The 1963 Riviera was a big deal when it exploded on the automotive scene in the fall of 1962. Just five years earlier, Buicks were big, bulbous barges with chrome trim ladled on with a trowel. These late-fifties cruisers were the last hurrah of legendary General Motors styling director Harley Earl, and his protege Bill Mitchell was waiting in the wings to take the reigns of GM Design.
Earl retired in 1959 and it took almost four years for Mitchell’s new designs to pop out of GM’s factories. He hit two home runs right out of the gate with the C2 Corvette and the aforementioned Riviera and changed the landscape of car design forever. Today, the 1965 Riviera is the most revered model of the first-generation Riviera. With its clamshell hideaway headlights and minimalistic trim, it was the purest expression of this Tri-Shield “personal luxury” car.
Fast forward almost 60 years, and Jim Escarcega’s mild custom 1965 Riviera is a rolling testament to Mitchell’s original design and how it’s still as fresh today as it was in 1963. I spotted the car at the 2021 Murrieta Rod Run last summer and was mesmerized. Here was a slammed, red Riviera on modern rims that tastefully straddled current trends while avoiding the “hoopty” syndrome, a misstep that has tripped up many a builder. A car’s stance is the holy grail of the hobby and Jim hit the bullseye here with just the right amount of tradition and bling.
Jim and his wife Kathleen have three kids and live in Vista, California and by day he runs a roof contracting company. He was always more of a Harley Davidson guy and was active in the bike scene for over twenty years. In 2016, he got wind of this old Buick and bought it from a guy in Riviera Owners Club in Carlsbad, California. Jim explains, “The Riv was a number matching example in good condition when I purchased it. The goal was to keep the car mostly original but as is sometimes the case, the project evolved and changed over time.”
Jim elaborates further, “I lowered the car on springs, tinted the windows, replaced the exhaust, and got a new black and yellow vintage license plate, “1RadRiv.” I figured it would hold me over for a bit, or at least so I thought.”
After a meeting with his son in Temecula, California on a 110-degree day, Jim headed home and the car started to lose power. He piloted the limping Riv back home and called his mechanic. Long story short, the engine needed a rebuild. Jim found Nailhead experts L&R Engines in Sante Fe Springs, California to do the work. Evidently, they do a lot of work for Chip Foose so Jim thought that was a good enough endorsement as any.
After the rebuild, the 425ci Nailhead was sent over to Luke at Auto Precision in Vista, California for installation. This is where some serious upgrades took place as well. Jim explains, “We added a GM 4L60E transmission, electronic fuel injection, Sanderson Headers, Wilwood front disc brakes, a new aluminum radiator, fan clutch, and a five-blade fan. I suspected the cause of the engine failure was the idiot lights weren’t working and the car got hot, so I added a set of Dakota Digital to monitor the systems on the car.” Luke finished all of the mechanics and everything was good to go.
Until the fateful day.
All car guys dread a parking mishap, especially when there is no other driver involved. Jim recounts the event, “I was going to show the car at the Vista Rod Run and my detail guy asked me to leave the car in the driveway while I was at work. I had to be on the job at 5:00 am, so I went to move the car out of the garage at around 4:00 am. It was pitch black and when backing out, I bumped the Riv into the hitch of my work truck.
“Got home later that day and called Jimmy at Rancho Auto Body. He quoted me $7,000.00 for repairs. The car was painted 25 years ago with lacquer and I knew a fix wasn’t going to match. I asked him to quote an entire paint job and he told me it would be around $25k. Jimmy declined to take on an entire paint job so I settled for a match and hoped for the best. I figured I’d paint the car at a later date and that would give me time to figure out how to come up with the money. “
Yet, the hand of fate wasn’t done swatting Jim just yet.
He continues, “I called Jimmy a couple of weeks later and he told me to call him around 4:00 pm. I called and was told the car was not ready. I said the following Monday was fine. He told me it would not be ready on Monday either. Dead silence on the other end of the phone. Decided to ask if there was something wrong. He told me his employee backed an SUV into the driver’s side door and quarter panel of the Riv. Ultimately it was good fortune because Jimmy offered to paint the entire car at his expense to keep me satisfied. I decided to strip all the chrome and stainless and have everything refinished to match the new paint.”
Two more mods awaited before the car was ready to drive and enjoy. After the new transmission installation, the pan hung down from the frame, just waiting for a fatal scrape on a dip or speedbump. The only conclusion (of course) was to bag the Riv. Jim went with an AccuAir Ride System. Now he can raise and lower the car to whatever conditions the road (or grass) requires.
Then the car went in for a total interior update at Armandos Upholstery in San Jacinto, California. The Riv was decked out with creamy off-white leather on the seats, headliner, and door panels. The trunk was finished to the same meticloulous level as well. Jim’s response to the finished job? “Money can buy happiness.”
Jim is now cruising and enjoying the car, “After almost six years, this is what I have to show for all the time and effort. Thanks to everyone that helped me along the way. The list is very long but they all have my deepest gratitude for their great talent and time spent making my dream come true. I thank each and every one of them!” Be on the lookout and keep your eyes peeled for Jim and this “1 Rad Riv” at a So Cal car show near you.