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 Jordan was greatly respected for his charisma and obvious talent, his 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. He was 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. Both Rybicki and Jordan were clearly very skilled, but Rybicki was by far the more congenial of the two: even-tempered, fair, objective, flexible. Rybicki was a team player and by his own account 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 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 planners Don Sullivan, Tom Patrick, and Jay Qualman also began work on a sporty two-place Buick, intended to show the world that Buick was no longer an old man’s car.
The first iteration of that idea, conceived around 1977, was a tentative plan for a new two-seat coupe to be shared by Buick and Oldsmobile. Dubbed “L-body,” it was to be mechanically based on the upcoming FWD J-body sedans, powered by a four-cylinder engine mounted ahead of the rear wheels, much like Pontiac’s conceptually similar P-car. Despite its commonality with the J- and X-cars, the project’s likely break-even level — around 100,000 units combined, an improbable figure for a two-seater or even a 2+2 — was still too high to make sense. The project was canceled after Reuss departed in 1978 to become chief engineer of Chevrolet.
Qualman, who was subsequently promoted to head of Buick product planning, did not forget about the two-seater idea and broached it again after Reuss became Buick’s new general manager in December 1980. This time, Qualman suggested basing the two-seater not on the J-car, but rather on the downsized FWD E-body (Buick Riviera/Cadillac Eldorado/Oldsmobile Toronado) platform then in development for a mid-decade launch. Using the E-body platform would bring the project’s break-even level to about one-fifth that of the abortive L-body’s, which made for a much stronger business case.
In mid-1981, Reuss pitched this idea to GM president Jim McDonald, who responded enthusiastically, saying it sounded like a profitable, relatively low-risk venture. The concept also sparked McDonald’s interest in a related project for a division that needed such a car even more than Buick did: Cadillac.
THE PININFARINA PROBLEM
While Reuss’s Buick two-seater was intended to be a prestige piece, Cadillac had a very specific target in mind: the popular Mercedes-Benz R107 SL roadsters. Introduced in 1971, the R107 had become the gold standard for high-end two-seat convertibles, inevitably inspiring a good deal of envy among Cadillac dealers.
In early 1982, Cadillac began work on its own two-seat roadster, initially codenamed “Callisto” and eventually called Cadillac Allanté. Like Reuss’s proposed Buick two-seater, the Callisto/Allanté was based mechanically on the FWD E-body, although the Cadillac was intended strictly as an open car.
To add to its cachet, GM management decided early on that the Callisto/Allanté should be built in Italy by the prestigious design firm Pininfarina. This was not a wholly new idea — Pininfarina had previously built Cadillac’s limited-production 1959-1960 Eldorado Brougham — but the Eldorado Brougham had been styled in Detroit. This time, GM decided the new car should be designed as well as built in Turin.
As you might expect, that decision did not sit well with Rybicki, Jordan, or anyone else in GM Design. GM’s designers admired Pininfarina as much as anyone did (and had borrowed plenty of styling concepts from Turin), but the idea of sending such an important design — and for a Cadillac, no less — out of house was a bitter pill to swallow.
Concerned about the effect on his team’s morale, Rybicki insisted that the Cadillac studio be given a few months to put together a competing proposal. Senior management agreed, but it was largely a token gesture. Cadillac chief designer Wayne Kady believed that a decision had already been made before his team even got started; indeed, Rybicki was told that no matter how good Cadillac’s in-house design looked, the job was going to the Italians, in part because management thought Pininfarina would provide a level of assembly quality and detail finish Cadillac couldn’t match.
Bill Mitchell or Harley Earl would have fought that decision, but Rybicki reluctantly accepted it and moved on. Some of the designers involved remained understandably unhappy about the whole issue for years afterward, stung by the implication that they couldn’t produce a design as prestigious or as high-quality as the Italians.
REUSS TO THE RESCUE
Although Reuss had received preliminary authorization for the Buick two-seater, he knew the project 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 Rybicki about designing a two-seat coupe for Buick, cautioning Rybicki that its production was by no means assured.
Seeing the project as a way to restore some enthusiasm to his demoralized staff, Rybicki decided to hold a contest to develop Reuss’s two-seater. 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.
The winning design, the work of Advanced Design Studio 2 assistant chief designer Dave McIntosh, was very attractive, but its curvaceous shape was incompatible with the E-body platform’s structural hardpoints. Making the body sides more upright helped, but made the design look a trifle bland. (The clay models from this period look something like the two-door notchback version of Nissan’s later S13 Silvia/240SX coupe or the first-generation Saturn SC.)
To restore some visual distinction in that area, Advanced Design Studio 2 chief David North and designer Ted Polak finally decided to adopt a sharp crease along the tops of the front fenders, continuing through the beltline and rear fenders and wrapping around the rear deck. North says this feature was inspired by the Porsche 944, although the design otherwise did not look especially Porsche-like.
Rybicki liked the results and thought the revised design was better-looking than the Cadillac two-seater. Some senior GM executives agreed — including Smith — which greatly improved the project’s production chances. It received styling approval in May 1983.
(Contrary to some accounts, the Buick Reatta design was not related to Kady’s rejected Cadillac proposal, which to our knowledge was never shown to the public. In fact, in 1986, Cadillac general manager John Grettenberger refused to allow Car and Driver to release photos of the clay models of Kady’s design, 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: 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. However, since few people believed it would even be built, the Reatta remained in the Advanced studio even after receiving production approval in August 1984. 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 the car was such 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 transformed Oldsmobile’s former axle plant and foundry in Lansing into a nine-station workshop called the Reatta Craft Centre. In place of a conventional assembly line, a motorized, automated electric cart carried the partially completed car from station to station. This unusual approach used far more hand labor than was customary for GM, but it greatly reduced the investment cost, an attractive advantage for a low-volume product.
THE SAWED-OFF RIVIERA
The Buick Reatta shared much of its mechanical package with the newly downsized 1986-87 Buick Riviera. Although 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, the Buick Reatta 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 for the front 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 colorful, but widely panned as unnecessarily complex and difficult to use.
Both Buick and the design team had envisioned a drop-top Reatta from an early stage, but engineering problems with bolstering the E-body platform for roofless duty (and perhaps a desire to avoid perceived competition with the Allanté) meant the Reatta would be launched only as a coupe.
THE BUICK REATTA BOWS
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 No. 3 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. Soon afterward, Roger Smith ordered 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, and that Buick had no business building sporty cars, which was supposed to be the role of Pontiac. Therefore, there would be no replacement for models like the Regal Grand National, which ended its run in 1987, and 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, Qualman — by then Buick’s advertising director — cautiously avoided describing the Reatta as a sports car, instead characterizing it as a luxury two-seater emphasizing comfort and practicality over outright performance. The division’s marketing materials called the Reatta a personal car, perhaps hoping to evoke memories of the similarly described 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
That was an honest assessment, but not necessarily an inspiring one, which could also be said of the car itself. The Reatta was not unattractive, but its structural kinship with the E-body Riviera made for curious proportions that were more interesting than beautiful. The Reatta’s straight-line performance was perfectly adequate, but little better than the Riviera’s and a far cry from that of the now-departed turbo cars, particularly the ferocious GNX. There was good grip and reasonable handling composure, but the Reatta wasn’t sharp enough to be truly sporty and yet was a little stiff-legged for a luxury car. Moreover, while the body structure was impressively stout, fit-and-finish didn’t always befit the car’s $25,000 price tag.
There was a brief flurry of public interest when the Reatta went on sale in January 1988, but total sales for the first shortened model year were not impressive; the tally was only 4,708, well short of Buick’s original target. The Reatta’s first full model year wasn’t much better. Total sales for 1989 amounted to only 7,009, less than half of Buick’s production target. 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 a year earlier, 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’s last hope for the Reatta was the convertible, which belated arrived for the 1990 model year. Much of the development work was done by the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC), which had built the limited-production Buick Riviera convertibles of 1982–1985, but the Reatta convertible was built alongside the coupe at the Reatta Craft Centre in Lansing.
The convertible was arguably the prettiest iteration of the Reatta. Unfortunately, despite the extensive work Buick and ASC had done on beefing up the E-body platform to compensate for the lack of a fixed roof, the ragtop noticeably compromised the coupe’s otherwise admirable structural rigidity. The only aspect of the convertible that was stiffer than on the coupe was the sticker price: a gulp-inducing $34,995, almost 25% more than the fixed-head Reatta. The Reatta convertible was a pleasant cruiser despite its shakes, but so was Chrysler’s J-body LeBaron convertible, which could be had for less than $20,000 and consequently proved far more popular.
1990 was indeed the Reatta’s best year, but that still meant only 8,515 sales, of which 2,312 were convertibles. That wouldn’t be enough to keep the Reatta alive much longer.
THE END OF THE LINE
Even before the 1991 models debuted in the fall of 1990, it was clear that the Buick Reatta was going nowhere. Ed Mertz reluctantly recommended its cancellation, judging the Reatta a lost cause. 1991 sales were only 1,519, including 305 convertibles.
On August 1, 1990, Lloyd Reuss became president of General Motors. On March 5 of the following year, he announced the demise 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 projected. The Allanté’s fate was sealed at the same time, although it survived through the 1993 model year.
The Reatta’s demise did not immediately mean the closure of its unusual production facility, which was renamed Lansing Craft Centre. Reuss announced that the Craft Centre would be tasked to build the corporation’s groundbreaking new 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 also did nothing for the division’s 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 A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, 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. Given the circumstances of the time, we don’t know that he would have had much choice — had Rybicki proved less cooperative, he might well have been ousted in favor of someone more compliant — but his tenure produced only a modest number of memorable designs and coincided with a precipitous drop in GM’s market share, which tumbled from more than 46% in 1977 to 35% in 1986. Styling excellence had always been GM’s fall-back, so its erosion in that era was keenly felt.
The tenure of Chuck Jordan, who took over in 1986 after nine painful years as Rybicki’s reluctant understudy, brought a renewed sense of energy to GM’s designs, beginning with an impressive array of show cars for 1987’s Teamwork & Technology exposition. However, the balance of power had shifted, perhaps irrevocably. Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell had created a unique climate of styling primacy, where engineers were obliged to follow designers’ lead as much as the reverse. By the late eighties, GM’s product decisions were no longer dominated by styling or engineering, but by accounting and finance and the triumph of numbers over product.
Both 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, the confident strut of the Mitchell era. The cars themselves may be better, sometimes dramatically so, but to our eyes and our tastes, a 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), Auto ’90 Vol. 516 No. 1 (Fall 1989), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Rich Ceppos, “Buick Reatta Convertible: A Buick fit for the Riviera,” Car and Driver Vol. 34, No. 8 (February 1989), pp. 36-38; and “Buick Reatta: Sports-car style without sports-car pain,” Car and Driver Vol. 33, No. 8 (February 1988), pp. 59-65; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History, Second Edition (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1987); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw, Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years (Lansing, MI: Oldsmobile Division of General Motors Corporation, 1996); Larry Griffin, “Buick Regal T-Type: Boost mastery approacheth,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), p. 69; Jean Lindamood, “Buick Turbo Regal: When Lloyd Reuss Returned, so did performance,” Car and Driver Vol. 27, No. 8 (February 1982), p. 83; 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), p. 61; Don Sherman, “Buick Regal Sport Coupe,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 64-70; Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia, Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1995); Gary Witzenburg, “1988-91 Reatta: Buick’s First (and Probably Last) Sport Two-Seater,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 5 (February 2006), pp. 56–67; and the website of the Buick Reatta Division of the Buick Club of America, 25 August 2007, www.reatta. org, accessed 27 March 2009.
Some additional 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; Patrick Bedard, “Preview: Cadillac Allanté,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 12 (June 1986), pp. 38-43; and “Cadillac Allanté versus Mercedes 560SL,” Car and Driver Vol. 34, No. 8 (February 1989), pp. 46-51; and Rich Ceppos, “Cadillac Allanté: In Italy they say ‘bene'” (including the sidebars by Csaba Csere and Ray Hutton), Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 9 (March 1987), pp. 81-89.