La La Land, a hipster musical dreamscape about a modern-day couple who inexplicably dress like Dwight Eisenhower is still president, features one very memorable cameo from a classic car. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian drives a lovingly restored 1982 Buick Riviera convertible through the city of dreams. The only problem is that the brooding jazz boy’s vintage whip was a financial flop with a terrible engine and a history of flunking federal crash tests. Also, it was slow as hell.
The Buick Riviera was introduced as a convertible in 1982 as a sort of luxury novelty for people willing to pay a crapload of money for a basic sedan with the top cut off (mostly fat cat General Motors executives who wanted a “summer car,” according to Hemmings Daily). Its body was a normal Riviera coupe built without the back seats, which was then shipped to the American Sunroof Corporation to cut the top off and install a drop-top and a new back seat. The Riviera convertible sold for $24,064 in 1982, which works out to about $60,556.25 in 2017 — too much to pay for a car that could barely do 0-60 in 15 seconds.
Emma Stone’s character, Mia, drives a Toyota Prius, because she lives in L.A. and is not an idiot.
The Buick Riviera’s safety rating is also pretty dubious — in 1980, the coupe version flunked the NHTSA’s new crash safety tests. NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook told the Washington Post in 1980 that drivers in cars that flunked the agency’s toughest tests “would probably have been killed or very seriously injured” in a 35-mph head-on collision — the Riviera passed the front-end test, but promptly flunked the rear-end test. By about 1976, most major automakers in Detroit had pretty much stopped making convertibles because they were basically death traps. After the full body Riviera coupe didn’t hold up well in a rear-end collision, the convertible model two years later apparently managed to pass, thanks to a new development in 1981 when Buick figured out how to make a stronger frame for convertible cars, according to Jerry Garrett, a former writer at AutoWeek magazine. The interesting thing is that while the Riviera never sold well, it managed to not kill enough of its drivers to convince the auto industry to start making convertibles again.
The funniest anecdote about the ‘82 Riviera convertible, however, is that it was literally too slow to be the pace car at the 1983 Indianapolis 500. The car was offered in a dead-slow 4.1L V-6 and a slightly-less-dead-slow 5.0L V-8, but even that was too slow to stay ahead of the idling race cars at the Indy 500, so GM had to design a custom turbocharged version to show off its silly half-car. Garrett explains:
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).
The 1983 model, however, did come with an 8-track tape player, which is probably all that Gosling’s penguin-shoe-loving piano-freak Sebastian needed for his dusty analog jazz recordings.