I own a 1989 Buick Reatta. For those who don’t know the marque, it’s what you get if you’re growing Rivieras and pick one green. It’s a two-seater with every bell, whistle, gong, and flashing light a Riviera has, less the electric glove-box latch, plus retractable headlights. 1989 was the last year cars didn’t have air bags. I paid $500 for it about six months ago, and for a $500 car it’s quite satisfactory. If I’d paid $1000 I’d feel cheated.
Practically everything on the car is operated by one or both of two computers, the Engine Control Module and the Body Control Module, and most of the controls are on a video screen (!) set in the center of the dash. As with most video-based controls of that era it’s monochrome, green because it has to be readable in sunlight and that’s the brightest CRT phosphor, “quarter VGA” resolution. Almost the first thing that happened is that the CRT failed and I had to get another one off eBay.
The electrical system is quite flatly insane. Things work or not according to some scheme I have not yet identified, probably having to do with the phases of the moons on some planet in the Andromeda galaxy. For instance, the turn signals — which are driven by the computer, not anything simple like a flasher module — are supposed to have an audible signal, a soft beep each time they flash. That started working one afternoon last September, worked perfectly for a day and a half, and hasn’t worked since.
Most annoyingly, from time to time it just stops. While traveling down the road the engine quits as if the ignition had been turned off — no coughs and spits like fuel starvation, no “run down”, no nothing; just one moment running, the next moment not. So far it has not yet failed to start again once the transmission lever is set in Neutral and the ignition is switched off and on to reboot the computers, but it’s annoying as can be. (No, I don’t think it’s a Windows operating system. That’s barely possible for the time period, but the logo doesn’t show up anywhere.)
Last night I set out for Wal*Mart. In the space of two miles the car quit on me seven times. It restarted with no problem every time, but twice it quit again within seconds of the restart. I reversed course and went back home — and during the entire seven miles it not only didn’t quit once, it ran more smoothly than it ever has. Once in the yard I popped the hood, and the engine compartment courtesy light came on for the first time, ever, since I have owned the vehicle.
During WWII the rapid influx of technology into machines resulted in mysterious (to the techs of the time) failures that were attributed to “gremlins”, pictured as little green creatures that got into the wiring and caused random faults. The Reatta is clearly infested with them.
I used to call myself a tech. Recent events have rendered that self-judgement hubristic, and the Reatta is sort of emblematic of that. If any of you has any advice I’d be glad to hear it. In the meantime the 1974 Ford pickup, with Kettering spark ignition, mechanical switches, and an engine-driven fuel pump, starts every time and keeps running. It has no dash lights, no un-dinged body panel, and no bushings in the front end; it rattles and bangs; and it gets eight miles to the gallon plus I have to buy fuel for it. So far as I can recall I have never even transported a computer in it. The downside is that at $2.88 and nine-tenths per gallon, it costs so much to run the Ford that it’ll be practically impossible for me to save up for a replacement — or, possibly, an exorcism — for the Reatta.