High School graduation was fast approaching in two months, and I was still cruising back and forth to school in my 1969 Buick GS. Sadly, I knew the car wouldn’t be coming with me to Columbia. I had already made up my mind to attend MU in the fall, and I had been browsing eBay for a new daily driver for the 220-mile trip that would be fun, comfortable and fuel efficient. One of the cars I had been looking at was the 1996-1999 eighth generation Buick Rivieras. They were the last breed of Buick’s two-door coupes, and offered attractive styling with a factory-equipped supercharger. With 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, the supercharged 3.8L V6 had plenty of get-up to throw you back into the plush, Lazy-Boy recliners of the Riviera in instantaneous fashion.
Little did I know, my mom and dad had been searching for a graduation present and were secretly spying on my eBay search activities. On a weekend in March, Mom told me that Dad went trucking for the weekend with my uncle, and I didn’t think anything of it. The next night, he pulled into the driveway in a 1996 Buick Riviera. I couldn’t believe it! With medium garnet red metallic paint and burgundy leather interior, it was my absolute favorite color combination. It had been driven exclusively by an older couple that took immaculate care of the car, with a fresh wax and leather conditioning every six months. Although it had 95,000 miles, it looked and ran like it had less than 30,000.
Sadly, I don’t have a picture of what the Riviera looked like exactly when I first received it. Many of my friends thought it was an old mans car, but none of them knew what lurked beneath the hood. In my honest opinion, the car did look a little plain and outdated, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I knew the car had a lot of potential, and I couldn’t wait to uncap it. While this isn’t an exact picture of the car, this is what it looked like.
I loved the svelte, rounded body lines of the Riviera and knew that with a little bit of work, it could turn a lot of heads. After adding a rear spoiler, tinted tail lights, a black grille and an 18-inch set of black chrome MSR wheels, it didn’t take a lot to transform grandpa’s Buick into a car that is frequently called a Rolls Royce at grocery stores, gas stations and car shows. For a car that was purchased for a mere $4,500, there is no greater feeling than having it mistaken for an $80,000 luxury import.
With just these few appearance mods, it’s been featured in two calendars and won trophies at multiple car shows. While I was happy with the transformation, I wanted the car to have the performance to back up its menacing looks. I started by fabricating a homemade fender-well intake with Spectre 3.5-inch aluminum tubing and a 9-inch K&N cone air-filter. While the look was much improved, the relocation of the filter into the fender well helped reduce intake air temperatures and made the supercharger wine like rabid hyena under wide-open throttle.
The next project was the exhaust. The factory manifolds and 2.25-inch catback were optimized for quiet operation, not performance. I installed ceramic coated SLP headers and had an exhaust shop fab up a 3-inch exhaust system with Borla Pro XS free-flowing mufflers. The intake and exhaust modifications broadened the power curve and really woke car up in the mid and high RPM ranges. However, it felt like the car had lost a little bit of the low RPM torque, so I replaced the factory 3.8-inch supercharger pulley with a smaller 3.5-inch unit. Finally, I installed a colder 160-degree thermostat and colder spark plugs to keep engine operating temperatures down and reduce knock retard with the added boost. To adjust the factory computer settings to the new modifications, I had the car tuned by PRJ Performance. With an estimated 280 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque, the car will definitely put a smile on your face as you pull away from unsuspecting challengers.
While the car still has a few finishing touches left, I’m incredibly happy at how far it’s come. In just a few weeks, it become the world’s first eighth generation Riviera with a custom hood that I designed from scratch. Late this summer, I found a body shop that took my design and made it come to life. It features a rounded 2-inch fiberglass cowl and “supercharged” hood vents from a 2014 Jaguar XKR. While the Riviera is an excellent starting-platform, any car can be something special with just a little imagination and creativity. There’s a whole world of unique, cheap performance cars just waiting to be transformed. My goal is to point you in the direction of these hidden gems and help you realize their potential, but it’s up to you to scour Craigslist, AutoTrader and eBay for that peculiar car or truck you’ve always been drawn to. It’s time to start the hunt!