Reatta's styling effort began in July 1982, mostly as a reaction to the decision to outsource the Allanté design to Italy's Pininfarina. "That upset the guys at Design Staff," says David North, who headed GM's Advanced Design 2 studio at the time. "They were insulted that Cadillac would go to another designer to get their car done, so they said, 'OK, we'll show them what we could have done,' and they held a contest. They had all the young designers propose a two-place car, and Dave McIntosh, who worked for me, won."
When Reuss saw the McIntosh model, he wanted it as the theme for Buick's two-seater. But it was "soft" and elliptical, while the E-car chassis was blunt. "We had a cartoon in the studio that illustrated our dilemma," North relates. "It showed a plan [top] view of this rectangular chassis with this almost circular car on it. There were big red marks where it interfered and four holes -- two in front, two in back -- where the corners of the frame stuck out. They couldn't modify the chassis, and it wouldn't fit under the body. Everyone said, 'It's never going to work.'"
Irv Rybicki, who replaced the legendary Bill Mitchell as GM's vice president for design in 1977, grew weary of this struggle. "Irv called me up to his office," North recalls.
"'If you can't get that rounded jelly bean look out of that car and start making it make sense with some lines on it,' he said, 'I'm going to take that project away from you.' That afternoon I went out to the Proving Grounds for a competitive product show, and the new Porsche 944 was there. Porsches were always rounded, soft cars, but that one had stiff lines on it. I went back to the studio and told one of the designers, Ted Polak, to put creases on the Reatta, which ended up running the length of the car."
Another inspiration came from another Porsche: "One thing that made the 911 different," he says, "was the taillight that ran all the way across the back. So we did that on the Reatta. That taillight has about a dozen bulbs in it, and Buick came in and said, 'Why do we need all those lights?' They didn't like it because it cost more money. I said this car has to look different, has to have some recognition." The full-width taillamp (with 14 bulbs) made the cut.
Reatta's design program was unique in that it started and stayed in the advanced studio instead of moving to a production studio once approved. "In the Reatta's case, no one took it seriously or thought it would actually go to production, so it stayed and was pretty much released from the advanced studio," says North.
"This was unusual because the makeup of an advanced studio was heavy on creative designers and sculptors, where the production studio has a lot more engineering in it. The division sent down a team of production engineers and stationed them in the studio to work directly with us, so when a problem came up, they could tackle it right away."
The need to fit Reatta's round-cornered body on a squared-off Riviera chassis shortened by 9.5 inches resulted in an unusually long overhang ahead of the front wheels. "In side view, you see an exaggerated proportion ahead of the front wheel," North points out.
"The old classic cars look good because they have a lot of 'dash-to-axle' [from the base of the windshield to the front axle] and a short rear end, which gives an elegant look. The Reatta has a normal dash-to-axle and a short rear end, but there's a lot of front overhang because of the frame, so it's kind of unusual."
Partly because he grew up on western ranches, partly because he remembered the movie Giant, which took place on the Reata Ranch, North came up with the name "Reata," a Spanish-American term for lariat, and it stuck. Salata added the second "t" for appearance. When North was promoted to chief designer of Oldsmobile's production studio, John K. "Kip" Wasenko took over the Advanced 2 studio and completed the production design.