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08/06/2015 at #6197
The 1970 Buick Riviera thread… and now for something completely different!
This one is a personal project of mine, and it is a story that goes back to the mid 1980s if I really think about it. So sit back and enjoy the history lesson… I’m also using this thread to keep my own historical record and memories straight before I lose my mind.
Growing up, my Aunt had bought me a subscription to Hot Rod Magazine back in the late 1970s or so. Like many of us, car magazines and Hot Wheels cars scarred us early, and we’re still plagued with the motoring affliction today. It started early for me… In fact, I was brought home from the hospital in my Dad’s retired 1970 Chevy Biscayne police car. (That was cool, it was green with a white top and a small block 400 under the hood. It got hit by a local tree trimming company truck, which led to its demise.)
Here’s the ’70 attached to our Tradewinds Bahama camper back in about ’73. Also note the blue Coleman cooler.. that one is gone, but I’m looking for another… That’s also Big Al walking towards the camera. Dress pants, tee shirt, and about 6 Old Styles down.
As a kid, I’d pour over the magazines, mostly looking at the photos… but I slowly learned a little at a time about Muscle Cars and Hot Rods. Back in those days, Hot Rod was still pretty diverse, and they’d feature kustoms, bikes, trucks, imports… it was a good overall exposure to this stuff.
One day in 1983, on a family vacation in Colorado, I happened past a magazine rack in a grocery store. I’d always hang out at the mag rack while my parents went shopping, reading the magazines I didn’t have the coin to buy, like Motor Trend, Road & Track, and Rod & Custom when I could find it. This time, however, I spied a new kind of car magazine… a cartoon book! Can it be? I grabbed the July / August issue of CARtoons and the world became a better place. I read, re-read, re-re-re-read, and eventually memorized that whole issue to the point of nearly destroying it. (I still have it, or what’s left of it, BTW. This one is not mine… the cover is long gone.)
More on the CARtoons thing in another thread… got some cool stories about that stuff, AND, it’s coming back! Stay tuned.
So the point here is that I’ve been a car nut from an early age, and magazines and car shows helped to fuel my desire to someday have a cool Muscle Car of my own. I was really diggin’ Chevelles, Mustangs, and of course the ‘69 Charger from the Dukes of Hazzard, but those all seemed like fantasies for a pre-teen punk like me.
My Dad was a mechanic in the Air Force back in the 1950s, and he was always into cool cars. Back in the day, he had bought a new ‘60 Dodge, a ‘62 Ford Galaxie 500 XL, Corinthian White / red interior, and a 1964 Dodge of some sort. However, by this time, he was a Police officer with 2 kids living in suburbia with no extra green to blow on toys. He had gone through a string of used cars (“beaters”, as he called them) throughout the 1970s to try to get as much car for as little cash as possible. Some shining examples included:
- 1965 Ford Galaxie 4-door, white, black top, rusty
- 1966 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, white with a metallic blue top, not too rusty
- 1973 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, midnight blue with a white vinyl top, not rusty
- 1974 Ford LTD, green & green & green & green & green, not rusty
- 1976 Datsun B210, all colors of rust over dark blue
- 1967 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, white, black top, rusty
He eventually bought my a brand-new 1981 AMC Concord wagon for my mom to haul us around in… it was Sun Yellow with woodgrain and brown interior. This picture is almost identical, but I think we had wheel covers.08/06/2015 at #6198
But one fine rainy afternoon in about 1984, my Dad came home with a something different… a green 1972 Buick Skylark with a 350 4-barrel and an automatic.
I couldn’t believe it. I remember peering out through the front room (Chicago thing) curtains and seeing it parked on the street in front of the house. “Dad bought a Chevelle!” I yelled. I was super jazzed. My Mom and Sister didn’t care. But I was elated… we had a Muscle Car!
My Dad came in from the rain, and I asked him about the new Chevelle he just bought. “I think it’s a Buick” he said as he walked passed, not demonstrating any of the enthusiasm I had. “It’s a s*&^box” he added.
As you can imagine, I was kinda tossed in 2 different directions… how could he not think it was the coolest thing ever, and… it’s a Buick? What the what? I immediately took notes of what I saw… it was green, dark green vinyl top (or what was left of it), green bench seat interior, and it was riding on hubcaps. Sure enough, it said “Skylark” on the crusty quarter panels. There go my LS6 454 SS dreams. But it had a stance… all jacked-up in the back, and sittin’ low and mean in front. It turns out he bought the car for $300.00 from Tony, a local repair shop owner who was also a reserve Police officer and friend of my Dad. Tony installed a set of used station wagon coil springs in the back of this Skylark to fix a saggy rear end. I thought it looked tough; my Dad called it the “sewer sniffer”.
But it LOOKED like a Chevelle. What was the deal? It was time to go back through the stacks of car magazines to see what was up with this Buick and how we could make it cool. That’s when I learned about the mighty 1970 Buick GSX, and the legendary 455 Stage 1 engine… the glorious Saturn Yellow and Apollo White paint schemes… the 500 ft. lbs. of torque, the mid 13-second quarter times… and we had a car that could someday be just as awesome.
The mighty GSX.
Our 1972 Pile.
My Dad eventually kinda warmed up to the car. The Buick 350 had a 4-barrel and was rated at about 170 net horsepower, but man, he could do some awesome 1-wheel burnouts with that car. It was only on a couple of occasions, but I vividly remember him roasting the right rear tire and we both laughed like kids.08/06/2015 at #6199
To be continued…08/07/2015 at #6201
Soon, pictures of GS Stage 1 cars and GSXs were all over my bedroom walls, I was building GSX models, and I had a mission. The Sewer Sniffer was going to be mine one day, and I was going to turn it into a clone Saturn Yellow GSX and rule the world. I was only 13 at the time, but it made sense in my feeble mind.
Feeding the fire was a white ‘71 GS 350 car that appeared every once-in-a-while in the church parking lot a block away from our house. I’d snap pictures of it whenever I could. I don’t think I had even seen a real GSX in person at this point, but the ‘71 350 car really wound my watch.
(All the pics of the green ‘72 and this white ‘71 were taken by an adolescent Yours Truly.)
My Dad and I even worked on the car once or twice.. we peeled the dry-rotted vinyl top off the car, sanded the rust, and rattle-canned the top black. It was far from a pro job, but it was one of the first times I did anything productive on an old car. I don’t have any pics of that phase.08/07/2015 at #6202
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. One crappy day in 1985, I was walking home from somewhere and I didn’t see the Sniffer parked out in front of the house. Then I spotted a neighbor woman who lived a couple blocks away behind the wheel of MY green Buick. My Dad had elected to dump the ‘72 in to the neighbor for the same $300.00 he paid for it. He replaced it with a custom ‘79 Dodge Maxivan to drive – which was hella-cool – but not GSX cool.
The VAN parked in front of our house, I don’t know who the guy is with the T Bucket, but he stopped over one day in about 1985, so I snapped this pic.
I was torn… the van was fun, but now I had to watch my ticket to ride slowly decompose into a pile of rust chips at the hands of a person who didn’t give a rat’s rump about the car… or my plan to rule the world with it.08/07/2015 at #6203
So what does all this have to do with a 1970 Riviera? Hang tight, you’ll see!08/23/2015 at #6249
My obsession with GSXs as evidenced by my bedroom wall… sorry for the blurry photo. Note the GSX Prototype feature article to the left, we’re actually building one of those in the shop now! The newsprint pics were all local cars for sale that I could never afford.
I nearly lost it one day at a Buick club cruise at Strat’s on Mannheim Road in Franklin Park, IL. (That’s gone now.) It was a rare chance to see a bunch of GSXs up close and in person. I promise I didn’t touch any of them.
Fast forward a few years to 1991, and I eventually convinced my Dad into getting me a Skylark of my own. By this point I living with my parents and going to college in Chicago, and I spotted a ‘72 ‘Lark for sale in Chicago. It was primered gray with a black vinyl top and a black interior, and it was like $1200.00. It was basically a “nothing” car, 350 2 barrel base-model Skylark with 100k miles on it and no options. This was a car of many lessons, the first one being to never buy a car in primer! Me, being the super-genius that I was, decided to pick up my plan right where the old green car left off, and build a GSX clone and rule the world. Of course, going to school, and having severely limited funds, tools, and skills didn’t stop our hero one bit. I drove that car around for the summer of 1991 and even took it to the Car Craft Street Machine Nationals in DuQuoin (where it wouldn’t do a burnout until the natives picked up the rear by the bumper, true story) and decided it was frame-off resto time that fall.08/23/2015 at #6250
I pulled the front clip off the car, and set the 2-barrel 350 / TH 350 combo on a wire milk crate that followed me home from the grocery store.
The car had over 2 inches of Bondo under the primer… lesson learned. I bought a set of quarter skins from J.C. Whitney, cut the rusty ones off the Buick, and got stuck ‘cause I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
Our hero with the ‘72. I don’t know if I was working on the car or watching the 13” black and white TV on the roof of the car at this point. Note the Coleman lantern overhead… still have that one.
My parents’ garage was soon jammed with rusty Buick bits. I had tremendous organization skills back then.08/23/2015 at #6251
The poster was Miss Car Craft Street Machine Nationals 1992, she signed the poster “Hey Kevin… Nice Buick!” She obviously couldn’t see the pile she stood before.
After some disassembly, the body came off the frame. The neighbors must have really loved seeing the body shell stacked on tree stumps in (what was) the garden.
By the way, I still have the propane heater and the tool boxes on the floor.08/23/2015 at #6252
I was working at a Buick dealer in the body shop, pushing a broom and detailing cars, but I tried to absorb everything I could about how to paint a car. My buddy Jim was always painting old cars, and he was very helpful as well. Around this time period, I started to realize that the magazine articles proclaiming cheap, fast, and good-looking paint jobs were not always accurate. This stuff is a lot of work, and everything was more expensive than I thought.
I had the chassis media blasted, and I painted it in the alley behind the garage.
I bought a set of wheels from my buddy Jim, and sand blasted them and painted ‘em up. The centers were black, and I hand striped the “windows” with red for an accent. I used a flex-agent in the clear to keep them from chipping. Truth is, they never rolled again in my possession, so it worked… they never chipped!
I bought a 1970 455 and TH400 trans from a friend in Chicago for $450.00. The engine came out of a ‘70 Electra. It ran, but was tired, so I pulled it apart and stored the pieces. Again, this was the learning experience car, and I wasn’t smart enough to keep the engine together until it was rebuild time. By pulling it all apart, you are much more likely to never find all the parts again. However, a big crankshaft does look cool standing under the workbench. I bought a real 1970 GSX grille from a guy who found an NOS piece for his car, and it only set me back 180 1991 dollars. I found a 3.73 Posi 10-bolt out of a ‘70 GTO and bought it for $475.00. Man, parts were adding up!08/23/2015 at #6253
About a year into this project, it finally occurred to me that I was in way over my head. I was still in college, and my minimum-wage part time jobs were not allowing me to bring this car to life.
Pay stub from WIHN Radio making minimum wage.
I had come to grips with the fact that I would never have a real GSX, as prices for good cars easily crossed the $20,000 range back then. Of course today they are going for 10 times that number. I’m still OK with not owning a real one, primarily because I have the opportunity to be around these cars with projects like Muscle Car Of The Week and the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals show. Could you tell I was ga-ga over the car in this MCOTW episode featuring a GSX Stage 1 4-speed?
I’m not sure how it all happened, but I somehow worked a deal with my Dad that I needed to get another Buick to use for parts and to drive while I worked on my ‘72. That’s when things took a turn.08/23/2015 at #6254
In late June of 1992, My buddy Paul and I were enjoying a 64oz Double Gulp at our local 7-11 thumbing through a Tradin’ Times newspaper when an ad jumped off the page and kicked me right in the forehead.
1970 BUICK RIVIERA – 455, A/C, RED / WHITE, CHROME WHEELS, BUCKET SEATS, RUNS GREAT, NO RUST, $2700.00
Hmm… I wasn’t very familiar with those cars, but I could probably use the engine / trans some day, and it had white bucket seats and a consolette, 15” wheels… all things that could someday work in my GSX clone.
Paul and checked it out the next day, and I was blown away. I had never seen a 1970 Riviera with no vinyl top, no side spear trim, and the bright red paint and white interior sold me. I had to have this car. The seller, Mr. Bob Kendzie, turned out to be a former mail man from my home town and was losing his vision, so it was time to sell. He was also selling a Honda 175 motorcycle that had Paul all jazzed up. Kendzie passed away in 2006 at the age of 80, so he was about 66 when he sold me the car.
I negotiated the price down to $2400.00 on the Riv, and Paul ended up buying the bike. It was July 4th weekend of 1992, and I remember having to work the weekend before I could pick up the car. The silly car was all I could think about. My summer job was working for an insurance company doing building maintenance, and I had the after-hours and weekend task of sealing the aggregate sidewalk with a Thompson’s’ Water Seal product, so I had hours of time to let the Riv stumble through my noggin’ in anticipation of picking it up after the weekend.
The time came to get the car, and I recall the drive home being split evenly by moments of thinking how cool I was shared by a bunch of “Holy Crap” moments as I tried to keep the thing on the road. The front end was shot, and the Rochester Quadrajet had a bad accelerator pump, so it had a wicked stumble, the A/C didn’t work, and the brakes sucked, but I was still on top of the world. This was a game changer. I couldn’t wait to get some photos of the car and go cruising.08/23/2015 at #6255
These photos were taken in the very same lot where the ‘71 GS 350 was parked about 8 years earlier. Note the 1 short wheel skirt and one long… you couldn’t see both sides of the car at once, so I got away with it. These things didn’t grow on trees, you know.
It was a good looking car.
It was loaded, too. Tilt wheel, power bucket seats, A/C, AM / FM radio with under dash 8-track player, remote trunk release, power windows, power door locks, tinted glass… all kinds of good stuff. The 455 sounded great through a set of glass packs, too. Note the same plates on the Riv as the ‘72 Skylark. I think I still have those in a box in the garage.08/24/2015 at #6261
The car came with a couple interesting items, namely the original glove box manual and Protect-O-Plate, the GM warranty / service info card.
Reversed image of the Protect-O-Plate showing original dealer info and delivery date
According to the plate, the car was came with code 695 Pearl White bucket seats, and code 7575, which was Fire Red on top and bottom, (code 75 twice), indicating it did not ever have a vinyl top and that it was wearing the original color when I got it. Not the original paint, mind you, but the correct color. Which is cool, because according to the brochure, Fire Red was not available on Rivieras, making this red and white sled a special order combo. Cool!
This car had been built in May of 1970 and it sat in the dealer showroom until Halloween of 1970, when a Mr. Milo Hasell picked it up as his new ride. Hassel was a WWII vet who bought the car from Wild Rice Motor Company, on Main Street in Mahnomen, MN. I think he lived in Bejou, MN.
Milo B Hassel
Birth: Mar. 16, 1920
Death: Oct. 23, 1983, Fargo, ND
I don’t know much about him, but there was an American Legion water-transfer decal in the manual as well. I do know that he must have been standing tall when he picked up his ‘70, as it was a hot machine, but it needed a little love by the time I got it, about the week of its 22nd birthday!
First I rebuilt the Quadrajet carb as best I could. Then I got an HEI distributor from Jim and added the obligatory Accel Super Coil and a new set of plugs and wires to make it run better. Then came the search for new brake shoes, as this car had 4-wheel drums, aluminum in front. I had to have some tunes, so I yanked the dual ashtray drawer (the “smoking center” as we used to call it) and made a bracket for a cheap Sony CD player with a removable faceplate to go in its place. Then I added and amp along with some 6X9s in the rear package tray. The package tray is not flat on these cars, so I built a wooden plate with contoured sides to hold the speaker, then “upholstered” them with material cut from an old white T-Shirt. You can kinda see ‘em in the photos.
See the white speaker grilles? Yep, used tee shirts.
I made some more wood boxes for a pair of door-mounted 6” round Infinity 3-ways… the ones with the Kappa tweeters… man, they were smooth. We’d jam Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “In Step” CD all summer long. Yep, track 10 was “Riviera Paradise”, and I was livin’ it. My buddies and I had some great times as we rolled to local parks playing pickup basketball games in that car.
And “Wall Of Denial” was another cranked up to 11 often…
Soon, my Dad was going to put new tires on my Mom’s Lincoln, so I claimed the take-off Firestones for the Riv. But before that, we had some fun burning the old tires to the ground…
That’s actual 1992 VHS footage there, kids!
Right, do not attempt, closed course, you know the drill. That’s my buddy Steve who was obviously very excited about the whole thing.08/30/2015 at #6291
As the summer came to a close, I had transferred to Illinois State University to be in their Mass Communication program. I had plans to take the Riv, but it was just starting to develop a knock down low. I really didn’t do a lot of burnouts or abuse the car, but it was becoming louder. Good thing I had the spare 455 I had bought for the Skylark laying around.. I figured I’d rebuild the spare, then just switch ‘em out one night and be off to school. Easy-peasy, no?
Again, I blew all my summer job cash on car parts. Sent $450.00 to Wayne’s Mail Order Engine Parts (who remembers their ads in Car Craft?) for a rebuild kit. Spent a couple hundred more with my local machine shop on block work. More for the crank polishing and installing the pistons on the connecting rods. Spent a couple hundred more on rebuilding the heads. Had a cracked head and had to find a replacement and have it rebuilt. I had never rebuilt an engine before, although I’d been “around” many rebuilds. This time, however, it was for my daily driver, so it had to be right. Thankfully, my buddy Jim assembled the short block as I handed him tools, and it went together smoothly. I installed the heads, intake, manifolds, and all the other stuff, and got it painted up and ready for install.
Time was not on my side, as the install process began on a Friday, I’m guessing around August 14. My buddies were moving into the apartment at school on Thursday the 13th. This was going to be an epic weekend of partying, but I had an engine to install. Class started Monday the 17th.
All I know is that I worked my ass off that weekend installing the new 455 into the Riv, and I was having some troubles. By Saturday afternoon, it was ready to run, but I missed one key detail with 1970 Buick fuel systems. These cars had and electric fuel pump from the factory, the first of it’s kind. They also had a sneaky little switch on the side of the block… it was an oil pressure switch, but it also controlled the fuel pump. If the car had low oil pressure, the switch would kill the fuel pump and try to save the engine from catastrophic failure. However, I had used that oil pressure switch port as a place to connect my mechanical oil pressure gauge, so the fuel pump never had a signal wire to turn on. The ironic part is that even if the switch did its job and killed the fuel pump, carburetors have enough fuel to run for a while, allowing the damage to occur anyway. I spent hours trying to figure that one out… I could trace the fuel pump wiring and all looked good, but I somehow missed the switch circuit. Then, once I figured it out, I needed to cobble together some brass adapters to allow me to run both the switch and the gauge, as I was not going to start a new engine with no oil pressure gauge in the car.
After much toiling, battery charging, Ether spraying, and other tomfoolery, I finally got the car to light off about 2:00 AM Sunday morning.
Did I mention that in just a few hours, I was moving out of my parent’s house for the first time? My mom was pretty uneasy, as I had done NOTHING to prepare for the big move. When my older sister moved away, there were weeks of planning, shopping, packing, more planning… you get the idea. This time, I don’t even think I did laundry. I put the tools away, took a shower, and crawled into bed. A couple hours later, I remember throwing my clothes (dirty as they may be) into plastic garbage bags and stuffing them into the car. My Dad had a ‘92 Buick Roadmaster wagon as a company car at that point, and we disassembled my bed and threw it in there along with the my stereo and some kitchen stuff. I had an Amiga 500 computer at the time (always been a computer geek, another story) and I crammed that into the Riv, along with several hundred CDs I bought at my buddy’s pawn shop. Add a suitcase full of toiletries, a couple bags of groceries, some towels and sheets in the Roadmonster, and we were off. I think we left the house around 2:00 in the afternoon or so.
Illinois State University was about 150 miles from my home, and my folks drove in the Roadmaster and I in the Riv. The engine was fresh, the tune was OK, but it ate up the miles. We arrived after dark and unloaded my junk into an apartment I shared with 4 of my buddies, including Paul. They were mostly ½ in the bag and were finishing off a barrel from the party the night before when I got there. The move was smooth, and I had plenty of time (hours) before class the next day.
Remember that pesky little oil pressure switch? It made an appearance the next day. It was my first day of classes, so I drove to campus and parked the Riv at a local bank trying to avoid a $2.00 parking ticket on city streets. I went to the bookstore to get my books, hit the first class, did a little BSing with others, and headed back to the Riv to discover an oil slick below the car reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez. That crappy little switch housing had decided to let go and spew all 5 quarts of 300-mile-old break-in Valvoline 10w40 all over the bank parking lot. What a mess. The near-miracle, however, is that the switch housing didn’t break 24 hours earlier on I-55 going 70 MPH and wipe out my new 455.
I mopped up the spill as best I could, bummed a ride from a buddy to get a new switch, installed it in the bank parking lot, and counted my blessings. That was a close one, man.
The Riv did pretty well that year, but the winter months and salty roads revealed tons of rust bubbles. I landed a job at an Oldies radio station in town, and the station manager always complemented me on the car. There were many stories from that year of school, and the Riv played a big part in a bunch of them.
The Riv was not an economy size car in the early 1990s, and parking was at a premium on the campus of Illinois State University. The town of Normal, IL, also had unusual time intervals for parking meters which always seemed to be a few minutes shorter than it took me to park the car, go to class, and come back.
For example, it seemed like $.25 for ½ hour was not enough, but $.50 was far too much for an hour when you had a 40 minute class. When you don’t have any money, you want to put as little coin in the machine and hope you don’t get nailed before the time expired. I was not very good at this, and I soon amassed quite a collection parking tickets.
Note the $2.00 fine… but this increased rapidly when you didn’t pay it… as you can imagine.
My dad, being a recently retired police officer with extra time on his hands, found it entertaining to communicate with the law-enforcement officials in Normal, Illinois, where I was going to school. These communications resulted in special gifts like this fine Christmas card I received from the Normal Police Department.
There was one other little example of a run in with the law while driving the Riv. I was heading back to school with a friend, and admittedly and driving far in excess of the posted speed limit on interstate 55. This came on the return trip from a weekend visit to my Folks. The plan was to sleep as late as possible after a big Saturday night out in Chicago, and leave my Folks’ house near Chicago and get downstate to school on Sunday afternoon with about five minutes to spare before I was supposed to be delivering a newscast on WZND Radio. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, I did not account for additional time that might be required should I have a social call from a member of the Illinois State police department on the way.
The trooper claimed he clocked me at 93 mph in a 55 zone, but we all know I was probably going faster than that. As you can imagine, this delayed my trip and I was late for my air shift on WZND, the ISU student (non-paid) radio station. I was also faced with raising the necessary funds to finance a $180 speeding ticket.
This forced me to take any work I could find, which included very short stint working in a Taco Bell. I’ll never forget the kindness and support I received from my roommates when they visited me at Taco Bell. Between the laughter, they provided numerous colorful comments about my uniform and my place of employment. I knew at that point that food service was not for me, and the humiliation powered me into pursuing a paying job at WIHN radio. Motivation comes in strange forms.
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