The 1988-1991 Buick Reatta:
A Hand Built American Luxury Two-Seater Car
With much available on-line about the Reatta,
here is a different perspective few are aware of about the Reatta from concept to its' end of run.
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 (most associated with the Buick Riviera platform) 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.'"
Irv Rybicki, who replaced the legendary Bill Mitchell as GM's vice president for design back 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.
Red concept design and the Reatta clay model.
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.
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.
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.
1988 and 1989 Buick Reatta
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.
The 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.
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."
In 1988, Buick designated approximately fifty-five Reattas as 'Select Sixty' models, available to the top sixty Buick dealerships nationwide. These coupes were all painted black with a saddle (tan) interior and were allocated a special hood emblem stating 'Select Sixty'. These were also the only coupes for 1988 with the X22 marketing code.
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 (available late in 1988) and a 16-way power driver seat. Just 4,707 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.
1990 Buick Reatta
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.
Because the E-car platform 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 (Buick's intention had always been to offer a convertible model).
The ragtop Reatta drew media raves for its beauty and character, but not for its manual top, a 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.
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.
Bucik also brought back the Select Sixty designation, with sixty-five vehciles being built. They were all white convertibles These cars also previewed several 1991 features, including a flame red interior (instead of garnet red), white bucket seats, white 16 inch wheels and a cup holder. Special Select Sixty emblems were provided for the hood.
1991 Buick Reatta
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 16" wheels and tires, a console cupholder, vacuum assited power brakes (replacing the Teves power brake system used from 1988-1990) and convertibles, revised frame bracing for added rigidity.
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 (of which approximately 149 were sold to the public. The remaining units either sold to GM executives, employees or offered to trade schools). 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, is 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, poor product placement (advertising) 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 ... ?
1988-1991 Buick Reatta Coupe and Convertible Features & Specs
(3.8L V6 4-speed Automatic)
Driver Front Airbag (1990-91 models only)
Available Optional Features:
16 Way Power seats (driver's only)
Turning circle: 38.0 ft.
Fuel type: gas
Fuel tank capacity: 18.8 gal.
18 City / 27 Highway MPG