In early 1987, nearly a year before the Buick Reatta's introduction, division public relations ace (and historian) Larry Gustin invited me and then-Motor Trend editor Tony Swan to Phoenix, Arizona, for an off-the-record sneak peak of the soon-to-come two-seater. We looked, listened, drove preproduction examples, provided the requested feedback, then hopped a plane home.
We hadn't really known what to expect: certainly not another big-bicep Corvette. Probably not a high-zoot clone of the Cadillac Allanté. To properly fit the Buick mold, it would likely be softer, plusher, and slower than the 'Vette; less exotic, luxurious, and expensive than the Allanté.
Correct on all counts. We were honestly surprised by how much we liked it, especially its handsome good looks, and found it more agile, better glued to the road, than any Buick before it. On the other hand, we lamented the middling performance from its 165-bhp V-6 and its CRT (TV-tube)-dominated dash, both borrowed from the 1986 Riviera on which it was based.
The genesis of Buick's first (and probably last) sport two-seater began more than a decade before its birth. A fresh leadership team arrived in 1975 with direction to grow Buick's product line, image, and sales. Lloyd Reuss was chief engineer; Dave Collier, general manager.
"I had specific ideas about what we wanted to do productwise," Reuss recalls. "Our volume was not where we wanted it to be, and we were too much like Oldsmobile. So there was a major decision to move away from Olds and more toward Cadillac. We wanted an upscale, sportier image -- call it 'sporty elegance.'"
One project in 1977-1978, known internally as "L-car," explored the market potential of a sporty V-6-powered 2+2 coupe. It would be derived from and assembled with the plebeian subcompact J-car (Chevy Cavalier/Pontiac Sunbird/Oldsmobile Firenza/Buick Skylark) but built to be more upscale, quicker, and better handling. Among its targets were eight-second 0-to-60 zip (very respectable in that post-fuel-crisis era) and 100,000 annual volume in Buick and Olds versions.
When the L-car died for lack of a viable business case (considering its cost, volume, and profit projections), Reuss shifted his sights to an upscale, sporty two-seater, which he proposed to corporate leadership in 1978. "We told them our top product priority was a new two-place vehicle," he says. "That was the genesis of it."
Reuss was promoted to chief engineer at Chevrolet, but returned to Buick two years later as general manager. "I came back in 1980," he says, "and this was still a priority in my mind."
Product planning chief Jay Qualman and strategic planning manager Lynn Salata hatched a plan to base a two-seat roadster on the front-wheel-drive Riviera, using its powertrain and a shortened version of its "E-car" (Riviera/Oldsmobile Toronado/Cadillac Eldorado) platform. This would keep investment cost down, highly important for a low-volume "halo" vehicle.
"We saw a good potential market for Buick in a car that had two seats, the styling of a sports car, and the comfort of a Riviera," said Qualman in Terry Dunham's and Gustin's excellent book, The Buick, A Complete History. "If we could get the right combination of styling, comfort, handling, power, and price, we could virtually create a new niche in the market."
Reuss loved the idea, and presented it to General Motors President Jim McDonald during a mid-1981 divisional general managers' meeting. The proposed two-seater looked good, had surprisingly low investment cost, and solid profit potential at a proposed price of $20,500 and a modest projected annual volume of 22,000 units.
Qualman recalls McDonald's reaction: "Finally someone has figured out how to make money on a two-seater," he enthused. When the meeting was over, he took Reuss aside and told him, "You need this to compete with Mercedes." Then he added that he thought Cadillac needed a luxury roadster -- and that Buick's two-seater should be a coupe. Uh-oh.
"Concept Approval" -- authorization to allocate money and people to go to work -- was granted by GM's Product Policy Group in August 1981. The car was intended for a 1983 launch as an '84 model, but a complex reorganization that folded GM's five divisional marketing and engineering organizations into the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac (BOC) and Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada (CPC) "super groups," plus engineering resource constraints (and an agreement to let Cadillac to get its own two-seat Allanté done first), delayed it for more than four years.
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