1988-1991 Buick Reatta

Buick honchos spent a good decade trying to come up with an exciting "image car" to spice up their line before launching the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta. It was attractive and well turned out, but market forces were at work to see that the Reatta's run would be short.

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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Reatta's styling effort began in July 1982, mostly as a reaction to the decision to outsource the Allanté design to Italy's Pininfarina. "That upset the guys at Design Staff," says David North, who headed GM's Advanced Design 2 studio at the time. "They were insulted that Cadillac would go to another designer to get their car done, so they said, 'OK, we'll show them what we could have done,' and they held a contest. They had all the young designers propose a two-place car, and Dave McIntosh, who worked for me, won."

When Reuss saw the McIntosh model, he wanted it as the theme for Buick's two-seater. But it was "soft" and elliptical, while the E-car chassis was blunt. "We had a cartoon in the studio that illustrated our dilemma," North relates. "It showed a plan [top] view of this rectangular chassis with this almost circular car on it. There were big red marks where it interfered and four holes -- two in front, two in back -- where the corners of the frame stuck out. They couldn't modify the chassis, and it wouldn't fit under the body. Everyone said, 'It's never going to work.'"

1990 Buick Reatta
The Buick Reatta's design was a struggle, but
ultimately, the unique result was well worth it.

Irv Rybicki, who replaced the legendary Bill Mitchell as GM's vice president for design in 1977, grew weary of this struggle. "Irv called me up to his office," North recalls.

"'If you can't get that rounded jelly bean look out of that car and start making it make sense with some lines on it,' he said, 'I'm going to take that project away from you.' That afternoon I went out to the Proving Grounds for a competitive product show, and the new Porsche 944 was there. Porsches were always rounded, soft cars, but that one had stiff lines on it. I went back to the studio and told one of the designers, Ted Polak, to put creases on the Reatta, which ended up running the length of the car."

Another inspiration came from another Porsche: "One thing that made the 911 different," he says, "was the taillight that ran all the way across the back. So we did that on the Reatta. That taillight has about a dozen bulbs in it, and Buick came in and said, 'Why do we need all those lights?' They didn't like it because it cost more money. I said this car has to look different, has to have some recognition." The full-width taillamp (with 14 bulbs) made the cut.

Reatta's design program was unique in that it started and stayed in the advanced studio instead of moving to a production studio once approved. "In the Reatta's case, no one took it seriously or thought it would actually go to production, so it stayed and was pretty much released from the advanced studio," says North.

"This was unusual because the makeup of an advanced studio was heavy on creative designers and sculptors, where the production studio has a lot more engineering in it. The division sent down a team of production engineers and stationed them in the studio to work directly with us, so when a problem came up, they could tackle it right away."

The need to fit Reatta's round-cornered body on a squared-off Riviera chassis shortened by 9.5 inches resulted in an unusually long overhang ahead of the front wheels. "In side view, you see an exaggerated proportion ahead of the front wheel," North points out.

"The old classic cars look good because they have a lot of 'dash-to-axle' [from the base of the windshield to the front axle] and a short rear end, which gives an elegant look. The Reatta has a normal dash-to-axle and a short rear end, but there's a lot of front overhang because of the frame, so it's kind of unusual."

Partly because he grew up on western ranches, partly because he remembered the movie Giant, which took place on the Reata Ranch, North came up with the name "Reata," a Spanish-American term for lariat, and it stuck. Salata added the second "t" for appearance. When North was promoted to chief designer of Oldsmobile's production studio, John K. "Kip" Wasenko took over the Advanced 2 studio and completed the production design.

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Buick Reatta chief engineer Randy Wightman had a good powertrain and platform to start with, but the turmoil of GM's massive 1984 reorganization, combined with an unusually high level of industry-wide engineering activity at the time, made resources tight inside and outside GM.

Thus, program manager Frank Colvin assembled a multinational consortium to get the Reatta done. From England, he chose Hawtal-Whiting for product engineering and Lamb Sceptre for manufacturing engineering. Japan's Ogihara Iron Works was chosen for die design and engineering.

1989 Buick Reatta
1989 Buick Reatta is the result of a multinational
development team.

Prototypes built by Aston Martin Tickford using body parts from Abbey Panels (both in England) were tested at GM's UK Proving Ground. Dynamic development was done in the U.S. by Cadillac engineers because, as Buick Engineering was folded into BOC in 1986-1987, the program transferred to Cadillac (the only GM divisional engineering group that kept its brand identity, for a while); it retained responsibility for its own as well as Buick's and Olds' E-cars.

Among other good things, this development work resulted in some added engine-compartment structure that made Reatta a crisper-cornering car than its Riviera parent.

Wightman's biggest challenge was coordinating all these activities in various parts of the world. "We ended up doing so many things in so many different places," he says, "that it required a lot of travel, phone conferencing, and fax communications. We had language and geographic barriers, and cultural barriers even where we spoke the same language."

Another major challenge -- because the E-car plant didn't need the added complexity of Buick's small-volume specialty coupe -- was finding a facility and developing a process for building the car. The eventual answer was a novel concept: a dedicated "Craft Centre" in a 50-year-old former axle foundry and forging plant in Lansing, Michigan.

Here, the Reatta would be virtually handmade by groups of "craftspeople" working in "stations" instead of along a moving assembly line. This low-investment process was developed and managed by J. Robert "Bob" Thompson, who succeeded Colvin as program manager.

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When Reatta was finally ready for a January 1988 launch, Reuss was heading up CPC, Ed Mertz (his former chief engineer) was Buick general manager, and Qualman was advertising director under general marketing manager Darwin Clark. Meanwhile, I had jumped on board to team with Gustin and establish a Los Angeles-based western media relations office.

1988 Buick Reatta
The 1988 Buick Reatta combines sport and luxury.

Our challenge was to help members of the media understand this very different new Buick and convince them to comment kindly about it. "We had to work through a few dilemmas," Gustin recalls.

"One was that we could not call this a sports car, even though it was a two-seater and a convertible was coming, because we sold it to management not as a sports car but a luxury two-seater. The idea was that it would look sporty yet provide a more elegant driving impression, you could drive it all day and be comfortable, and there was enough trunk space for a weekend or so."

We held a magazine preview in Santa Barbara, California, in November 1987 to educate key editors on the car and its mission -- a Mercedes SL-like luxo-coupe, not a Corvette-like sports car -- and send them out for a day of driving on some beautiful mountain roads.

1989 Buick Reatta
1989 Buick Reatta allowed people to have a
sporty-looking car without the
idiosyncrasies of an actual sports car.

Reatta took its public bows the first week of January at the Los Angeles auto show and was well-received. Except for the expected complaints on the instrument panel and its CRT electronic control center, which most writers already disliked in the Riviera, the magazine reviews were mostly positive.

"The rigidity of its body is noteworthy," wrote Car and Driver's Rich Ceppos. "Push the Reatta to its limit in a corner and you'll find that its grip is good, too ... [It] actually moves along pretty well, posting a 0-60 time of 9.1 seconds and a top speed of 122 mph. Meanwhile, it keeps wind and mechanical noise commendably low."

"We savored every minute in the Reatta's saddle," wrote Automobile's John Phillips III. "Just as important, we admire Buick for the audacity to build this car." Added AutoWeek's James D. Sawyer: "We are encouraged by what this car says about Buick and, by extension, General Motors ... The Reatta is a car that delivers what it promises. It is an honest car. It has more than sufficient room to carry two people and their luggage long distances in comfort. It rides, handles and drives competently. Confidently. It is solid. It feels of a piece."

Newspaper reviews also tended toward the positive. "The Reatta has a pleasing, contemporary shape that causes heads to swivel," Paul Lienert wrote in the Detroit Free Press. "The more time I spend behind the wheel, the more attached I become to this jaunty two-seater." Lienert praised the car's steering, its roomy cabin, and its "superb" leather bucket seats.

"The absence of a high-performance engine, five-speed gearbox and other exotic hardware makes the Reatta non-threatening to folks who like the car's sporty looks but don't necessarily want to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a real 'sports car,'" he concluded.

Recalls Gustin, "The main questions in my mind were: Will the press buy this as a luxury two-seater? Is it luxurious enough? Will we get beat up because it looks like a sports car but doesn't have super power? The answers were: They did buy it as a luxury two-seater, and because we didn't sell it as a sports car, we weren't beat up because it wasn't."

Though its volume target was low, Reatta's importance as an image and showroom traffic-enhancer was high. "We had a concerted team effort working to have a new way of bringing the Reatta story to the public," marketing manager Clark says. "We tied it in with the people working at the Craft Centre, and did a special commercial and a promotion with the dealers. The entire Buick organization worked extremely hard to ensure the success we needed."

At $25,000, the Reatta was higher-priced than originally intended -- partly because E-car componentry had risen in cost -- but boasted nearly every conceivable feature as standard equipment. The only options were a power sunroof and a 16-way power driver seat. Just 4707 of the 1988s were built, followed by 7,009 '89s as sales slowed when initial demand was satisfied and the base price inflated to $26,700.

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The 1990 Buick Reatta brought a much-improved instrument panel, with electronic analog gauges replacing the CRT, and the long-awaited convertible, which had been previewed along with the production coupe at the 1988 Detroit show.

1990 Buick Reatta
1990 Buick Reatta featured
the long-awaited convertible.

Because the E-car had not been designed to have its top removed, it had taken nearly two additional years to engineer more strength into the open-air Reatta's structure.

The ragtop Reatta drew media raves for its beauty and character, but not for its somewhat shaky body or its manual top, a complex design that narrowed in width as it dropped into a well under a hard tonneau cover. Other changes included the addition of an auxiliary power-steering cooler and a driver-side airbag.

This was Reatta's biggest production year with 8,515 (2,132 of them convertibles) assembled by the Craft Centre teams, but Buick's upscale two-seater was proving a difficult sell in a soft market unkind to impractical image cars in general.

1990 Buick Reatta
1990 was the Buick Reatta's biggest production year.

Clark commissioned a special task force to "rethink the way we were marketing, advertising, and promoting Reatta. How do we focus on the target market differently? How do we tell a story that's compelling enough to bring people in to test drive and hopefully buy the car?"

It didn't help that the car was a major money-loser given its high cost, low volume, and dedicated plant despite another price increase to $28,335 for the coupe, and a whopping $34,995 introductory price for the convertible.

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Substantial improvements were planned for the 1991 Buick Reatta and, despite some resistance from resource-constrained Cadillac Engineering, which was struggling to save its own more-expensive two-seater, arrived on time.

These included a 170-bhp Tuned Port Injection 3.8-liter V-6 coupled to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic, larger wheels and tires, a console cupholder, and, for the convertible, anti-shake add-ons and a power pull-down for the top.

1991 Buick Reatta
Despite its style and handling, the 1991 Buick Reatta
was the last of the Reatta line.

Too late. On March 5, 1991, Lloyd Reuss (by then president of financially ailing General Motors) announced that Reatta was canceled and a sophisticated electric vehicle would eventually take its place at the Lansing Craft Centre. Mertz, who had overseen the car's early development as Buick chief engineer and launched it as general manager, had the unpleasant task of killing it halfway into its fourth model year.

"The early Nineties were tough for GM," he relates. "J. T. Battenberg became head of BOC and, as GM's financial difficulties mounted, he let us know that all vehicles needed to be profitable, 'or else.' We made a valiant effort to increase sales with some unique advertising, but I could see that it was a losing cause and recommended that we discontinue it. It was an emotional decision, but not a hard one, facing the facts."

Just 1,519 1991 Reattas were built before Mertz pulled the plug, 305 of them convertibles. That brought the four-year total to 21,751 -- 19,314 coupes and 2,437 convertibles.

Everyone has opinions on why this unique and beautiful Buick ultimately failed: too expensive; insufficient power and performance; delayed debut and flawed execution of the convertible (no power top); target buyers too young and cool to darken a Buick dealer's doorstep ... or even know where one was.

Reatta, in fact, was a finely styled, fully equipped, delightful-to-drive, two-seat sporty car narrowly targeted at a select group of buyers with discretionary income -- and a lot of alternatives at its hefty price. It was also widely misunderstood.

Some expected a Buick "Cor­vette." Others, a lighter, less-expensive sports car. In reality, it was a half-price Mercedes SL or Cadillac Allanté luxury-tourer with no direct competitor save the dismal and short-lived Chrysler TC by Maserati.

What ultimately killed it, like other two-seaters before and after it, was the deadly combination of higher-than-expected cost, lower-than-projected volume, and a dedicated plant totally dependent on it alone to pay the rent. After all, how many two-seaters have turned a profit over time? Corvette, Porsche, Mazda Miata, and ... ?

What if Swan and I had hated the car that spring day in Phoenix and told them it would ultimately fail? Would that have altered the Buick team's plan, or damaged its optimism enough to reconsider? Nah. Buick took the risk to create a unique and desirable car and watched it sail proudly, until the market and troubled times brought it down.

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Here are the models, prices and production numbers for the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta:

1988 (wb 98.5)

1988 coupe
3,350 25,000 4,708

1989 coupe (wb 98.5)
3,394 26,700 7,009
1990 (wb 98.5)

coupe 3,379 28,335 6,383
convertible coupe 3,562 34,995 2,132
Total 1990 Buick Reatta

1991 (wb 98.5)

coupe 3,392 29,300 1,214
convertible coupe 3,593 35,965 305
Total 1991 Buick Reatta


Here are the specifications for the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta:

General Information for the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta
Wheelbase, inches 98.5
Overall length, inches 183.5
Overall height, inches 51.2
Overall width, inches 73.0
Tread, front/rear, inches 60.3/60.3
Fuel tank, gallons 18.2 (1988-90), 18.8 (1991)
Cargo space, cubic foot 10.5 (coupe), 10.0 (convertible)

Construction of the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta
Layoutfront transverse engine, front-drive
Typeunitized with front and rear subframes

Engine for the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta
Enginetype 90-degree ohv V-6
Materialcast-iron block and heads
Bore x stroke, inches
Displacement (liters/cid):3.8/231
Horsepower @ rpm165 @ 4800 (1988-90), 170 @ 4800 (1991)
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm210 @ 2000 (1988-90), 220 @ 3200 (1991)
Main bearings4
Valve liftershydraulic
Inductionsequential-port fuel injection ('88-'90), tuned-port fuel injection ('91)
Driveline of the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta
Transmission4-speed automatic with overdrive, floor-mounted shifter
Final-drive ratio 2.97:1 (1988-90), 3.33:1 (1991)

Chassis for the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta
Front suspensionindependent, with MacPherson struts and antiroll bar
Rear suspensionindependent, with transverse leaf spring
Brake type4-wheel power hydraulic disc with antilock
Tire size:215/65R15 (1988-90), 215/60R16 (1991)
Tire typesteel-belted radial
Wheels6.0315 alloy (1988-90), 6.5316 alloy (1991)
Turning circle (ft)38.0

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