The character Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in the movie “La La Land” blasts around Los Angeles in an old, but distinctive red convertible. What kind of car was that?
My guess is it’s a 1982 model year Buick Riviera Convertible. (We can’t quite tell the exact year of the movie car; we have a call in to the movie’s Picture Car Coordinator Geno Hart and will update this post with exact info when he calls back). Riviera convertibles of that era are hard to distinguish, between model years, with only the most subtle differences. The car came out as a 1982 model (in 1981) and continued in production until 1985.
The Riviera convertible was a significant car, for several reasons. Key among those reasons is that Detroit has stopped making convertibles altogether by 1976. Why? They weren’t solidly constructed, and didn’t fare well in new government crash tests (or in owner satisfaction surveys), and as a result didn’t sell well.
In 1981, Buick figured out how to make a sturdier convertible off its E-Body platform (also used by the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado). I was working for AutoWeek magazine then, and I remember we put the car on a cover that year with the caption “Ragtop Revue”. (I can’t find that cover online anywhere at the moment, but I have a copy in storage that I may be able to rummage up; any reader that finds one, send along a pic and I will put it up here and credit the photo).
The Riviera convertible came in two colors: white and Firemist Red, which is the correct color designation of the movie car, with a matching folding vinyl top. They also featured red leather seats, as well as elaborate but fake wood grain dashboards and door panels.
The earlier model years had a horizontal tuck-and-roll style upholstery pattern – which is the style of the seats in Gosling’s ride; the latter years were sportier with vertical patterns inside smooth bolsters and borders. They also had Delco AM-FM radios! (Although the stereo unit in Gosling’s car, which features toggles instead of push buttons, doesn’t look stock.)
The earlier years had boring metal wheels, and the latter ones could be had with a fancier faux wire wheel hubcap.
The Riv, horrifically, was not powered by a Buick engine; back then, General Motors was in the process of dumbing-down or outright eliminating the engine production capabilities of its various divisions. So Buicks in those years were powered by some of the worst engines General Motors ever made, including a 5.0-liter V8 borrowed from Oldsmobile that made only 140 horsepower. But as bad as that was, it wasn’t as bad as GM’s infamous 5.7-liter V8 diesel, which could only grunt out 105 horsepower. Fortunately, few were ordered that way because of their extreme cost (and few of those that did sell remain on the road, because the engine was such a turd). There was even a woefully inadequate V6.
The Riviera was so gutless, when GM importuned upon the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to promote one as the Official Pace Car of the 1983 Indianapolis 500, Buick had to develop a special turbocharged V8 to make the car powerful enough to be able to stay out in front of all those roaring race cars.
Time has not been kind to the cars. In addition to likely engine failures, the cars suffered from a host of other mechanical failures and shortcomings. Only the gentlest owner managed to keep one on the road. Rust was a terminal problem for any car sold outside the Sun Belt (i.e., California, Arizona, Texas and Florida).
A pristine example of the 1982-85 era Riviera convertibles nowadays probably would sell for less than $10,000, although exceptions worth considerably more than that must surely exist. Gosling’s movie car might be a prime example.
December 23, 2016