The ’91 Buick Regal failed to put a “W” on GM’s suffering scorecard
The story of the GM10 platform, also known the W-body, is a tragedy on par with that of Macbeth, a tale intertwined with the larger issue Scotland’s moral order. Is the car platform underneath the 1980s Buick Regal so significant? Many would disagree, but consider the staggering sum of of dollars in play; since the start of development work on the GM10 in 1982, a mind-numbing seven billion dollars was thrown at the project. At the same time, it lacked a dedicated team for leveraging the General’s deep reserves of staff and resources, and the dream of engineering a world-beating mid-sized platform was dashed by strategic missteps. Pontiac’s Chief engineer Robert Dorn was the platform’s project manager, and he struggled for clout in a post-1984 corporate landscape that shook GM up like a smoothie.
Part of CEO Roger Smith’s initiative was to organize GM into separate business divisions. Dorn worked under the new CPC (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada) division, but his job was to make a mid-size vehicle that would assert GM’s dominance for every brand (except Cadillac). It was a tall order to match market dominance forged from years of success with the A-bodies we know and love (Cutlass, Chevelle, etc.). Plus, global threats were now on the horizon: Toyota was gaining ground with the third-generation Camry, Accords were corruptingly good, and America was downright bullish on Ford’s Taurus. Even worse, Dorn was up against the rest of GM’s new front-wheel drive platforms. The W-body had internal enemies in the A-body, L-Body, and the N-body at one time or another in its long lifecycle.
While the sedans pictured above were introduced in 1990, the GM10 coupes had a two-year head start. This was strategic misstep number one: failing to identify the degree to which markets were disinterested in big coupes like this. To borrow a term from drag racing, this wasn’t a hole-shot launch, and model year 1988 ended with a depressing figure of 100 + days of inventory on dealer’s lots. Yikes.
According to Rude Awakening by Maryann Keller, this misfire led to “temporary plant closures to reduce the surplus dealer inventories.” The sedans, once they arrived, didn’t fare significantly better. They lacked key selling points such as Chrysler-worthy airbags, Honda-like engines, or Toyota levels of customer satisfaction. The competition was collectively reinventing how American families hit the highways, while GM was still struggling with relevancy after the 1984 reorganization.
Honda, Toyota, and Ford subsequently feasted on the carcass of GM’s former market dominance, whose share dropped precipitously in the 1980s. The GM10’s subsequent redesign (part of that multi-billion dollar investment) was a mixed bag: more conventional rear suspension (note the transverse leaf spring design in the Lumina photo above) but also more milquetoast styling. The predicament changed little, as Ford dominated the value/fleet side of this market with the Taurus, while Honda Accord/Toyota Camry were the standard-bearers for premium family sedans.
We’ve finally arrived at Buick, which was responsible for building the most prestigious car on the GM10 platform: the Regal. Its sights were set higher than the V-6 Taurus or a four-banger Honda. The Regal Coupe may have initially faltered in 1988, but the sedan came with larger engines (3.1 and 3.8-liters) and the top-spec Gran Sport looked like a modern take on what made the original A-body Skylark GS so special during the muscle car era. With big alloy wheels and a firm suspension, the W-body Regal had the hardware to be a modern grand tourer. However, let’s recall what the folks at Motorweek thought about it:
Oh dear. You know there’s trouble afoot when John Davis says “don’t blame them, the GM10 Regal design was finalized before the current Buick brass came to power,” within the first two minutes of the road test. It’s a generous way to suggest that other automakers were making superior cars in the same (or lesser) competitive set, but I question the review’s real-world effectiveness. How many PBS watchers snickered, turned off the TV, and looked elsewhere for their next mid-luxury family sedan?
Those who didn’t grab the remote for their Magnavox might have ultimately appreciated the Regal GS’ luxurious interior and futuristic dashboard, something we’d see eventually in modern luxury EVs. (With touchscreens, of course, instead of recessed black trim.) The CD player, much like its trucky GMT400 cousin, is mounted far away from the rest of the audio controls. The dual-mode HVAC was ahead of its time, as was the cupholder located in the center console. But the lack of airbags was a dealbreaker for many, even with the Regal GS’ respectable thrust and competent handling. The price was on point, compared to other luxury brands in the segment, but conquest sales would in the end prove difficult.
Buick’s overall sales dropped on the regular as the GM10 transitioned into the ubiquitous W-body, and it’s still a bit hard to believe that we can thank sales in China for keeping the brand afloat during General Motor’s bankruptcy. (China is still a big market for Buick today.) But that was twenty years after the GM10’s introduction in a sea of globalized competitors hungry for their market share. And it was forty years after “the good old days” of General Motor’s market dominance: that idyllic time when products from Japan and China would be laughed out of darn near every American household. Time can be a cruel mistress, and the launch of the GM10 is evidence of the auto giant’s failure to appreciate just how much times had changed. Though it was in many ways a solid-performing mid-sizer, one of time’s victims, in the end, was the ’91 Buick Regal Gran Sport.