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.
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.
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 still a sensitive issue.
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.
(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 and merge 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 the 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 under 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.
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; thus, 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.
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?
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.
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 those cars’ 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.
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.
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 1 million units to around 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 finance 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 Driver Vol. 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.