Curbside Classic: 1988-1991 Buick Reatta – GM’s Deadly Sin #30 – The Death of Sex and Soul

During the 1980s, GM had its greatest loss of market share ever, setting the stage for its ultimate demise. It was a remarkable performance, and those of us that were around at the time were utterly dazzled by its ability to keep spitting out new Deadly Sins at a breakneck pace. How did they do it?

Ask Irv Rybicki.

GM had perfected the process to creating Deadly Sins to a few key approaches. The easiest and most common one was just the failure to develop the key mechanical and technical aspects properly, as in the Vega, Citation, Olds Diesel, 4100HT, among many others.

Another sure-fire approach was hubris, the excessive pride and self-confidence in its abilities to understand the realities of the market. Grosse Pointe Myopia was another name. The Cimarron, case in point. Sure, we can take on the BMW 3 Series with that.

GM’s styling, as led by its Design VP Irv Rybicki during the 80s, was very much a key factor too. Rybicki, had been promoted to replace Bill Mitchell in 1977 instead of Chuck Jordan because the execs on the 14th floor wanted a pliable Design VP who would do their bidding. They got that, and more. Sex and Soul? We’ve had our fill of that. How about anodyne and gender-neutral?

Rybicki oversaw the most crucial period of GM as it was downsizing all of its lines for a second time to FWD, starting with the 1980 X cars.

Among others, he was directly responsible for perhaps the greatest GM DS, the disastrous 1986 downsizing of the E-Body Coupes (Eldorado, Riviera and Toronado), which had a long and proud tradition of being GM design standard bearers and profit makers.

GM cars created during this time almost invariably had repetitive and dull styling, poor proportions, and lacked differentiation between the various brands.

One of the more unusual moments in the Rybicki Era was the Cadillac Allante. Indulging in the deadly sin of envy, Cadillac was desperate for a Mercedes SL of its own, and decided (how and why exactly seems to be lost to the mists of time or dementia) that Pininfarina was the one to design it. Now that wouldn’t have happened under Bill Mitchell. Although it will certainly not go down in history as one of PF’s better jobs, undoubtedly input from Cadillac had something to do with that, especially the front end. But it’s not really a bad looking car, given the FWD architecture PF had to work with.

Not surprisingly, the Allante turned out to be an embarrassing flop. Cadillac by the mid-late 80s had already slid so far down in terms of its image and prestige, that there was no way the SL crowd was going to touch it. Loyal older Cadillac buyers bought them, and it quickly became known as a white-shoe, white-belt Florida golf-club retirement car.

But the GM designers were mighty miffed that the job was not given to them. So they set out to prove that they could do a better two seater than Pininfarina. cue hubris:

They brought in a Porsche 944 as their key inspiration. A bit curious, since the 944’s predecessor 924 was designed in 1973 or so, more than ten years earlier. And there was one glaring problem with that: the 944 was of course a RWD sports car, whose engine was all or mostly behind the front axle centerline. Meanwhile, the Reatta was given a shortened E-Body Riviera FWD platform. That vast difference in proportions was all-too obvious. As well as the vast gaps above the Reatta’s tires in their wheel openings. Must have been some sort of deadly GM decree at the time.

The Allante had the same problem, but PF managed to resolve it somewhat better. There’s decidedly more gap between the door leading edge and the front wheel opening, the front overhang seems a wee bit shorter, and its longer tail makes it look more balanced. Of course, that’s relatively speaking.

But the biggest issue with the Reatta was its identity crisis. What exactly was it supposed to be? That question clearly hadn’t been thought through properly. As the VW Beetle proved so convincingly, having a clear identity and image is a critical factor to success. GM obviously hadn’t yet absorbed the lesson of the VW, whose success in its later years was all about a new generation expressing their dissatisfaction with the car business as usual, and GM in particular. Which explains GM’s inability to ever build a truly successful small car. And why they were tanking during the 80’s, when former VW drivers were now snapping up BMWs and Hondas and such.

GM’s mindset was fundamentally still stuck in the 1950s. Why not? It had been their golden years; in 1955, GM was the world’s biggest corporation by far and the first to ever post a profit of $1 billion ($9.3 billion adjusted). And the Reatta was just an updated take on the 1955 La Salle Roadster. That was FWD too; well, in theory, as GM hadn’t yet actually figured out how to build a working FWD drivetrain. It got pushed unto the stands at the Motorama. It’s the thought that counts, right?

As to the LaSalle’s styling, let’s just say that even the Reatta has it beat. Ugh.

Was the Reatta a sports car? With a 165hp V6? A luxury two-seater? A more affordable Mercedes SL? How about an expensive two-seat commuter?

The Pontiac Fiero, another DS which has Irv Rybicki written all over it too, suffered from the same lack of mental acuity as to its mission in life. It was proclaimed to be a “two seat commuter”, undoubtedly because its pathetic Iron Duke four and underdeveloped suspension would have made a mockery of the word “sports car”.

What I said in that Fiero Deadly Sin applies perfectly to the Reatta: The real test of a great company is the ability to precisely define the vision for its products and then execute it with the least possible deviation. This is precisely why GM failed; over and over it promised brilliant sparkling Futurama-brand diamonds but delivered coal. In the case of the Reatta, they couldn’t even define its vision. But those poor designers had the jones to show up the Allante; that’s what was really important. Who needs to define a car’s mission if you’re GM? Build it and they will come.

The Reatta’s full-width taillights were also inspired by a Porsche, but not the 944’s.

No, this one. Wasn’t it obvious? And doesn’t the Reatta just ooze that Porsche sexiness and soul?

Those qualities were certainly not on display in its interior either, or its widely-panned touch-screen Electronic Control Center.

Not surprisingly, the Reatta was a bust. It lost GM money from start to finish. It was way too expensive to build at the Lansing Craft Center (I’m surprised they didn’t use “Centre”), but its initial price of $25,000 ($53k adjusted) was considered too high for what it was. Which pretty much sums up the dilemma of GM during the 80s: folks weren’t willing to pay what GM thought their cars were worth, as their perceived image and status had been so badly eroded.

The convertible version was supposed to be available from the start, but severe structural problems that were never fully resolved held up its arrival for a full two years. How do you explain that? Two years?

It didn’t make any difference; by 1990 the Reatta was dead meat, and GM knew it. Like so many domestic cars of its ilk (think 2002 Thunderbird), what little spark of interest there was initially was quickly satiated. In 1989, its first full year, sales peaked at 7,009. By 1991, all of 1,519 Reattas found buyers. A total of 21,751 over four years. Another GM halo car turns into the devil’s horns.

And the excuse given for killing the Reatta? GM needed its production facilities for its next Deadly Sin, the EV-1. Good luck finding one of those.