The 1990 Buick Reatta convertible -- Buick's first "in-house" ragtop in years -- suffered from poor workmanship.

Buick Reatta

Another '88 newcomer was a more telling sign of Buick's late-decade fortunes. It was Flint's first production two-seater, named Reatta (derived from an American Indian word for ­lariat). Though basically a Riviera cut down to a 98.5-inch wheelbase, Reatta was only 4.5 inches shorter overall and almost as heavy (at 3350 pounds). Powertrain and dashboard also came from the Riv, but styling was Reatta's own: smooth, rounded, "friendly."

Buick took pains to note that Reatta was not a sports car but a "mature" two-seater emphasizing luxury, comfort, even practicality. Extensive standard equipment limited options to just an electric sliding sunroof and a driver's seat with no fewer than 16 power adjustments. You had to contend with the dubious Graphic Control Center in 1988-89 models, but the roomy two-place cabin and a largish trunk with drop-down pass-through panel invited long-distance touring.

Even better, Reatta was shrewdly priced: around $25,000 initially, about half as much as Cadillac's slow-selling Italian-bodied Allanté convertible.

An open-air Reatta bowed for 1990 as Buick's first "in-house" ragtop in 15 years. (It would have appeared in early '89 but for last-minute production troubles.) Both 1990 Reattas gained a standard driver-side airbag and conventional audio and climate controls. The '91s boasted a further-improved 3800 V-6, new electronic shift control for the four-speed automatic transmission, standard touring tires, and a shorter final drive for sprightlier pickup.

Yet for all its appealing qualities, the Reatta was a fish out of water: conceived in the heady days of Buick sportiness but born to a division fast returning to "The Great American Road." It did have the handcrafted aura of a genuine limited edition, built at a special new "Reatta Craft Centre" (though that was situated at Olds in Lansing, not at Flint). Yet Riviera offered the same basic car for less money -- plus the bonus of a back seat.

Worse, Reatta workmanship was erratic, especially on the convertible, which not only made do with a manual top but was downright pricey at an initial $34,995 -- $6700 above the coupe.

With all this, Reatta failed to meet even its minimum yearly sales goal of 10,000 units and was thus dropped after 1991. Total production was precisely 21,850, including a mere 2437 ragtops (only 305 of which were built to '91 specs).

Reatta was a sad loss for those who appreciate interesting cars, but it died in a good cause. The aging of America's vast "baby-boom" generation implied growing demand for the sort of "modern conservatism" traditional from Flint.

Indeed, the division enjoyed something close to prosperity in the early '90s, running third in calendar-year sales among domestic makes before yielding to a resurgent Pontiac in 1993. Still, this success was only relative, as Buick volume was down to barely half its mid '80s level -- about half-a-million cars per year. Worse, GM as a whole was losing money by the ton: $2 billion in 1990 alone, a massive $4.5 billion in '91.

Analysts found no mystery in that. Quite simply, they said, GM still had too many factories with too much capacity to build too many vehicles for too few customers. By contrast, Ford and Chrysler had become leaner and more efficient in the '80s.

GM merely redrew its organizational chart to enter the '90s with the highest overhead and lowest per-unit profit of the Big Three (not to mention the Japanese "transplant" operations that now loomed large in the total U.S. picture). By 1993, GM's net losses over four years had reached a towering $18 billion.

By that point, GM had endured another painful reorganization and numerous plant closings, plus an unprecedented 1992 "palace coup" that summarily ousted chairman Robert Stempel and president Lloyd Reuss after just two years in office. GM was making money again just two years later, thanks to the efforts of new president John F. "Jack" Smith, who'd recently turned things around for GM Europe, and John Smale, the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble.

In a sense, Buick had long been showing the way to GM's future. As the purveyor of "Premium American Motorcars," it entered the '90s with one of Detroit's stronger "brand images," thanks to a well-established lineup of cars that made no apologies for being smooth, lush, and Detroit-traditional. Buick worked hard to strengthen its position even further in the '90s. Dropping Reatta had been but a first step.

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