It’s a Buick!
This is the 1987 Buick Regal complete with impact absorbing bumpers, a catalytic converter and, believe it or not, a V6 engine. In fact, it’s not just a muscle car, it happens to be the fastest accelerating production sedan ever made. Now here’s the real punchline: it’s a Buick!
The Buick GNX is probably one of the most incredible cars ever made. Its 231 cubic inch turbo charged V6 engine is capable of producing over 275 net horse power and the car’s chassis is designed to put every ounce of that horse power on the ground. The GNX is also an intelligent car thanks to all its on board computers. Every aspect of the car’s performance is being monitored and adjusted 1000 times a second to deliver peak performance at any moment in time. From the grill to the rear spoiler, this car’s individual components were so carefully designed that, once assembled, they ceased to be parts and the GNX became one single thing. A manager at Buick’s special vehicle department guided the GNX’s development. “We realized we had to do it smart but we still wanted a rocket. We wanted a safe, dependable, secure car but also one that still launched well, that felt well and was good at handling both performance and straight line acceleration. But we had to do it by tweaking and twisting and channeling and using technology to get there.”
The way the GNX slams you back in the seat reminds you of the good ol’ days. But make no mistake, there’s no good ol’ days engineering anywhere in this car. This Buick is pure 21st century high tech and it has to be. When this car was designed, the new reality of 93 octane, dollar a gallon eye tests said the old ways wouldn’t work anymore. “In the 60s and 70s, you threw weight at it, you threw dual carburetors, four carburetors. Weight didn’t matter, more horse power, more torque. In fact, in those days we kinda owned the market. We found out since that market was hard to maintain.” The GNX is the ultimate stage of development of this car: the Regal Grand National. Between 1984 and 1987, the Grand National an its more colorful stable mate snuck up on a lot of unsuspecting muscle cars and put them away. Not with the usual blast of noise but with the quiet, dignified whoosh.
Remember When Big Cubic Inches Ruled the Road?
For muscle car fans from the 60s, these cars are a throwback to the days when big cubic inches ruled the road. Says Paul Zazarine: “Nailing the throttle on a Grand National is like a combo of being shot out of a cannon and launched from an air craft carrier. I have never in my life seen a car that could accelerate so quickly and actually watch the needle sweep across the speedometer, just zoom across. It was just unbelievable.” For people too young to remember that rush of 60s horse power, the turbo Buicks are cars perfectly made for today’s high performance enthusiast. “I like to drive a car that has cruise control, windshield wipers work, twenty miles to the gallon, and could come out to the track and run mid twelves.” Says one Buick owner. With space age computer technology combined with Buick’s 100 year old heritage of building better cars, the Regal Grand National and the GNX rekindled the fire that had all but gone out 15 years earlier.
Since the earliest days of the automobile, there have been some fool proof ways of making a car go faster and Buick knew every one of them. The easiest way, of course, was to build a bigger engine. So, in 1908, Buick created this car: the Bug. It had a four cylinder engine that measured 622 cubic inches. Going by the old formula of big engine in a light body, the Buick Bug may very well have been the first muscle car. Thankfully there were more ways of going fast than just making monster motors and Buick led the industry in finding more horse power. While the other auto makers were still building flat heads, Buick’s over head valve engines were tearing up America’s race tracks. The 1938 straight 8 fireball engine with compound carburetion was the fastest of its day. It was amazing considering the size and weight of these big and luxurious Buicks.
When the muscle cars hit the streets in the mid 60s, once again Buick hit the market with a package that combined good looks, luxury, and massive power. They called it the Skylark Grand Sport. The Grand Sport’s 400 and 455 engines produced tremendous torque, making the Buick GS a stand out performer at the drag strip without sacrificing one bit of Buick’s legendary comfort and high style. But by the mid 70s, even the mighty Stage I Buicks were gone. The auto industry went from making horse power to making fuel economy. But a few people at Buick weren’t satisfied with this situation. They knew they could make fun cars again. They just had to do it differently.
Buick Makes Fun Cars Again
So, a group of engineers got together and literally redefined the muscle car. They wanted to keep all the important muscle car stuff like blinding acceleration and great styling but they had to lose the things that didn’t work in the 80s, like poor handling and bad fuel economy. At the time, the Buick Regal was mixing it up pretty well on the Nascar tracks. And even in the 80s, the old connection between racing and sales was still there. “There was still that a growing belief which I think is true today of many cars: win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Says one racing enthusiast.
The car which would become the next great muscle car was the 1982 Regal Grand National. It was more of a cosmetic exercise than a muscle car but it was a start. Now all Buick had to do was create a muscle car power plant to go with its excellent body and the good ol’ days would be back again. Thanks to Buick’s race track success, the Regal was already a well known race car but on the street the ’82 Regal Grand National was just another stripe and decal package. But all that was about to change. Says Mike Doble: “Obviously with fuel economy and emissions and the political pressures, we had to move to something that was a little bit more economical and a little bit more environmentally friendly and at the same time we wanted to develop an engine that had performance that could match most V8 power trains.” Power was the essential muscle car ingredient. For the next generation Grand National, Buick had chosen an engine that delivered good mileage and also had pretty good racing credentials. The 3.8 liter V6!
Buick had been a pioneer in V6 engines as far back as 1962 when they offered one in their new compact special. But the V6 that would become the world’s next great muscle car motor bore little resemblance to that early engine. By 1984, Buick’s turbo engine group was ready with the engine that would turn the Grand National into a real muscle car. What would transform the 3.8 liter V6 from a grocery getter into a booster rocket was a device called a turbo charger. Says –PZ: “All of the sudden they turned around and dropped this turbo V6 and it was like a change from night to day.” The ’84 Grand Nationals 3.8 liter or turbo engine was light years ahead of earlier V6s. It made 200 net horse power and 300 foot pounds of torque, making it the most potent six cylinder engine in GM’s inventory along with the Garrett turbo charger. It featured electronically controlled Bosch sequential fuel injection, a specially tuned aluminum intake manifold, a higher pressure fuel pump and a new mass air flow censor.
’84 Grand Nationals started turning up at drag strips, doing quiet burn outs and whispering their way down the quarter mile to low 14 second runs, which was good performance, even for a high compression 60s V8. For a 231 cubic inch six, it was mind blowing. More than few GN owners found going this fast this quietly to be a strange experience “When I drive that car for the first time,” remembers –PZ, “I had to roll the windows down. I couldn’t hear the engines!” What really stopped people in their tracks was the Grand Nationals’ menacing all black appearance. “Luxury, high performance, and that evil looking black paint job!” Buick made 2000 Grand Nationals in 1984: all of them blacked out from bumper to bumper. This was truly a Buick with a bad attitude. Even 60s muscle car fans agreed that the GN did everything well. Says Jon Ward: “It’s a lot tighter, it’s a stronger car, the suspension is more solid. Overall it’s a better engineered car than the cars of the 60s.”
The Grand National and the Regal Turbo T Type were carried over unchanged for 1985, putting 4100 more of these bonsai mobiles on the streets. With all these turbo cars out there now, other muscle car owners had to be a little cautious around Buick Regals “Occasionally I have fun with Corvettes because one or two of them will look at it and challenge me and this will beat most Corvettes.” But two things were about to happen in 1986. Both of them predictable. Turbo car owners were finding ways to hot rod these V6 wonder engines and so was Buick!
For the past two years, people with those black Regals had been sneaking up on big inch Detroit owner until GN owners couldn’t get a race except with another GM. The turbo two type Regals were the real sneaky ones. They were just as fast and they weren’t even black. But just like hot rodders everywhere, Buick’s engineers weren’t a bout to quit while there was more horse power inside this engine. And there was a lot still there.
For 1986, the engine’s bottom end remained the same. But on top, a lot had been changed. From its now open intake manifold to better electronics, Buick’s continuous improvement program for the Turbo 3.8 increased its output more than 10%. It now cranked out 235 net horse power at 4400 RPM and 330 foot pounds of torque at 2800 RPM. This year the Turbo was moved to the front of the engine and it now fed compressed air into the intake manifold through a clever little speed secret. This device cools the heated air coming out of the turbo charger to make the engine’s intake charge more dense and able to produce more horse power. With the addition of the inter cooler, this little engine that could had become the little engine that could kick your butt! It could now rip off high 13 second quarter miles at almost 100 mph in showroom stock trim! A little tweaking and the engine responded like the true race motor it was, which caused modern day muscle car enthusiasts to jump all over this car with not just wrenches but laptop computers.
Car Hartline explains: “It tells me my air fuel ratios and things and I can actually overlay that at some of the other screens and fine tune the air fuel.” But regardless of its racy nature, its builders never let anyone forget that this car was Buick from bumper to bumper. Buicks were premium American motor cars and everything about the Grand Nationals fit and finish said so. The ’86 Regal’s base price of $11,562 put it in the upper range of GM’s mid sized cars. The Grand National option package inflated this figure by $3574 dollars but it was loaded with good stuff. No fewer than 23 items. Like air conditioning, console, a leather wrapped steering wheel, fast ratio power steering and excellent bucket seats. With Buick’s distinctive go fast logo included in the GN package. Other GN items included special chrome steel wheels and two 15.65 R steel belted radial tires, power front discs, the 200 R four speed automatic transmission, a 342 rear end, the rear spoiler and special Grand National badging. And of course, that bad black paint job!
For those who wanted something other than basic black, the Grand Nationals fraternal twin brother offered all the same performance and luxury options plus it had your choice of colors. By 1987, almost 8000 Turbo Ts were on the streets. 1987 would be the turbo car’s best sales year yet which productions scheduled fro 10,000 cars. But just like the last days of the 60s muscle cars, the end was near for the turbo cars. But Buick wasn’t about to let this car just disappear without doing something special. With the T type and the GN, Buick had done the impossible. They had reinvented the muscle car and updated it for the 80s. The little 3.8 liter V6 had grown from a 180 horse power novelty engine into a 245 horse power stormer in just four years. And these cars had proved that going fast didn’t have to come at the expense of luxury, comfort, and gas mileage. And now, word came down from the ivory tower that after 1987 there would be no more of them. But this time it wasn’t a 70s “we hate cars” management edict that killed the GN. Typical of Buick, it was a very logical engineering decision. Explains Paul Zazarine: “Unfortunately what really happened was the body went away. If you remember in 1988 they started the new front wheel drive body and all the G bodies were discontinued. That whole rear wheel platform was now extinct and they really didn’t have a front wheel drive platform that could adequately handle the torque and the turbo V6.”
What happened next would make automotive history. “We knew that the production was running out. We were stopping production of the GNs,” says Doble, “so we knew we needed to celebrate that movement of the car and its departure so the task was to build a new GN special edition that outperformed the Grand National but also was the Grand National to end all Grand National production.” What they built was the GNX with the 87 as a base line. They created a modern American classic in every way from appearance to performance. From the car’s new GNX badging to its flared fender wells and 16 by 8” BDS wheels to the classic Buick portholes, this was a collectors car even before it was built. “Every car was sold before the first car was built. That doesn’t often happen and when we saw the articles and the positive media exposure in the press, there’s little choice. We had to build this car!”
The GNX – It Just Had to Be Built
A special car like the GNX would have to have more power. But, by now, the Turbo V6 was so well developed there wasn’t much left to modify. For help, Buick called on McClarin, the world famous racing engine builder to find a few more horses. Along with some reprogrammed electronics, the GNX was treated to a new ceramic coated turbo impeller and a specially designed intercooler combined with an enlarged turbo exhaust housing and a less restrictive exhaust system, this helped the GNX’s power plant max out at 276 horse power and 360 foot pounds of torque. But, by far, the major changes took place in the car’s suspension. “We knew we had a lot more power going back to the road’s surface so we knew we needed to make sure we tied down that rear end, so we couldn’t allow the differential to rotate on low so we introduced the ladder bar and launched a little rod that cracked almost halfway up through the car. That ladder bar kept the differential from rotating on torque load Instead the rear end of the car lifts up, that keeps the tires planted firmly on the ground, less tire spin, far better performance.”
All this cut more than a second off the GN’s 0 to 60 times and its quarter mile performance was astonishing. The car cornered like a sports car and today it still looks like the meanest car on the road. But maybe the car’s greatest gift to the muscle car world was that it taught Doble and the GNX team something very special about the love people have for performance cars. “I think the strongest message was that we gained an awareness of the fervor that the market had for niche vehicles. They wanted vehicles that were unique and special to them. The cars that said a statement and met their lifestyles and met them feel unique and special.” Even though they were only in production for a few years, the turbo cars from Buck created a following as strong and enthusiastic as any muscle car ever made.
In 1987 when Buick canceled the Grand National, Buick dealers all over America were inundated with orders for one of the last ones. The demand was so great that Buick extended its production run unht8lover 20,000 1987 GNs were eventually made. Modern GN and T Type owners range form people who raced big block Fords and Chevys in the 60s to young people getting their first taste of going fast and loving every minute of it. Bill Savino and his two sons, Mike and Dan, each own a Turbo Buick. It was Bill who started this family trend: “I drove an ’87 new in a dealership and I fell in love with it so I just got my chance last year to buy an ’87 Grand National and after that, Mike decided he wanted to buy one and then Danno got the bug and Danno bought his ’85.” Dan adds: “I’ve known about them since 8 years old. Said when I turn 16, 17, I’d like to get one so I had to get a cheap one and stumbled across this and bought it!”