Mitchell’s Silver Arrow III

 

John Houlihan graciously sent me a copy of his letter to the editors of Collectible Automobile that provide insights to the origins of the 1971 Riviera, along with a few sketches from the project.

 

Dear Editors:

I read with great interest your article entitled 1971–’73 Riviera: Buick’s Beautiful Boattail. In that article Mr. Brown states that “It has never been clear exactly who was responsible for styling this car.” I can shed some light on this subject. I was a member of GM Design Staff and working under Jerry Hirshberg at the time the ’71 was designed.

While Dave Holls is essentially correct stating in his sidebar comments that Bill Mitchell heavily influenced the design, Hirshberg was the studio Chief Designer and supervised the crafting of every surface and detail of that car. However, another designer named Don DaHarsh, working for Mitchell in his secret back-room Studio X, designed the theme model in 3/8 scale before any of us in Advanced Buick studio began the’71 project.

Inspiration for the Mitchell/DaHarsh model probably did come from the famous Y-job and the Stingray, but Mitchell had a mania for sweep-spears, evident on the Delahayes of his youth and demanded that the project that was to become the ’71 Riviera employ this flamboyant styling motif. We inherited the model and Mitchell’s burning desire to create a magnificent and aggressive design statement.

Our first effort under Hirshberg was a superb interpretation of DaHarsh’s model—Mitchell’s swashbuckling excess and the design team’s fine sense of line, form, proportion and detailing. This model was on a combined A/E body platform. It had a deep “V” windshield tapering through the monocoque body to the now famous boattail.

Cost was the prime factor in changing the size of the ’71 Riveria. The unusual A/E package, the deep “V” windshield, and other economic factors of the times forced Buick management to dictate that we redesign our sleek coupe and use the B-body seating package and glass. At the time this directive was a disaster—totally destroying the original concept.

Our design team worked tirelessly for months to convert what was once a shark into a whale, albeit a superbly detailed and proportioned one. The beautiful car you see today is a tribute to this effort and to the skill of Hirshberg and his team. I am proud to have been a part of this slice of automotive history.

John T. Houlihan

Does anyone have images of that original 3/8 model or the first A/E version of the design?

12 Comments
  1. It is great to get a sense of the thought process that went into the amazing 71 Riv…The car was large and excessive and I am so glad it was built… Don’t think it will ever be forgotten… Thanks for doing this feature… Would be great to see some more pics of the Silver Arrow III

  2. Was Don’s name spelled DaHarsh or DeHarsh? I’ve seen it both ways, and I’ve no idea which is correct.

  3. David R. North

    John Houlihan (“Huly — Hu-a-gan”) was a very good designer and a great guy, very funny and could have made a living in music. Really entertained us in the ’60s. Yes, I can remember the ’60s. The ’71 Riviera was definitely “Bill Mitchell.” Riviera was his “pet car” even more than the Corvette!

  4. DICK RUZZIN

    THE BOAT-TAILED RIVIERA
    I remember that it was designed in an advanced design studio that was run by Jerry Hirschberg. I was working across the hall with Gordy Brown. Cast as a fiberglass model it was one of the most beautiful cars I have ever seen. Very sensitive surfaces, harmonic and consistent in its form language. Smaller than the production version the fender forms related to the wheels and formed the theme which the Riviera had aluded to from the beginning.
    It was very fluid and sculpture, a natural extension of the 1966 Riviera.

    The project and the design theme went to the Buick Studio where all the sensitivity was removed, to the extreme. The success of the production version is the graphic content and proportions. Aesthetically it is hard to give it credit for anything when comparing it to the first design.

    Dick Ruzzin

  5. DICK RUZZIN

    After reading Johns account I am confused as to the path that the car took to production from the advanced studio. I clearly remember seeing it in the Buick Production Studio in clay, Don Lasky was the studio head at that time.

    Dick Ruzzin

  6. Ken Pickering

    I would say that Bill Mitchell was the force behind the original Boattail Riviera but he also was the champion of a much smaller vehicle as noted in the original clay model. Mitchell was furious when the vehicle became a derivative of the “B” series and actually came close to disowning the design. He often said that making the vehicle on the larger platform ruined the original design.

  7. David R.North

    You are right Ken,Mitchell was upset to not get an “E” body
    For the new Riv.Toro and Eldorado.
    I was brought back early from England to work on the 71
    Toronado . Mitchell told me the 1st day,those cheap b….
    Are going to screw -up our best cars.

  8. Tom Semple

    Jerry Hirshberg was responsible for the first clay model. I agree with Dick Ruzzin, it was smaller than the “B Body” it eventually became, and actually quite sensitively surfaced. The spear shape was intimated, not literal. It was a good design then and should been built that way. I believe Lenny Cassillo was the assistant chief designer in the studio then; maybe not, yet I do remember them collaborating on the design…but then they always hung around together, usually skipping work to buy records in Ann Arbor.

  9. L.A. Diehl

    I always thought that the “Boattailed” Rivieras were gorgeous designs from the 1970’s. So much so, I reserved a pair of the beauties for myself. Of course they were “just used cars” when they got to be five years old, and the first one I bought was a ’72 in 1977. (Even in just five years of our wonderful salty St.Louis, MO winters, rust could start to take hold. Many vinyl-topped cars didn’t get a proper paint-job applied beneath the vinyl. This added to taking my time before selecting “my car”.) The ’72 originally had a light-avocado front-section vinyl top over the Emerald Mist Metallic body. Dark Avocado diamond-tuft interior, 60-40 Bench seat.

    The 1971 Riviera was found two years later, in 1979. It was Gold Metallic, with a dark-chocolate brown “full vinyl top” and a Black interior with the Diamond-Tuft Bucket seats and Console. Sharp-looking cars which were fast and comfortable, and despite the size and weight, I could get about 17 mpg on the highway between St.Louis and Indianapolis. Really had to watch my speed or use the cruise control! It didn’t feel as though you were actually nearing 70 in the days of the standard mandated 55 mph! Inspiring Rolling Art the likes of which will never be repeated! L.A. Diehl

  10. The original design was smaller and very harmonic and beautifully conceived. Even though the design was enlarged I do not credit that with the loss of surface sensitivity and form language. The production surfaces were very mechanical, totally different than the smaller concept car. The theme was the same but the execution and proportion were lost on the people who developed the production car.

    I heard that Mitchell almost got in a fight in the Executive garage with the Buick General Manager, I think his name was Ed Rolert, over the installation of a padded top for production. Supposedly both had taken their coats off and had to be restrained, Mitchell had some boxing experience.

    As the production car developed from the concept done in Jerry’s studio I do not know why Mitchell did not intercede.

    A few years ago I say one in black that had the chrome bumpers painted, it looked vert good as it’s dramatic shape was enhanced.

    DICK RUZZIN

  11. Rick Sand

    Interesting comment about Mitchell almost getting into a fist fight with the Buick GM! That would’ve been Lee Mays, however. Mays was big on cost cutting – as he came up through the accounting ranks. He also wanted Buicks to be large cars, and a Riviera on a smaller mid-sized platform wouldn’t happen on his watch. This was still the “bigger-is-better” era. His successor, George Elges inherited these 4,600 lb. beauties when the first oil crisis hit a couple of years later. Word has it that a lot of folks who worked under him felt the same way about Mays that Mitchell did, but he was the boss. There was only one Bill Mitchell, God bless him.

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