Welcome to Shitbox Showdown! We’re back after our three-day weekend with another roster of rust, check-engine lights, and AC systems that “just need a recharge.” This week, I think I’m going to do all one-marque days, just for the hell of it, and today we’re starting with Buick. But first, let’s see which car won our Father’s Day extravaganza:
Somewhat surprising win for the Studebaker. Based on the comments, I had a feeling it was going the other way. Myself, I’d have trouble choosing, but I think I’d ultimately end up with the MGA.
Today, we’re heading to the “flyover states” to look at two Bush-era Buicks. It’s kind of shocking how different these two cars are in form and purpose, and downright depressing how much more interesting they are than anything the brand sells today. If someone had told me in the early ’90s that in 2023 I would consider Buick’s offerings “interesting,” I’d have said they were crazy, but here we are. We’ve got a small two-seat sporty coupe, and Buick’s last traditional body-on-frame full-size sedan. Let’s see what you make of them.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Lincoln, NE
Odometer reading: 151,000 miles
How is it that sales flops so often end up being cool? Is it just the rarity? Or is it that the things that made them flops, usually eccentricities or odd designs, make them stand out against later, less exciting models? In the case of the Buick Reatta, I think it’s a little of both. This is a rare car – only about 21,000 Reattas were sold in total – but it also has some qualities and features that make it worth knowing about. It’s a two-seater, from a time when every GM division wanted its own Corvette-like unique halo car. Pontiac had the Fiero, Cadillac had the Allante, and Oldsmobile had… wait, I’ll think of one… the um, Cutlass convertible! I guess that counts, sort of.
The Reatta also boasted Buick’s Electronic Control Center, the first touchscreen interface ever in a car, introduced two years earlier in the Riviera:
The seller includes several photos of this green glowing gizmo; apparently they want to make it abundantly clear that it works. It looks quaint by today’s standards (and also looks like it’s going to ask you to play a game with it), but this was high-tech stuff in the late ’80s. And the fact that it still works 34 years and 150,000 miles later is impressive as well.
This Reatta runs and drives just fine. It’s powered by the legendary Buick 3800 V6, driving the front wheels through a four-speed Turbo-Hydramatic; the only drivetrain available. I’ve often wondered what a five-speed manual Reatta would have been like. Would it have helped sales, or just become an impossible-to-find mythological option? We’ll never know. Early Reatta interiors are cool places to be, with the touchscreen and a really nice three-spoke steering wheel, and this one looks like it’s in reasonable condition, especially for the price.
Outside it’s a bit scruffier, with missing or mismatched hubcaps and some truly impressive rock chips on the front fascia. There might be a little rust around the edges as well, but it doesn’t look serious. This is a bona-fide classic these days, and even in this condition, it’s a guaranteed conversation-starter in the right crowds.
Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Des Moines, IA
Odometer reading: 176,000 miles
Runs/drives? More or less, it sounds like
I get the feeling that Buick knew this was going to be its last big rear-wheel-drive sedan, and wanted to go out with a bang by bringing back an old nameplate. And they chose well; there has never been a better name for a big comfortable highway cruiser than “Roadmaster.” Even if you had no idea what a Buick Roadmaster was, you’d instinctively know it was all about eating up the miles in quiet and comfort.
And the part of the car in which you do that looks like the best part of this Roadmaster. I’ll be honest: When I saw the exterior photos of this car, I expected the interior to be trashed, but this looks okay. It could use a cleanup, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the glovebox door is open because it won’t stay closed, but for a thirty-year-old Buick that has obviously seen some careless use, it’s actually quite nice inside.
This car is, of course, the sister model to the Chevrolet Caprice of the same years, built on the same full-size B-body architecture. Buick had long since stopped producing its own V8 engine by this time, so the Roadmaster shares the Chevy’s small-block V8 as well. Later Roadmasters got a substantial increase in power from Chevy’s LT1 V8, but this one was a couple years too early for that. The seller says this car runs and drives, but has a few issues. The rear brake lines and drums were just replaced by Midas, but the brakes supposedly need to be bled, which sounds hinky to me. Wouldn’t Midas have done that? A little more investigation is warranted, I think.
The turn signals are also inoperative, which is probably a bad flasher relay and not bulbs as the seller states. They also note a wobble at higher speeds, which might be related to the woefully inappropriate all-terrain tires it wears. New shoes might improve its highway manners a great deal.
So there they are, two wildly different vehicles from GM’s old-people division. Both need a little work, but either one should be more or less reliable still, and a lot more intriguing than whatever the hell those things are they’re selling now. Cheaper, too. Which one will you hit The Great American Road in?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)