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The 1988–91 Buick Reatta Is an Underappreciated Classic

The halo effect didn’t quite materialize for Buick’s two-seat luxury cruiser.

Brett BerkWriterBrandon LimPhotographer

The Buick Reatta was first conjured in the early 1980s in response to a perceived gap in the marque's lineup. Flint's finest was missing a specialty niche vehicle, according to Jay Qualman, who worked in strategic planning for the brand during that era. The concept was for a two-place personal luxury car, targeting the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 380SL roadster but taking inspiration from the 1955-57 Ford Thunderbird.

"We had to slot something in there that wouldn't compete with Corvette or Fiero, so it couldn't be a pure sports car," Qualman said. "But it would serve as a halo vehicle for the other Buick products. Something not as flamboyant but more luxurious." This meant that the car had to feature decent (but not blistering) performance, along with competent handling and refinement, voluminous cargo space, and a spacious interior. "Wide enough that you weren't bumping elbows with your passenger," Qualman said.

After intensive consumer research, Buick settled on a two-place convertible with a removable hard top. "But when we went to get corporate approval, the management said, Cadillac really needs a car to go against the Mercedes SL," Qualman said. "So they took that product concept away and gave it to Cadillac." That project would eventually become the Allanté, leaving Buick with a similar idea but delivered as a two-door, two-passenger coupe.

The Reatta's name was proposed by styling chief David North, who had memories of growing up on western ranches where a reata was a common Spanish word for lariat. (Perhaps this was a subtle metaphor for roping in new buyers and attention for the tri-shield brand?) And though Cadillac's appropriation delayed production by two years, North's prototype design was given the go-ahead with relatively minimal changes, retaining a rounded wedge shape with pop-up headlamps, a generous trunk, and a unique bubble-back rear windshield.

As a halo vehicle, the Buick Reatta was also meant to incorporate the latest in advanced technology. This meant the utilization of the new LN3 3.8-liter V-6, one of the first GM engines with port fuel injection and a counter-rotating balance shaft to aid smoothness. It produced 165 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque (later in production, it made 170 horsepower and 220 lb-ft) providing a competitive zero-to-60-mph time of 9.0 seconds flat. The Reatta also had four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

But its technological zenith was in its dash and display. The instrumentation featured digital cathode-ray tube (CRT) gauges, and the center console housed a shockingly complex CRT touchscreen that controlled HVAC, entertainment, diagnostic, and supplemental gauge functions. Introduced on the 1987 Buick Riviera, with which the Reatta shared many of its underpinnings, it was the first setup of its kind. "If you were a typical Buick buyer coming out of a Park Avenue, that may have been a touch ahead of its time," said Qualman. "But if you want the technology image, you have to take those risks."

The Reatta was also meant to help Buick retain, or gain, consumers who were fleeing GM for import brands, and to lower the median buyer age without alienating the core cohort. "We were looking for younger buyers on their way up, that had the wherewithal to buy a $25,000 to $30,000 car," said Qualman. "And, pretty important for the Buick demo, we were also seeking the older retired buyers who would be purchasing it as sort of a reward."

In order to make the car even more halo-worthy, the Reatta was built in a specially repurposed production facility in Lansing, Michigan, known as the Reatta Craft Center. Here, instead of progressing rapidly along an assembly line, the car moved from station to station on computer-guided platforms, allowing workers additional time and care in adding components. Each Buick Reatta also came with a special leather-bound owner's manual.

The car sold moderately during its four-year run. Sales peaked in 1989 when slightly more than 7,000 Reattas moved off dealer lots (the Mercedes SL sold about 9,000 units that year.) The removal of the finicky touchscreen and the addition of a convertible in 1990 didn't help; sales fell to 6,383. Perhaps this was because the car was never meant to be topless. "We did do the convertible, but the car was not designed as a convertible from the start, and it didn't have the rigidity," said Qualman. An underwhelming total of 21,000 Reattas were sold over four model years before it was discontinued after 1991, in part because the underlying E/K platform on which it was built was scrapped. But although the program wasn't a major sales success, it managed to accomplish some of its goals. It attracted younger and import-oriented buyers, as well as women, who represented nearly half of primary drivers.

Among those initially attracted to the Buick Reatta was 61-year-old Paul Gomberg, then a young up-and-comer in Texas. "I was interested back in 1989, and even went to a showroom in Houston. But being only 30 at the time, and with a Corvette just $5,000 more, I felt like I would almost be embarrassed to be seen in a V-6," Gomberg said. "Buick never could figure out what this car was for. It stood for real comfort, for something sporty, for being accommodating. But there were guys 15 years older than me in the car's brochures, and I thought, obviously these guys don't care about driving fast."

Gomberg lost interest in the Buick Reatta and eventually ended up with a Corvette ZR-1. But he has more than rectified that now. He works as a real estate agent in Houston and Beverly Hills, and between the two cities, he now owns a total of six Reattas: an '88, two '89s, a '90, and two '91s—one convertible and five coupes. "Sometimes in a day, I might drive two or three," he said. "At my office, they always say, how many of these things do you have?"

All of Gomberg's Reattas are runners, and none of them was purchased for more than $5,000. In fact, the cheapest of them was part of a three-figure deal he made attempting to buy a leather-bound owner's binder for one of the cars he already owned. He offered $500 for just the book, but the owner insisted that he had to sell the whole car, so Gomberg ended up acquiring the vehicle, and the contents of its glove box, for just $700. With a tow from AAA, and a new battery and fuel pump, the 105,000-mile vehicle came to life. "I've since put another 25,000 miles on that one," Gomberg said.

Gomberg believes the Buick V-6 and GM four-speed automatic are nearly bulletproof; he's seen Reattas at the Buick Club of America's annual "Reatta Reunion" with nearly 300,000 miles on the original engine and transmission. "The ones that run best are the ones with over 100,000 miles on them," he claimed. The only issues he has with his cars are electrical gremlins that seem to occur if he lets them sit for more than a month: stalling and hesitation with the computer fuel injection, and the need to replace mass airflow and O2 sensors. "They were all handcrafted at the Reatta Craft Center in Lansing. Employees were really into those cars and worked hard to make sure that each one had good finish and quality," he said.

I ask Gomberg if he has some kind of standardized rotation schedule to ensure that each member of his fleet gets driven regularly. "They're not on a spreadsheet. I'm not that organized," he said, laughing. "I might drive one in the morning, and then if I'm passing by storage, I may grab a different one. I'm constantly jockeying cars around. But for me that's part of the fun."