Maris Otter and Goldings

It probably seemed a good idea after a few ales…

1988 Buick Reatta. Image: Hagerty Insurance Agency

Beer matters. Not the lagers (or pilsners for that matter) that conquered the world once refrigeration was commercially available but that quintessentially British phenomenon, real ale. Now gaining popularity in other parts of the thirst market, the myriad flavours a British pint of beer can offer remains a highly subjective experience. One’s tastebuds can be tingled by initial fruity overtones leading to complex biscuit hints leaving (perhaps) a sharp but far from unpleasant aftertaste. Its composition comprises of but four vital ingredients: malted barley, hops, water and yeast.

One influential variant of barley is the Marris Otter, found in many a pint; English grown for many years, imparting a sweet and flavoursome basis for the beer. Combining with (normally) Kent grown Golding Hops, which imbue earthy, spicy and honey influences may, with a decent brewer at the stills, create a thirst quenching, tasty, moreish drink. So what on Earth has an English pint got to do with a forgotten American two seater? Leave the driving for another day, open a bag of salted nuts and pour yourself a frothy headed ale.

The Buick Reatta was heralded as a new beginning for the tri-shield – a two seater sports job from perhaps America’s least expected sporting marque – their first in fifty years. In similar fashion to brewing beer, the Reatta was handmade at the Lancing Craft Center (Reatta Craft Center, beforehand)[1] where around four hundred workers created 21,751 cars in forty months. Initially a coupé (or Koop in American parlance), followed by a much delayed, hyped-up soft top in 1990, riding out the production run the following year.

Chief Brewer, Dave Macintosh penned the original sketch in 1983. Forecasts were to sell upwards of 20,000 per year, a target that may have been contemplated whilst inebriated. Intended as Buick’s halo model, the car arrived replete with a Craftman’s Log of names who completed which build section. First impressions exuded class alongside a step away from the Buick norm. Big spending advertising budgets combined with aggressive sales targets guaranteed Reatta a successful brew. Even the emblem, practically eschewing the Buick name, had an almost amber-like background, redolent of best bitter.

Image: gmauthority

Chief ingredient of any beer is a quality supply of water. In vehicular terms, this is the chassis and mechanicals. The Reatta utilised GM’s E platform, as did the Riviera, Cadillac’s Eldorado and Oldsmobile’s Toronado. At 4.6 metres length, a wheelbase of 2,502mm, the set up was for front wheel drive, transverse engine. The ubiquitous 3.8 litre V6 providing the shove through a four speed automatic gearbox. Top speed was limited to 125mph with encouraging if not outright back-shoving acceleration. 

The next part of the brew revolves around the malted barley. With the water warmed to specific temperatures, the Marris Otter is crushed then added into the water as a grist which imparts the flavour better. This then is to the Reatta’s shape. Stone cold sober, these eyes see a handsome enough outline. The elongated front leading to pop-up headlamps is a nice flourish. Side body mouldings were standard offering up two-tone paint effects.

1988 Buick Reatta Coupe. Image: virtualmodels

The rear is more contentious though again, pleasant enough. That rounded rear back light (a nod to Porsche), contained fourteen bulbs. Owners often neglected their replacement, offering following drivers a somewhat red, gap-toothed bandit affair. The bulbous rear glass area could be seen as if looking through the bottom of a pint glass. Which, depending on view could mean another drink coming your way or possibly very sad times ahead. Beer affected eyes making silk purses from sows ears.

The timing and quantity of hops section of the brewer’s art comes next. Placed too early in the brew caused the Reatta to end up with an all digital display unit inside. Today considered the holy grail of Reattas, if still operational, the Electronic Control Centre was a genuine touch screen for the late 1980’s. With its green tinged light display (from vacuum diodes) the box controlled volume, air-con, date timer, configurable speed limiter along with diagnostic duties.

Tiny touch screens augured ill for fat fingers. Incarnations that had their Goldings added later had digital speedometers and sundry gauges with more conventional black plastic buttons for everything else – dozens of them. Diminutive sizes ensuring a glance away from events happening beyond the windscreen. Hardly ideal but considered classy at the time. Audiophiles were catered with AM/FM stereo, cassette and CD player of high status.

Image: consumer guide auto

Another requisite ingredient in any brewing process is that of what was once known as godisgoode now, yeast. This magical powder causes the beer to ferment, rise even without adding unwanted flavour. This late entry to the blend led to the Reatta finally, after two years on sale getting the (often contrasting coloured) soft roof the car required from the outset.[2]

Cleaving clean sculptural lines, when lowered, the Reatta sits right at home on a Floridian avenue. The roof’s operation however was anything but even. Latches, buttons, strict procedures and, gulp, physical work – hardly conducive to maintaining your detached manner (or fingernails) when the heavens opened. The roof was stored under a weatherproof tonneau, but by the time you got your act together you were soaked.

Staring at the competition meanwhile, the Allante was an altogether different tipple. The sparkling Spumante of the Chrysler TC by Maserati may have appealed to a frothier clientele, whereas the headstrong (and far less costly) Japanese slid down as easily as sake.

Tastes differ, but despite the advertising hyperbole, the Reatta left consumers wondering just what flavour was being offered. Reatta was neither a best bitter nor IPA.[3] The poorly executed convertible arrived too late to address customer’s needs, by which time there were better made and purposed rivals. Reatta’s looks polarised opinions – Buick’s own four seat Riviera selling for $20,000 – $5,000 less than the Reatta. In the first year, a paltry 4,700 sold, the 1990 high of 8,500 leaving salespeople resembling a haggard carouser rather than boulevard cruiser. Survivors, unsurprisingly are few.

Image: fastestlaps

The chances of observing a Reatta other than online remain as doubtful as a bottled ale exceeding its sell by date. Reatta did not get a second round in, shuffling off quietly in 1992 without replacement. Officially, the Center was needed for other purposes. In brewing terms, the hops were off.

Another GM product leaving little but a strong feeling of requiring the place where all drinks end up, good or bad – what Americans like to call the John.

[1] There remains some conjecture as to the spelling of the Craft Center – some suggest it was spelt in the European idiom, others the American style. We’ve gone with the latter.

[2] It is believed that structural issues delayed the introduction of the drop-top Reatta – a theory which really doesn’t (ahem) hold water.

[3] Indian Pale Ale, an English made beer designed to withstand sea travel to the Eastern Empire

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

42 thoughts on “Maris Otter and Goldings”

  1. Another great insight into a model I’d never seen or heard of, thank you. The rear screen reminds me of the Mitsubishi FTO.

  2. Turning barley into beer is all very well but to stop short of distilling is a shameful waste of its potential. And the end product doesn’t go “off” once the bottle has been opened; it can last, and be savoured, for years….. Not sure where that takes the analogy though – a challenge for someone else perhaps?

    1. Maybe a compromise could be ‘cask mate’ Whiskey where the distilled product is matured in casks that had held Stout before…

  3. Thanks Andrew, I have a relatively soft spot for these cars. They seem very atractive to me (well, somebody had to like them), particularly the convertible. Of course, being an ´80s GM product, the chances it was a competent car weren´t too big.
    First time I read about this car was in 1991 in a Road & Track magazine test; despite R&T was usually rather mild in its verdicts, I don´t remember they wrote great things about the Reatta.

  4. I forgot to say, the “Graphic Control Center” touch screen must be a ergonomic nightmare, but it was state of the art in 1988, and almost deserves its own article.

  5. Good morning Andrew. Thanks for the reminder of a pretty obscure car. I rather like the styling, which is clean and rather smart. The only detail I’m unsure about is the downward curving waistline in the door windows. It works well with the curvature of the front and rear screens, but gives the car a somewhat unsporting ‘top-hatted’ look.


    It was certainly an odd car to carry the Buick name, looking more suited to the Pontiac marque.

  6. Craft beer = Can’t Remember A F***ing Thing.

    I’d all but forgotten the Reatta. Thanks, Andrew for reminding me.

    Was it a stretched-out “I didn’t do THAT last night moment for the GM managers and designers involved?

    1. My dad gave me a catalogue of all the cars in the world back in 1988. The catalogue was divided into countries and I can clearly remember the USA section which featured the Reatta. I’ve always liked it, but only saw it once, a rather tired looking convertible back in 2019 in Key West. Regrettably, I didn’t have the opportunity to take any photos.

  7. Thanks Andrew for bringing back to memory a youth favourite of mine. Not sure if I’ve ever seen a real Reatta, but the catalogue images made a deep impression to me (Hello Freerk!). As mentioned before, its clean, somewhat unusual lines are of great appeal to me, and maybe I even saw something french in its proportions. Citroën maybe (short rear), but Dave’s Matra connection is even more striking.

    I don’t know if it’s the same for English speakers, but for me the Reatta name looks rather strange, as if missing a ‘g’ somewhere (but that would have been too close to Fiat, I guess). Still not sure how it’s supposed to be pronounced, and probably difficult for a lot of languages.

    1. I was just about to make a comment about thus car sharing the short rear, long front overhang thing with Citroëns – ref. the debate from yesterday’s ‘Photo for Sunday’ piece.

      I too rather like it – it’s sharp, low set and rakish. The bowed bottom edge to the DLO is rather odd though, like someone placed a bowl over the bodywork.

  8. Dave McIntosh talks Buick Reatta design.

    “History never repeats itself but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain. The Reatta was not originally conceived as a Buick, which eerily echoes the genesis of the 1963 Riviera (the spurned Cadillac LaSalle). However, this time it was an off-rhyme. It turned out that GM couldn’t pull off even one successful Mercedes SL/Jaguar XJS competitor*, never mind two. But in for a penny…

    http://www.deansgarage.com/2015/david-mcintosh-gm-designer/

    In this interview: A jilted GM design director casts a sideways glance at his corporate masters whilst administering a not so subtle poke in the side to his esteemed counterparts in Turin.

    “So having lost the Cadillac project, our team was all fired up, and we spent about a year putting this Buick together… I believe we’ve got a hell of a finer looking car than the Cadillac. If I didn’t feel that way, I shouldn’t be here.”

    http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/Design/Rybicki_interview.htm

    * https://driventowrite.com/2016/08/26/1986-cadillac-allante-profile/

  9. Like the design of the Reatta itself, its assembly method was a home-grown response to GM’s ongoing build quality woes. While assembly of the Cadillac Allante was farmed out completely to Pininfarina, the Reatta Craft Centre also eschewed the traditional conveyor belt style assembly line, in this case for a regiment of “automated guide vehicles”, wheeled robotic sleds which would theoretically, in the words of a certain 20th century artist: “drive like a demon from station to station”.

    As per consumer demand, however, the actual pace of assembly was likely even slower than the production engineers envisioned. And perhaps owing to the surfeit of off the shelf and carry-over systems and components, nobody seemed to notice whether the build quality was improved enough to justify this one-off manufacturing experiment.

  10. Not obscure for me. I´ve seen one of these (I can´t remember where – somewhere in the east of the US). In the metal it is a nicely made car and the interior hangs together well. I get a bit exasperated by the idea that the car was too sporting for Buick and not sporting enough at the same time. Sometimes I think customers are arses and don´t know a nice car when they see it. The Mazda 3 is an astonishing cat to look at but people still spend/waste money on Golfs and Focuses without asking themselves if these cars really meet their wants. Potential Reatta customers didn´t do their homework and probably spent the money on something boring and stupid. Unlike Daniel, I find the curved side glass hangs together with the enirety of the turret-to-body junction. It would look worse without it.

    1. Hi Richard. I agree that the DLO works well in its entirety and I do like it, but I wonder if a straighter lower DLO line and shallower side glasses would have made the Reatta look more conventionally ‘sporting’ (if less distinctive)? I might have a play with it to see.

      Here’s a Reatta in a particularly nice colour:

    2. I thought they were all red. That would make a nice Citroen.
      Thanks for posting the Mondeo & Co stats. Sobering reading. I´d always thought the Galaxy was a good seller – well, it was in 1998 but now it´s rare like an eight cylinder Beemer. What a pity – it´s much nicer than the SUVs that are eating its lunch (the Vignale versions are particularly pleasing).

  11. I like it.
    I don’t know exactly why, but I like it.
    Bartender, can I have one more please!
    Thank you Andrew!

  12. I find the Reatta design quite pleasing. However, one aspect I have never understood from a visual standpoint is the interrupted coachline which runs along the beltline of the car, stopping abruptly beneath the door mirror, before picking up again above the door handle. I believe this was factory-fit. But to what end? It not only appears unfinished, but triggers inherent OCD tendencies – that is all that I see when I see a photo of a Reatta.

    I understand that the dip in the window line would otherwise create an unhappy optical effect, but then, why do it at all?

  13. Here’s the Reatta with a straightened waistline, shallower side glass and and a continuous coach-line. Then, a second adjusted image with the front quarter-light deleted and the door mirror moved to a sail panel instead, for a cleaner DLO. Original first for comparison:



    Thoughts?

    1. If you look just at the door, the straightened version seems okay. Unfocus and look at the car as a whole and the straight line looks as if it rises from rear to front. The original version has more flow or graphic continuity where the turret meets the body. Your version isn´t terrible but I would be dishonest if I said it was better than the exisiting one. I do compliment your Photshop skills though. The “corrected” version looks very believable!
      The Reatta and Volvo 480 ES have something in common. Does anyone know what it is?

    2. Hi Richard. Yes, it probably needs some refining. I simply joined with a straight line the points where the existing downward curved sill intersected with the leading and trailing edges of the door. The curved sill disguises the fact that it falls from front to rear.

    1. A final refinement of the Reatta’s DLO. This version has a horizontal lower DLO line from the trailing edge of the door forward until it reaches a point under the mirror, from where it curves up to meet the base of the windscreen:

    2. Good morning Richard. Are you going to enlighten us as to the commonality between the Reatta and 480ES? I’ve been racking my brain, but no luck.

    3. Took a few days to come up with another example of a dipping, curved lower DLO line. I hope I am not too late: 924/944/968. G, B, or U?

    4. There are scads of cars with dipping curves on the DLO. It was a design trope of the late 1970s and 1980s related to the matter of getting graphic flow from the side of the glasshouse/turret to the front windscreen (or not). You can have flow from the cant rail down the a-pillar and long the front fender or you can have flow sideways from the DLO to the front screen. Problems occur if you try to fudge it. I believe this topic was covered masterfuly here in 2016:

      Design Details: Those Sagging Lines Explained

    5. Hi gooddog. Ah yes,the 924/944/968 is an interesting example. With the 968, Porsche went to some trouble to straighten out the lower DLO line by changing the chape of the rear quarter window:

      Was it worth the effort, or just change for change’s sake, to try and freshen up a tired design?

      Richard, I read your 2015 piece on sagging lines with interest, but was dismayed to see that you disapprove of the term ‘DLO’. Will that now have to join ‘design language’ on the DTW naughty step?

    6. You can keep clear of the naughty step. I have given up being irked by the term (or forgot to be irked). How was it going back to 2016? I am often surprised by the way I wrote in those days.

  14. I checked the figures and the 480ES Turbo accelerated faster and had a higher top speed than the Buick and did so with a 1.7 litre four. What did Buick do with the other two cylinders and litres of volume?

    1. Just one last thing, as Colombo used to say. The Reatta has a front quarter glass because there is a radiused transition from the side window to the front windscreen (just like the Citroen XM). So, perhaps it is a step too far to move the mirror and do away with the little triangle of glass. You should keep the base of the DLO but re-instate the mirror and the small fixed pane between the side window and the front screen.

    2. I’ll get straight on it, Richard.

      (I so won’t! 😁)

  15. In 1989 while a student in Long Beach, California, I knew a fellow student who drove a Reatta (yes, it was red). Moreover, it was his ride not his parents. Being a young fellow, I thought this strange as no young person would want anything to do with any Buick, sporty or otherwise—they were cars for “blue hairs”. Still at the time I thought it was a reasonably good design. Looking at it now, I appreciate that the stylists did a good job with a compromised plan and drivetrain. I has some character—something you can’t say about most American cars during Detroit’s lost weekend (1970–2000).

    1. “Detroit’s lost weekend (1970–2000)” What a brilliant descriptor! We’ll done Phil, I wish I had thought of that. It might well get recycled into a future piece, with due accreditation, of course!

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