Curbside Classic: 1989 Buick Reatta – A Pudding With No Theme

(first posted 9/14/2011)    There is a story told about legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Upon being offered a sumptuous dessert, he sent it back with a wave of the hand. “This pudding”, he wistfully observed, “has no theme”.

I was reminded of this apocryphal story this week when I stumbled upon another end of summer bargain being served up by my neighbors in North Georgia. The offering this day was this 1989 Buick Reatta, which, in its time, represented a sharp departure from the late 80’s theme of mushy, high cholesterol near luxury from GM.

The Reatta was like a Sesame Street question for mid life buyers in those years who absolutely had to have a GM product: “Which of these is not like the other?”  Unfortunately, Buick’s first two seat offering since the 1940s Model 46 business coupe would expire sadly just four years after launch, unlamented and unloved.

The Reatta episode at Buick is remembered fondly in some people’s minds these days as a noble experiment that missed the mark because of factors far beyond Buick’s immediate control.  As a “top down” program passed along from corporate HQ, the car would have to satisfy the disparate needs of marketers, engineers, and of course, customers – all while keeping the bean counters satisfied.

This is a tough assignment even when the model is widely known and its place is understood.  It is a near impossibility when the software (image) and hardware (sheet metal, rubber and glass) are being concocted at the same time.  Thus, the Reatta had to break new ground or give existing customers a reason to trade way up in order to stay in the Buick family.  It did neither and there would be no second chance for the model to find a permanent spot in the lineup.

To be sure, GM was already in the two seater business in a big way in the fall of 1987.  Even though 1988 would be the last year for the smash hit Pontiac Fiero, a second generation for that model was still being discussed, and 1990 prototypes were widely shown before the Fiero was killed.

And upmarket, Cadillac was peddling its flamboyant Allante to the “old money” types that rose early, worked hard, and struck oil.

But between the Boy Racer and Thurston Howell III demographic bookends, Buick thought that a niche existed for a car that could excite the mid-life buyers who wanted a “personal luxury” car that was more personal than the embarrassingly badge engineered Riviera of those days and had better performance than they could get in a “sporty”, but uber expensive Mercedes 560SL or BMW 325is.  Thus the Reatta took shape with marching orders to take on the imports (from Germany this time.  The Japanese would add to the car’s woes late in its run).

The engine was to be the tried and true Buick 3.8L V-6 that, in one form or another, had been around a long time in many guises. For the Reatta (and other models henceforth), the 3.8 would be sent to charm school, with a balance shaft, multi port fuel injection and other refinements that made it fit company for the new customers that Buick hoped to reach with the Reatta.  The engineers worked wonders with the upgrades: The refreshed six put out 165 HP while scoring almost 30 MPG on the highway.  Buick claimed 0-60 in just under nine seconds.

But with that kind of scoot in a boulevard roadster, GM couldn’t quite finish the drill and make a manual shift transmission an option.  The only gearbox on offer was the Turbo Hydramatic four speed, which drove the front wheels on standard 15 inch alloys.  Thus the brass in Detroit wanted to go out there, but not too far out there, in search of a new kind of buyer.

The coachwork inspired some love it / hate it chatter in the day and does so even now.  The pop-up headlamps ensured an even, clean silhouette and the subtle, tasteful front end was attractive and inoffensive.  But the rear was what killed the design harmony and gave the whole car a “not quite finished” design motif.  That rear end was (and remains) awkward and contrived.  It was as if the committee to design the front end never met the committee to design the rear.  Again, a sweet concoction lacking cohesion.

What buyers saw when they stepped inside was the typical square-rigged, dumbed-down GM corporate look that had been around since the early ’80s. The dash was an almost unaltered copy of the info panel in the Riv, but with a twist.  The touch-panel control center mounted in the middle of the dash was made to satisfy the Captain Kirk in all of us, but became something of a liability when subjected to everyday use.

The screen’s monochrome display required users to take their eyes off the road for longer than was advisable.  Combined with the car’s older target audience, this spelled trouble.  And while the gee-whiz factor of an on board brain was nifty, when those units began to fail, it was anything but a DIY fix.  GM spent a lot of warranty labor trying to work the bugs out of the touch-panel equipped Reattas, and finally just dropped the troublesome units altogether in 1990.

The rest of the inside of the Reatta was well finished and comfortable and the rear bulkhead was designed to allow a golf bag to slide inside from the trunk. There was a surprising amount of space in the back, and the storage bins pressed into the floor pans were a nice touch.

The 2 seater coupe was joined in 1990 by a convertible.  The drop top looks more like what the car should be, shorn of an awkward roof line that joined the rear quarter panels at an odd angle.  But by the time the rag top hit the market, the Reatta was on its last legs and Reatta convertibles are rare on the ground today.

Build quality was quite good, with Buick making much hay about the car’s newfangled / throwback assembly regime.  Reattas were built in a way that David Dunbar Buick would have recognized when he founded the company in 1903.  The cars were screwed together in a “reverse assembly line” arrangement that found individual “craft teams” performing their tasks as a unit and then sending the car on its way.

The basic underpinnings were derived from the Riviera /Eldorado /Toronado E Body platform.  Robots (which David Buick would not have approved of) handled the moving to and fro of the chassis and the Rube Goldberg arrangement somehow worked well enough for the car to be named a Consumers Digest Best Buy for its overall refinement and relatively low price.

Notice how I put “relatively” next to “low price” in that last sentence.  Despite all of the goodies that could add up to a capable machine, the car’s towering $26,000 price tag put it almost $5,000 above the four seater Riviera.  And therein lies the reason that the Reatta was a one trick pony for GM.  The pricing strategy that put the car $25,000 below the Mercedes and Allante but above the rest of the Buick line meant that buyers saw twice the car (by volume) in the same showroom for a lot less crinkle.

Combined with a muddled marketing strategy that actually compared the car with a BMW 325 (a four seater), buyers looked and decided to buy the Riv instead.  The $5,000 they saved could pay for a lot of golf lessons.  Sales for the Reatta were slow in its first year, as the car retailed a disastrous 4,700 units (against a business case projection of 20,000).  Sales never topped the 8,500 achieved in 1990, a figure reached in part by the introduction of the convertible.  The Reatta was a dead end for Buick, and GM quietly dropped the line for 1992.  There would be no second generation.

Today, Reattas are not exactly common on the ground due to scarcity when new.  An absolute time capsule can set you back about $12K, but the asking price for everyday driver cars with reasonable mileage seems to have settled in between $4,000-$6,000.  Most mechanics and dealer personnel that I have spoken with say that you should avoid the 88-89 models because when the electronic control system goes, it can’t be put right for much less than the price of the car.  The 90-91 models are the ones to have.  If you get a convertible, there is a decent chance that you’ll at least get what you paid for it when you are ready to move on.  There are a couple of clubs around that can help with ownership issues, and mechanical parts are a breeze.  Body and soft trim parts are the usual treasure hunt.

So, the Reatta expired and left no visible effect on its target market.  Both Buick and Cadillac would be out of the two-seater game by 1993, when the Allante was sent packing.  The Corvette would soldier on as GM’s two place entry until the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky were released in 2005 and 2006.  Thus the Reatta became living proof of another Churchill aphorism: “Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others”.