear-drive layout, making it something of a corporate oddity for the next 12 years.
Then General Motors decided to downsize the Eldorado/Toronado platform for the 1979 model year, and the Riviera got front-wheel drive from those cars at the same time.
Sales of the smaller Rivvy were strong, no doubt in large part due to certain geopolitical events which drove up gasoline prices and caused fuel and gas line rationing.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, diesel fuel was much cheaper than gasoline in the United States. Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot had been quite successful selling diesel-powered cars here in the 1970s, so General Motors developed a diesel-burning version of Oldsmobile’s 350 cu in (5.7 liter) V8 engine. As was typical of naturally aspirated automotive diesels of the day (every modern car’s diesel engine is turbocharged), power was miserable but torque was strong; this car’s engine was rated at 105 horsepower and 205 lb-ft.
The 5.7 diesel first appeared on the Riviera for the 1981 model year. The base engine was a 4.1-liter version of the Buick V6, while oil-powered Olds cost $924 more (about $3,206 $ in 2023 dollars). A comfortable, smooth Riviera with a cheap fill price and long diesel range sounded good, even if you had to queue with Freightliners and Peterbilts to get to a pump, but there were issues. Oh, so much problems!
Oldsmobile’s 350 V8 had been around since 1968 and it had proven to be both reliable and powerful. Oldsmobile engineers reinforced the 350 block for diesel service, but chose to save on production costs by retaining the quantity and location of the cylinder head bolts from the gasoline engine. Because the diesels run a lot higher compression ratios than petrol burners (in this case the Olds 350 diesel had a compression ratio of 21.6:1 while its petrol counterparts were more like 8:1), the stresses on the bolts of head were all the higher. Stretched and broken head bolts followed, with engine-killing results.
On top of that, diesel fuel at the time was of inconsistent quality, and GM saved more money by omitting a water separator from the fuel system; it caused diesel-powered GM cars to shut down with depressing regularity. Oldsmobile diesels quickly gained a terrible reputation and a tsunami of lawsuits swept over the company. Meanwhile, Cadillac’s variable-displacement V8-6-4 engine was itself having some widely publicized problems, and the new Chevrolet Citation was making headlines in recall after recall. It was not a happy moment for the general.
When GM developed a V6 version of the 350, the 4.3 Diesel, it didn’t suffer from most of its big brother’s flaws. The damage had been done, however, and the last year for Olds diesel engines was 1985 (it’s no coincidence, gasoline prices crashed around this time).
This car had interesting futuristic elements that somewhat compensated for the troublesome engine. Those emblems on the padded top of the pram used electroluminescent lighting, which looked cool (I haven’t been able to find any of these working lights on my junkyard trips, but I’m not giving up ).
These lights above the grille used fiber optic cables for illumination. Later in the 1980s, Buick would install touch screens (from an ATM hardware supplier) in Rivieras.
The roof of the pram was scorched by the Colorado sun, but otherwise this car is in fairly fair condition. I found registration papers inside that showed it had been operational just ten years ago, so its owner managed to run the 350 diesel for many years.
The purple paint doesn’t appear to have been a factory color, but the high quality paint on the door pillars and engine bay indicates that a good paint shop did the paint.
The MSRP for this car with V8 diesel was $15,196, or about $52,721 in today’s money. Air conditioning, power windows and an AM/FM stereo radio were standard equipment.
The original owner’s manual was still with the car.
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Looking back, the optional 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine seems like the better choice than the diesel.