1988 Buick Reatta convertible. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
When Buick’s former chief engineer, Lloyd Reuss, became general manager of Buick in 1980, he wanted to add a two-passenger Buick to the line-up to enhance Buick’s image and act as a showroom traffic generator. It was also hoped it would lower the average age of Buick buyers.
Reuss was not alone among General Motors executives in liking two-seaters. Chevrolet’s two-seater Corvette had been a mainstay since 1953, and the icon of the brand. And during the 1980s, Pontiac launched its sporty mid-engine, rear-drive Fiero, and Cadillac its luxurious front-drive Allante. The Fiero sold reasonably well, but Allante sales were a disappointment to Cadillac.
When the Reatta was conceived, Buick hadn’t really settled on the up-scale luxury family car niche it now occupies. It was still flirting with performance cars like the Grand National and T-type. The sporty Buick Reatta, as the two-seater would be called, was to complement that thrust. Buick hoped that it would be, in effect, a more affordable version of the Mercedes-Benz SL.
The original outline of the Reatta was established in 1982, and the design was pretty well finalized by ’84. To save money and shorted development time, the Reatta drew heavily on the existing Buick Riviera’s hardware.
This meant that it had unit construction and front-wheel drive, with Buick’s 165 horsepower 3.8-litre 3800, pushrod V6 engine mounted transversely, driving through a four-speed automatic transaxle. While well known and well proved, these components hardly projected the high-tech, sporty car image of the Mercedes.
Shortening the Riviera’s platform reduced the wheelbase 241 mm (9.5 in.) to 2,502 mm (98.5 in.). Suspension, steering and brake systems were also borrowed from the Riviera, with modifications. All wheels were independently sprung via struts and coils in front, and struts and a transverse plastic leaf sprung at the rear. Brakes were four-wheel disc with anti-lock.
Since GM had no spare production line capacity, the Reatta was built in the “Reatta Craft Center,” a converted axle plant in Lansing, Michigan. Rather than on a traditional assembly line, Reattas moved from one work station to another on automatically guided motorized platforms. The assemblers controlled the platforms’ movement, and had much longer than the traditional 30 to 60 seconds to complete their tasks.
1990 Buick Reatta Coupe. Click image to enlarge
The Reatta’s styling was new, and well executed. The front end was clean, with pop-up headlamps and an unobtrusive under-the-bumper grille. The galvanized steel body (except for plastic front fenders) was smooth and well proportioned, with a black accent line/rub-rail running completely around the perimeter. The tail was short, and the Reatta was a trim 4,643 mm (182.8 in.) long.
The Reatta was luxurious inside, the only jarring note being a too-demanding electronic cathode ray tube instrument panel, which one touched to operate the accessories. Lifted intact from the Riviera, its square shape clashed with the Reatta’s smooth interior curves.
The Reatta was introduced for 1988 as a coupe only, but by this time Buick had decided that the division’s marketing image would project “substantial, powerful and mature premium American motorcars.” The sporty two-seater seemed a little out of keeping with this motto, hardly the type of car that Buick shoppers aspired to.
When it was subjected to performance testing by the motoring magazines, the 1,533 kg (3,380 lb) Reatta proved to have quite adequate acceleration. Car and Driver (2/88) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration of 9.1 seconds. Top speed was 196 km/h (122 mph).
They did complain, however, that while the Reatta was smooth, comfortable and quiet, it lacked what they called a sports car soul. Soul is undoubtedly difficult to quantify, but sales numbers aren’t, and during its first model year Buick sold just over 4,700 Reattas, far below the hoped for 15,000. Sales climbed to 7,009 the following year.
Buick made some changes in the Reatta for 1990. A convertible arrived, although somewhat anachronistically it was fitted with a manually operated top. The Riviera instruments were replaced, and a driver’s air bag was added. All of these helped perk up sales to 8,515, which was better, but still disappointing.
The Reatta was carried into 1991, with horsepower upped to 170, but alas its future was doomed. After only 1,618 ’91s had been produced, Buick gave up and discontinued it.
Although the Reatta had been a good enough car, it had never really caught on. It didn’t appeal to traditional Buick buyers, and it couldn’t attract customers away from other marques with more established sporty or prestige images. Also, it was bucking the reality that the market for two-seater cars is a limited and specialized one.
While not a commercial success, the Reatta was a lovely little, nice driving car. It is almost sure to be a sought-after collectible, particularly the convertible of which only 2,437 were made.
In that regard it harks back to the two-seater Thunderbirds. Even though Ford made a lot more money on four-seater Birds, the two-seaters are still the favourite collectibles.