1991 Buick ReattaSubstantial improvements were planned for the 1991 Buick Reatta and, despite some resistance from resource-constrained Cadillac Engineering, which was struggling to save its own more-expensive two-seater, arrived on time.
These included a 170-bhp Tuned Port Injection 3.8-liter V-6 coupled to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic, larger wheels and tires, a console cupholder, and, for the convertible, anti-shake add-ons and a power pull-down for the top.
Too late. On March 5, 1991, Lloyd Reuss (by then president of financially ailing General Motors) announced that Reatta was canceled and a sophisticated electric vehicle would eventually take its place at the Lansing Craft Centre. Mertz, who had overseen the car's early development as Buick chief engineer and launched it as general manager, had the unpleasant task of killing it halfway into its fourth model year.
"The early Nineties were tough for GM," he relates. "J. T. Battenberg became head of BOC and, as GM's financial difficulties mounted, he let us know that all vehicles needed to be profitable, 'or else.' We made a valiant effort to increase sales with some unique advertising, but I could see that it was a losing cause and recommended that we discontinue it. It was an emotional decision, but not a hard one, facing the facts."
Just 1,519 1991 Reattas were built before Mertz pulled the plug, 305 of them convertibles. That brought the four-year total to 21,751 -- 19,314 coupes and 2,437 convertibles.
Everyone has opinions on why this unique and beautiful Buick ultimately failed: too expensive; insufficient power and performance; delayed debut and flawed execution of the convertible (no power top); target buyers too young and cool to darken a Buick dealer's doorstep ... or even know where one was.
Reatta, in fact, was a finely styled, fully equipped, delightful-to-drive, two-seat sporty car narrowly targeted at a select group of buyers with discretionary income -- and a lot of alternatives at its hefty price. It was also widely misunderstood.
Some expected a Buick "Corvette." Others, a lighter, less-expensive sports car. In reality, it was a half-price Mercedes SL or Cadillac Allanté luxury-tourer with no direct competitor save the dismal and short-lived Chrysler TC by Maserati.
What ultimately killed it, like other two-seaters before and after it, was the deadly combination of higher-than-expected cost, lower-than-projected volume, and a dedicated plant totally dependent on it alone to pay the rent. After all, how many two-seaters have turned a profit over time? Corvette, Porsche, Mazda Miata, and ... ?
What if Swan and I had hated the car that spring day in Phoenix and told them it would ultimately fail? Would that have altered the Buick team's plan, or damaged its optimism enough to reconsider? Nah. Buick took the risk to create a unique and desirable car and watched it sail proudly, until the market and troubled times brought it down.