All Fall Down: The Cadillac Allante, The Buick Reatta, and How GM Lost Its Styling Mojo

The short-lived Buick Reatta two-seater may seem like the most innocuous of cars (indeed, that was part of its problem). Behind the Reatta’s placid exterior, however, lay a ferocious internal battle that also gave birth to the Cadillac Allanté, ended the four-decade dominance of the once-mighty GM Design Staff — and set the stage for the decline of GM itself.

1990 Buick Reatta badge

LINES OF SUCCESSION

In 1977, GM Design vice president Bill Mitchell reached the age of 65 and followed his legendary predecessor, Harley Earl, into mandatory retirement. Although he never enjoyed the power that Earl once commanded, Mitchell was a formidable presence within General Motors. Sharp-tongued and stubborn, Mitchell feared no one, and his ferocious temper was as well-honed as his design skills. He was not always easy to get along with, but he upheld the styling leadership that Harley Earl had established back in the 1930s. Mitchell’s leadership played no small part in maintaining GM’s remarkable U.S. market share, which in the year of his retirement was close to 50%.

Mitchell’s chosen successor was Charles M. Jordan, who had been his design director since the sixties. Chuck Jordan had joined General Motors in the late 1940s, becoming head of the Cadillac styling studio in 1958. On Mitchell’s orders, he spent the late sixties as chief stylist of GM’s Opel division in Germany, where he was responsible for the Opel GT and Opel Manta coupe. Like Mitchell, Jordan had strong design skills matched by what long-time colleague Stan Wilen described as an equally formidable temper. While he was greatly respected for his charisma and obvious talent, Jordan’s temperament reportedly made him a number of powerful enemies within the corporate hierarchy, including former Oldsmobile general manager Howard Kehrl, by then a GM board member.

Having been hand-picked by Bill Mitchell was not necessarily to Jordan’s advantage, either. For all Mitchell’s brilliance, he had many faults. Dave Holls and Michael Lamm describe him as a heavy drinker, and stylists Stan Wilen and Jerry Hirshberg (later head of design for Nissan), both Jewish, say Mitchell was a font of racial epithets; Mitchell’s former secretary added that she would have had grounds for a whole raft of sexual harassment suits. The corporation tolerated Mitchell’s behavior, albeit reluctantly, because of his obvious value to the company, but they wanted his successor to be more politic.

In July 1977, the selection committee bypassed Chuck Jordan and named Irv Rybicki as the new design VP. Rybicki had been Mitchell’s chief assistant, with stints in the studios of every automotive division except Buick. According to Wilen, Jordan was widely acknowledged as the better designer, but Rybicki was far more congenial: even-tempered, fair, objective, flexible. Rybicki was a team player, and by his own account, he got along very well with GM president Pete Estes and chairman Tom Murphy. In personality, he was the antithesis of Bill Mitchell.

Mitchell persuaded Rybicki to make Jordan his design director, but it was an uneasy arrangement. Jordan had previously been Rybicki’s boss, and he was reportedly furious at being passed over. GM designers from that period told authors Michael Lamm and Dave Holls (himself a GM veteran) that Rybicki and Jordan were often at cross-purposes, undermining each other’s authority and leaving their staff unsure which way to turn.

BUICK MAKES A MOVE

While that drama unfolded in the Design Center, a different struggle was taking place at Buick headquarters in Flint. Buick chief engineer Lloyd Reuss had recognized that Buick’s traditional upper-middle-class market was increasingly threatened by overseas rivals like BMW and Audi. While those European competitors were significantly more expensive than Buick — more in Cadillac’s price territory — they were winning the hearts and minds of exactly the sort of affluent customers who had once been Buick stalwarts.

Reuss pushed for a transformation of Buick’s increasingly geriatric image, introducing a new line of turbocharged V6 engines (which culminated in the muscular Grand Nationals of the 1980s). He and product planner Jay Qualman also began work on a sporty, two-place Buick, the first Buick two-seater since before the war. It was intended as a statement of intent, showing the world that Buick was no longer an old man’s car.

In 1977, those discussions evolved into tentative plans for a two-seat “L-body” coupe for Buick and Oldsmobile, based on the upcoming FWD J-body sedans. The L-body project was shelved when it became clear that to make business sense, it would need a combined annual volume of at least 100,000 units, a figure that was improbable, at best. In 1978, Reuss departed to become chief engineer of Chevrolet, and the two-seater was dropped.

When Reuss returned to Buick as general manager in 1980, Jay Qualman, now product planning chief, once again brought up the two-seater idea. This time, Qualman suggested basing it on the new downsized FWD E-body (Buick Riviera/Cadillac Eldorado/Oldsmobile Toronado), then in development. Qualman concluded that such a car could be profitable at a volume of only 22,000 units a year, with a very low initial investment.

Reuss pitched the concept to GM president Jim McDonald in the summer of 1981. McDonald was enthusiastic about the idea, particularly since it sounded like it would be a profitable venture, but he declared that the division that really needed a luxury two-seater was Cadillac.

THE PININFARINA PROBLEM

In early 1982, Cadillac started work on the “Callisto” project, eventually named Cadillac Allanté. Like Reuss’s proposed Buick two-seater, it was based mechanically on the FWD E-body, but, unlike the Buick, it was a roadster, aimed directly at the popular Mercedes R107 SL series. To add to its cachet, GM management decided early on that the Callisto/Allanté should be built in Europe, by the prestigious design firm Pininfarina. (Pininfarina had previously built Cadillac’s limited-production 1959-1960 Eldorado Brougham.)

That decision did not sit well with Irv Rybicki, Chuck Jordan, or anyone else in GM Design, particularly when they learned that Pininfarina would be contracted to design the roadster, as well as build it. Concerned about that decision’s effect on his team’s morale, Rybicki insisted that the Cadillac studio be given a few months to put together a competing proposal. GM management agreed, but it was ultimately a wasted effort. Cadillac chief designer Wayne Kady believed that senior management had made up their minds before his team even got started. Indeed, Rybicki was told that no matter how good the in-house design looked, the job was going to the Italians, because management thought Pininfarina would provide a higher level of build quality.

1990 Cadillac Allante front 3q
The Cadillac Allanté had a lengthy trans-Atlantic production line, with bodies assembled by Pininfarina in Italy and shipped back to the Cadillac plant in Hamtramck, Michigan. The complexity of the process no doubt contributed to its formidable price tag, which was over $50,000, nearly twice the price of a contemporary De Ville. Although the Allanté had a V8, early cars had performance very similar to that of the Reatta. The final 1993 model, however, had the 295 horsepower (220 kW) Northstar engine, which gave formidable straight-line performance.

Bill Mitchell or Harley Earl would have fought that decision, but Rybicki reluctantly accepted it and moved on. The effect on his team, however, was considerable. All of GM’s designers had great respect for Pininfarina, but to be told they could not produce a sufficiently prestigious design was a harsh blow. In March 1987, Chuck Jordan told Car and Driver‘s Ray Hutton that it was a touchy subject.

REUSS TO THE RESCUE

Jim McKnight hadn’t said no to the prospect of a Buick two-seater, but Lloyd Reuss knew his concept was in danger of being overshadowed by the Cadillac project. Not long after chairman Roger Smith made the final decision to give the Allanté to Pininfarina, Reuss approached Irv Rybicki about designing a two-seat coupe for Buick. He admitted that he wasn’t sure it had a real shot at production, but asked Rybicki to give it his best shot.

To restore some enthusiasm to his demoralize staff, Rybicki decided to hold a contest to develop Reuss’s design. Friendly internal competition was a useful way to build team spirit, and it occasionally produced memorable results — one such exercise had led to the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. Even if Reuss’s project never got off the ground, Rybicki thought it would help his team get over the bitter disappointment of the Pininfarina situation.

In early 1982, Dave McIntosh, assistant chief designer of Advanced Design Studio 2, won the contest with his sleek, bullet-like rendering. Unfortunately, while Reuss liked McIntosh’s design, it didn’t fit the E-body platform, and the project’s modest budget wouldn’t allow for a new platform. The Advanced studio eventually managed to adapt McIntosh’s design for the E-body by adding long creases from fender peak to fender peak, inspired by the Porsche 944; . Rybicki thought the resultant design was better looking than its Cadillac rival. Some senior GM executives agreed — including then-chairman Roger Smith, giving the project a much better chance of making it to production. The first full-size clay models were completed in January 1983, and the design received management approval in August 1984.

1990 Buick Reatta nameplate
The name “Reatta” was suggested by David North, derived from the Spanish word reata (or riata), meaning “lariat.” The marketing department added the extra T to make it easier to trademark.

(Contrary to some accounts, the Buick Reatta design was not related to Wayne Kady’s rejected Cadillac proposal, which to our knowledge was never shown to the public. In 1986, Car and Driver photographed the clay models of Kady’s design, but Cadillac general manager John Grettenberger refused to allow the photos to be printed, fearing they might undermine the Allanté.)

ARTS AND CRAFTS

The Buick Reatta’s development took place during one of the most tumultuous periods in GM’s history: Roger Smith’s ill-fated attempt to reorganize the corporation, merging the previously independent divisions into three ‘supergroups': Truck & Bus; CPC (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada); and BOC (Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac). At the same time, manufacturing responsibility was being transferred from the Fisher Body Division to the GM Assembly Division (GMAD), which resulted in the early retirement of many of GM’s most experienced manufacturing people.

As a low-volume project, the Buick Reatta risked being lost in the shuffle; it wasn’t a high priority for either the BOC organization or the corporation. Ironically, the Reatta’s redheaded-stepchild status may have been the only reason it survived. Ordinarily, after management approval, a design developed in the Advanced Design studio would be transferred to Production studio, where design engineers would begin the arduous task of transforming paper renderings and clay models into a producible vehicle. Since few people believed it would even be built, the Reatta remained in the Advanced studio throughout its development. Had the Reatta gone through the normal production engineering process, it’s not unlikely that it would have been canceled entirely, particularly given that Buick was in the process of losing its dedicated engineering staff.

Considering the intense controversy surrounding the decision to outsource the Allanté to Pininfarina, it’s ironic that the Reatta also ended up as something of an international project. With resources spread thin, chief project engineer Randy Wightman looked abroad for much of the engineering work, including having the early prototypes built in England by Aston Martin Tickford.

Since it was a low priority, finding somewhere to build the Reatta was also problematic. Although the Reatta was based on the E-body Riviera, it was different enough that it didn’t make sense to build it on the same line as the other E-body cars. Instead, GM established the Reatta Craft Centre in Lansing, a former Oldsmobile axle plant and foundry transformed into a workshop. The Craft Centre did not have a traditional assembly line; instead, partly completed cars were shuttled between nine separate “craft stations.” It used far more hand labor than was customary for GM by that time, but it greatly reduced the investment cost, an attractive advantage.

THE SAWED-OFF RIVIERA

The Buick Reatta shared much of its mechanical package with the newly downsized 1986-87 Buick Riviera. Although it was 9.5 inches (241 mm) shorter than the Riviera, the Reatta was still relatively large: 183.5 inches (4,661 mm) on a 98.5-inch (2,502mm) wheelbase. (Curiously, it was actually 4.9 inches (125 mm) longer than the far more expensive Cadillac Allanté, although the Allanté rode a slightly longer wheelbase.)

Despite its smaller size and the use of injection-molded plastic fenders, the Reatta was not significantly lighter than the Riviera, tipping the scales at a little less than 3,400 pounds (1,540 kg). Suspension was largely identical to the E-body’s, as well, with struts at all four wheels and a transverse leaf spring at the rear. Four-wheel discs were standard, as was an anti-lock braking system.

1990 Buick Reatta front
The Buick Reatta’s structural kinship to the contemporary Riviera is not obvious; the Riviera had exposed quad headlamps and a prominent grille. The most obvious consequence of the Reatta’s E-body heritage is the pronounced front overhang, which is longer than it would have been if the car had had its own platform. As a result, the Reatta looks stubbier than it actually is — it’s 7 inches (178 mm) longer than a C4 Corvette.

Like the Riviera, the Reatta’s sole powertrain was Buick’s venerable 3,791 cc (231 cu. in.) V6 linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. The V6 made 165 hp (123 kW), enough to push the Reatta from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit under 10 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 122 mph (201 km/h).

Another element inherited from the Riviera was the controversial Electronic Control Center, which absorbed radio and climate controls into a touchscreen pod, accompanied by digital instruments. It was widely panned as unnecessarily complex and difficult to use.

THE BUICK REATTA: “A BUICK WHAT?”

Since returning to Buick, Lloyd Reuss had resumed his efforts to make the division into a sort of American Audi. By 1983, he had successfully introduced an array of sporty T-Type models for each of Buick’s lines, and the turbocharged Regal Grand Nationals were emerging as some of the era’s hottest cars. It worked — from 1980 to 1983, Buick was third in domestic sales for the first time since 1956.

Reuss was amply rewarded for his efforts. In January 1984, he was promoted to head of the new CPC (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada) group, and his chief engineer, Ed Mertz, became Buick’s general manager.

Roger Smith soon put a halt to Reuss’s ambitions of competing with the high-end European brands. GM management felt that rivaling Audi, BMW, and Mercedes was a job for Cadillac, not Buick. They also determined that Buick had no business building sporty cars, which was supposed to be the role of Pontiac; there would be no replacement for models like the Regal Grand National, which ended its run in 1987. Ed Mertz was ordered to restore Buick to its traditional position as a conservative, middle-class American sedan.

1990 Buick Reatta rear 3q
The Buick Reatta has a certain gawkiness in profile or from the three-quarter view. The odd proportions are, again, a consequence of its E-body origins, which make both the rear overhang and the couple (the distance between the driver’s hip joint and the rear axle) longer than they would otherwise have been.

If GM’s management had an idea of what a Buick was supposed to be, that identity was no longer obvious to the buying public. Since the 1930s, GM’s different makes had shared body shells, but its talented designers had usually done a good job of making the cars look distinct. As a cost-saving measure, however, the different makes now had to share most of their sheet metal, as well as their internal structure. The result was an array of look-alike models that earned GM a thorough drubbing in the press. Since the divisions no longer had distinct engineering staffs, there wasn’t much mechanical difference between them, either.

All this confusion left the Buick Reatta in a very ambiguous position. Lloyd Reuss and Jay Qualman had meant it as a statement of intent. The question now was, intent to what?

SOUL SEARCHING

At Buick’s November 1987 press preview for the Reatta, Car and Driver editor Rich Ceppos asked Jay Qualman — now Buick’s general marketing manager — to explain how the Reatta fit into Buick’s new conservative, family-oriented image. Qualman replied that it was the kind of practical but sporty car that “a fairly well-heeled guy could give his wife.”

It was not a confidence-inspiring answer, and the car itself seemed similarly equivocal. Buick advertising made no claims that the Reatta was a sports car; marketing materials called it a personal car, perhaps hoping to evoke memories of the original 1955 Ford Thunderbird. The enthusiast press found the Reatta pleasant enough, but hardly sporty. Consumer-oriented critics thought the ride was too stiff for a Buick, and many reviewers were annoyed by the digital dash. Some also complained that the Reatta lacked the assembly quality befitting its $25,000 price tag.

1990 Buick Reatta rear
The Buick Reatta’s full-width “light panel” taillights were inspired by the rear treatment of the contemporary Porsche 911. Requiring 14 light bulbs, they were nearly rejected on cost grounds; keeping the Reatta’s price within reason was a major challenge for Buick.

When the Reatta made its public debut in January 1988, there was a brief flurry of interest, but sales for the first shortened model year were not impressive. Sales were only 4,708, well short of Buick’s hopes. The Reatta’s first full model year was not much better; 1989 sales totaled 7,009. Buick didn’t help the cause by raising the Reatta’s base price from $25,000 to $26,700, just as the modest initial demand was waning.

The Cadillac Allanté, introduced in 1987, was not doing any better. Allanté sales were only 3,363 for 1987, 2,569 for 1988, and 3,296 for 1989. Embarrassingly, the Mercedes 560SL outsold both the Reatta and the Allanté by a fair margin, despite an elderly design and a $60,000 price tag. Well-heeled buyers were clearly unimpressed with the snob appeal of either the Cadillac or the Buick brands, while their elevated prices were more than domestic loyalists were willing to pay.

BUICK REATTA ROADSTER

Buick had mentioned a Reatta convertible when the Reatta bowed in 1988, but the roadster did not appear until nearly two years later. Much of the delay was because the E-body had never been intended as a roofless car, requiring a new round of structural engineering work to provide acceptable body stiffness. The design work was largely done by the American Sunroof Corporation, which had built the limited-production Buick Riviera convertibles of 1982-1985, but the convertibles were built alongside the coupes in the Lansing Craft Centre.

1990 Buick Reatta roof
The roof of the Buick Reatta coupe looks almost like a detachable hardtop. A removable hardtop was optional for the Reatta’s Allanté cousin, but no such accessory was offered for the Reatta convertible. Despite its price premium, the Reatta convertible didn’t have a power top, although it did have a power pull-down mechanism to cinch it against the tonneau.

Buick hoped that the arrival of the convertible, which finally bowed as a 1990 model, would spark interest in the slow-selling Reatta. 1990 was indeed the Reatta’s best year, but that still meant only 8,515 sales. The convertible, which carried a formidable $34,995 price tag, accounted for 2,312 of those sales.

THE END OF THE LINE

By the time the 1991 models debuted in the fall of 1990, it was clear the Buick Reatta was going nowhere. Ed Mertz decided it was a lost cause, and recommended its cancellation. 1991 sales were only 1,519, including 305 convertibles.

On August 1, 1990, Lloyd Reuss became president of General Motors. In early March of 1991, he announced the cancellation of the car he had struggled so long to build. Total Reatta production for four model years was 21,751 — well short of the 22,000 a year Jay Qualman once determined it would take to make the two-seater financially viable. The Allanté’s fate was sealed at the same time, although it survived through the 1993 model year.

In the wake of the Reatta’s demise, Reuss announced that the Reatta Craft Centre — now renamed Lansing Craft Centre — would built a groundbreaking electric car, which eventually emerged as the 1998 GM EV1.

1990 Buick Reatta convertible front 3q
Buick had hoped the convertible, introduced in 1990, would revive Reatta sales. Unfortunately, its lofty $35,000 price tag limited interest and only 2,437 Buick Reattas were sold in 1990 and 1991.

POSTMORTEM

Conceived and developed largely outside of GM’s usual design process, the Buick Reatta was nonetheless emblematic of GM cars of its era. It was pleasant but thoroughly bland, a potentially exciting concept watered down to aw-shucks mediocrity. Its uniqueness and rarity have already made it a minor collectible, but it arouses none of the passion of the true classic.

More vivid performance might have helped; in 1989, Buick built a handful of prototype Turbo Reattas, using engines similar to those of the limited-production GNX, but by then, Buick was no longer in the turbo business. Buick’s retrenchment did nothing for its sales, which dropped from a peak of over one million units to just over 376,000 for 1991.

The blandness of the Reatta was characteristic of Irv Rybicki’s tenure as VP of styling, which lasted until his retirement in October 1986. In their 1996 book, Dave Holls and Michael Lamm blamed Rybicki for much of the mediocrity that overtook GM styling in the eighties, charging that he was too willing to acquiesce to the demands of the financiers and manufacturing people. Rybicki was the design chief GM wanted, they argued, but not the one they needed. Indeed, Rybicki’s reign coincided with sharp a sharp drop in GM’s market share, which tumbled from more than 46% in 1977 to 35% in 1986.

Chuck Jordan endured nine painful years as Rybicki’s reluctant understudy, but when Rybicki retired, the VP slot was Jordan’s at last. Jordan quickly attempted to redress the banality that had crept into the Design Staff’s work under Rybicki ‘s leadership, beginning with an impressive array of show cars for 1987’s Teamwork & Technology exposition. By then, however, it was almost too late. During the past decade, the balance of power within GM had shifted irrevocably. Under Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, Design had become preeminent, and the engineers were forced to follow the stylists’ lead; now, accounting and finance dominated GM’s product decisions.

Both Chuck Jordan and his eventual successor, Wayne Cherry, produced some good-looking cars in their time, along with a few memorable disasters, but the days of GM’s styling leadership were long past. While we wouldn’t call many of GM’s current North American cars ugly, few show much of the corporation’s one-time panache, and to our eyes, that compromised spirit still prevails.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Much of our information on the politics surrounding Irv Rybicki’s appointment as VP of Styling came from Chapter 13 of Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997). It should be noted that Holls was a former GM design director, so while he wrote from an informed point of view, he was not necessarily a neutral observer. Irv Rybicki’s perspective, including his recollections of the design of the Reatta, came from his 1985 interview with Dave Crippen of the Benson Ford Research Center, 27 June 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/Rybicki_interview.htm, accessed 26 March 2009, and his conversation with C. Edson Armi in The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988).

Additional information on the development of the Reatta came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1988-1991 Buick Reatta,” HowStuffWorks.com, 16 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1988-1991-buick-reatta.htm, accessed 26-27 March 2009), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); and the website of the Buick Reatta Division of the Buick Club of America, 25 August 2007, www.reatta. org/ Default1.htm, accessed 27 March 2009. Some information on the Allanté came from John Barach’s Cadillac History website, Motor Era, June 2002, www.motorera. com/cadillac/ index.htm, accessed 26-27 March 2009.

We also consulted Patrick Bedard, “Preview: Cadillac Allanté,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 12 (June 1986), pp. 38-43; Rich Ceppos, “Cadillac Allanté: In Italy they say ‘bene'” (and the sidebars by Csaba Csere and Ray Hutton), Car and DriverVol. 32, No. 9 (March 1987), pp. 81-89; Rich Ceppos, “Buick Reatta: Sports-car style without sports-car pain” (which was the source of Jay Qualman’s remark about the intended audience of the Reatta) and Arthur St. Antoine, “A Buick Is Born: The evolution of the rakish new Reatta,” both in Car and Driver Vol. 33, No. 8 (February 1988), pp. 59-65; and Rich Ceppos, “Buick Reatta Convertible: A Buick fit for the Riviera” and Patrick Bedard, “Cadillac Allanté versus Mercedes 560SL,” both from Car and Driver Vol. 34, No. 8 (February 1989), pp. 36-38 and pp. 46-51, respectively.


20 Comments

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  1. Great story.

    Maybe it’s too soon, but I’d love to read the Ate Up With Motor treatment of the Aztek story.

    As I understand it, 90% of the vehicle’s intent was lost between the concept and the implementation. The plan was for and active lifestyle feature-laden SUV, but the minivan was the only platform available.

    Sounds typical for engineering/accounting dominated picture of GM that you’ve painted here.

    1. That’s my understanding, as well. Of course, the other great example is the Fiero, which is a soap opera of its own.

  2. (on a different note…)

    Born in the early 80s, the soulless 4 speed auto, FWD, ~150hp, 3.something-L V6, badge-engineered general-purpose transportation-mobile is my mental picture of GM cars. The Camaro and Vette were mere exceptions.

    It’s only in more recent years that I’ve learned the history of some of GMs flukes (i.e. interesting, sporty cars other than the Camaro/Vette).

    One could fill a museum with cars exemplifying the GM The Could Have Been:
    Post-redesign Fiero
    Syclone/Typhoon
    Grand National/GNX
    ZR1 Corvette (incredible motor)
    Turbo Trans Am (hey…they tried)
    Turbo Sprint

    …ummm…I’m sure there are a few more…

    1. Don’t forget the current Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky/Opel GT.

      The thing that really burns about the Grand National/GNX is that Lloyd Reuss was absolutely right about Buick’s market position, and the fact that its traditional buyers were now gravitating to Audi, BMW, and later Acura. The GNs were a little crude, but they worked, and their effect on Buick’s image paid off in sales. After the GNs appeared in 1982-83, Buick sales hit record highs — 987,980 for 1984, 1,002,906 for 1985, 850,103 for 1986. In 1988, the first year of Buick’s “no more turbos” retrenchment, it was down to 458,768.

      The Corvette didn’t really [i]need[/i] the ZR-1, and I’m not at all convinced ANYONE needed the Syclone/Typhoon (amusing as they are, I have a kneejerk reaction against trucks and SUVs of any kind), but I think Buick needed the GNs, and abandoning them doomed it to fuddy-duddy status.

      1. As someone who learned to drive in a 3/4 ton Suburban, I’ve got a soft-spot for SUVs.

        Re: the Sy/Tys…It was never about need, it was about awesome. After all, the Syclone did 0-60 in 4.6 seconds…faster than today’s WRX STI or Mitsu EVO. It was one of the quickest cars in the world when it launched.

        The CTS-V, G8 and Kappa platform are all doomed to be remembered as incredible cars, but poor-selling footnotes in the history of the current GM.

        1. I’m not really that impressed by the CTS or the G8. The CTS-V certainly has astounding performance, but it’s really not to my taste. The G8 is a performance bargain by some standards, but seeing it leaves me utterly cold. Its styling is fussy and contrived, and even at a distance of ten feet, it has a feeling of cheapness that has often undone otherwise promising GM cars. I wasn’t impressed with the interior, either, and its gas mileage is alarming, performance notwithstanding. If I put a very high premium on acceleration, I would be more interested, but it’s not a huge priority for me, which knocks them down to also-ran status.

          Stylistically, both feel very heavy-handed. One of the things that makes early Bill Mitchell-era cars (say, ’62 through ’67) look so good is that they were pretty low on rococo bullshit. Looking at, for instance, a mid-sixties Bonneville, there’s a great unity of form that would not have embarrassed Pininfarina, with a minimum of gimmicks. The cars weren’t great dynamically (shaky structure, awful brakes, dubious handling), but their appearance was effortlessly confident. By comparison, the only GM car today that comes close to that is the Solstice, which is a voluptuous shape that still suffers from half-assed detailing. What I see with GM over and over is either anodyne blandness (like the Holden-based GTO, which is totally inoffensive, but looks like it should be wearing Hertz stickers) or a good basic shape that’s been compromised by awkward details. The Cobalt coupe is a good example. From the rear 3q, it’s got a decent shape, but when you look closer (or if you look at the front, with those ghastly headlights), you start to frown, like finding a piece of fruit and then realizing it’s already moldy.

  3. The Buick Reatta looks promising but only if it was made lower, a little bit longer and wider…
    Cars back then were parodies of boxiness. Especially the Ford LTD, the Cadillac Allante. It’s surprising that the Allante’s design just look too ordinary to be Pininfarina-designed.
    The only design that worked as far I can think of in that era was the 1986 or 1987 Ford Taurus. For me, that car looks cool and aerodynamic, forcing GM to redesign its cars for some long time.
    The result was good. That 1991 or 1992 Caprice looks beautiful and inoffensive, in my opinion.

    1. [quote]It’s surprising that the Allante’s design just look too ordinary to be Pininfarina-designed.[/quote]

      The Allanté and the Reatta suffered the same basic problem: no matter what the stylists came up with, they still had to use the E-body platform, which was very upright and sedan-ish.

      GM was very dismissive of the Taurus for a long time. Back in 1978, when GM downsized its intermediate (A-body) cars, they offered two different body styles: a rounded, fastback “Aeroback” body (which looked like a hatchback, although it wasn’t) and a more conventional notchback with an upright “formal” roof. The Aerobacks were perfectly hideous — my grandparents had a ’79 Oldsmobile Cutlass in that style — and so buyers chose the notchback. GM concluded that customers didn’t like aerodynamic styling, and insisted on giving their subsequent designs very upright, formal roofs. It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s (after Chuck Jordan took over) that GM made a serious effort to give their cars a sleeker look. That’s when you got cars like the 1992-96 Caprice.

  4. Every automotive product designer wants to design a stylish, over powered two seat roadster. They do draw gawk-rs to the shows and sales rooms. What American manufacturers have forgotten today is what in the sales offices really sells. It is cost effective, serviceable, safe, reliable personal transportation. A vehicle that makes the owner feel good driving. One only has to look at where the buying public is spending his money I.E. Honda, Toyota, and KIA. Now there’s a lot of styling! Three companies with minor styling changes year to year. They make their major changes in engineering quality, safety and reliability. It is easy pick on designers for works with their names on. The buying public needs to know it’s very difficult to implement an original concept to a sale-able product. All of the designers and managers mentioned above worked very, very hard to get those vehicles rolling down the road. Lets see you do it!

    1. I think it’s also important to remember that a lot of design disasters have very little to do with the decisions of the stylists themselves. The ’62 Dodges and Plymouths, for example, were a last-minute redesign of Virgil Exner’s already-approved designs, performed against Exner’s will and despite his vehement protests. The controversial boattail Riviera came about because Buick general manager Lee Mays didn’t like the design and insisted it share the B-body, declaring that even though he was stuck with the car, he wasn’t going to spend any more money on it than absolutely necessary.

  5. [quote=Patty]It’s surprising that the Allante’s design just look too ordinary to be Pininfarina-designed.[/quote]

    You’ve got to remember that the ubiquitous STS and Eldorado that look like the Allante were actually later, and explicitly taking their cue from the Pininfarina design. They don’t work as well in person because they were designed in-house and had to accomodate impurities like rear seats, but when the Allante came out I can’t think of anything in the US that looked like it.

    To my eye the Allante is the last execution of the squared-off Farina look that started with the Peugeot 504 coupe, then the Fiat 130 coupe, and then went into the 365 GT4 2+2 and successor models. Why Pininfarina turned back to this look 15 years later for the Allante is a mystery to me, but it seems clear at a glance that the Cadillac is not like the new, angular PF non-sports models of its decade, a look that I think starts with the Peugeot 205 and goes into the 405 and Alfa 164, for example.

    1. [quote]Why Pininfarina turned back to this look 15 years later for the Allante is a mystery to me[/quote]

      As with the Reatta, Pininfarina was limited by the hardpoints of the E-body platform. My assumption is that they looked at the platform they were working with, and decided to develop something deliberately crisp, rather than attempt to build a swoopy shape on a basically rectilinear structure.

      I recognize that it’s a matter of taste, but I’ve never been terribly fond of the more angular Pininfarina designs. I agree with the late Michael Sedgwick that Pininfarina’s aesthetics could become very severe, and I think cars like the Fiat 130 coupé are a case in point. I know some people like it a lot, but, as with a lot of Giugiaro’s more plebeian designs, it’s about 20% too rigid for my liking.

    1. Well, the article ended up being moved at one point for technical reasons, so the original comments unfortunately did not survive.

  6. i have an 89, still no rust no dents. interior is poor from years of use and miles are high but it still runs and drives like a champ!

  7. I traded in my 1990 Reatta with 77,000 miles in 2011. The bottom had rusted out, too many Cleveland winters. I LOVED the car, still miss I; my 328i BMW, though certainly a nice ride, isn’t as special.

  8. I have a 1989 Reatta Coupe with 27,700 miles. Does anyone remember the three names under consideration for the Reatta, one was Magnum. I recently spoke with David North – Head of GM’s Advanced Design 2 studio during development of the Reatta.

    He related a story about the reluctance to name it the Reatta. Reuss confused it with Regatta and wanted another name. Although North came up with the name, originally spelled Reata, he needed a little help from a woman that, I believe, worked in Buick marketing that also believed "Reatta" was the best choice. To prove Reatta was best suited for the new Buick, she held a rather unscientific test to see what name was most liked by the general public. She put the three names, up for consideration, above different turnstiles to see which one most people would gravitate to. Most people went through the Reatta turnstile helping to sway others to picking that name. Later, when North asked her how she chose which turnstile got Reatta above it, she told him most people will go through the middle turnstile so that was the one chosen for Reatta. The Buick brass was suckered just a tad.

    Mr. North also told me about the quality of the Reatta. It had a unique build process with the car on a platform large enough for eight craftsmen performing their tasks instead of the usual assembly line. When the Reatta was completed, it was the only Buick model that scored 100 out of 100 points. Apparently all models were scored at the end with 86 being a minimum passing score. Not a single Reatta had to go back through for any corrections.

    At 25 years old, my Reatta runs flawlessly and is a joy to drive. The touch screen, that controls radio and climate, works just like it is supposed to, 25 years later. When you close the door, this Reatta still has the sound of a new car. The touch screen has a feature that will even diagnose any problem that arises. The Reatta could have been a Cadillac, I’m very happy it ended up being a BUICK!

  9. I remember the first time I saw an Allante. I thought, "that car is far too good looking to be a Cadillac." The Caddy badge on the nose simply did not compute. Cadillacs, to my way of thinking, are bloated, clumpy, nauseating land-yachts with all of the style of Brylcreem and the appeal of cold oatmeal. That car struck me as too lithe and stylish to fit the silver-haired Floridan image that clings to the marque. While the design may seem conservative and stodgy to some readers here, compared to what normally wears those laurel leaves, it’s downright sexy.

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