The cars we loved.
Buick had quietly laid the groundwork for its modern performance oriented cars with the use of turbocharging in the late 1970’s. The goal then was to boost power while raising gas mileage of its newly downsized cars. Turbocharging was still relativity new with only Saab and Porsche in addition to Buick selling the engine type in America. As the price of gas went down, Buick no longer worried about fuel efficiency and began to focus more on performance. Great gas mileage was of course a fringe benefit.
Like other US auto makers, Buick used its experience in racing to refine the technology in its road cars. The mid-sized Regal coupe was a natural to carry the performance banner for Buick. The 1978 Regal introduced a sleek aerodynamic front end that made them popular in NASCAR. A line of cars (mostly Regals) were named after the Grand National (GN) series of races that Buick participated in. It won the manufacturer’s cup in 81-82 and prepared a special Regal for the occasion. The Grand National cars would be a step above the sporty T-Type offerings, in looks only at first. Like the T-Type Regal, the new GN would eventually be turbocharged and over the years would feature serious advancements that made it the ultimate performance Buick.
The early years of the GN were almost overlooked by the general public. In 1982 Buick set out to simply build a car that captured the spirit of NASCAR with the comfort and refinement expected of a Buick. The 82 models weren’t even turbocharged like the Sport Coupe T-Type cars. Instead they were saddled with a normally aspirated 4.1 l V6 making just 125 hp. Although, not the stuff of Mustang envy, it did look the part with a distinctive silver and black paint scheme. While not all out fast, it did look good handle well. By 1984 Buick dropped its 3.8 V6 Turbo in to all GNs. Sales were always good, as roughly 2 to 5k cars were sold a year up to 1987. By that time the GN had settled on a performance car all-black look with subtle special badging. So sinister was the look that, the car became associated with Darth Vader due to the mono-chromatic paint scheme and the absence of chrome. It wasn’t all about the looks, as the GN was a grown-ups muscle car using modern technology to achieve sub 8 second 0 to 60 times and top speed numbers more in line with the Camaro or even the Corvette – all from an engine much smaller.
By now the word was out that Buick had a real performer in the Gran National Regal. When the final car was announced in 1987, buyers rushed to Buick dealerships and placed orders. Initially, Buick had planned to build only as many as it had been averaging before (around 2000 cars a year), but due to overwhelming demand, production the 1987 GNX extended beyond the regular Regal lines scheduled cutoff date. Production went right into December 1987, even while Buick was readying an all new Regal for the 1988 model year.
The bum rush to the dealership was for good reason. The 1987 Buick Regal GNX was the best Grand National car ever. Whatever the X stood for could have been the element that set the 1987 car apart from previous Gran Nationals. In this case it was the McLaren Performance Technologies/ASC involvement with Buick on fine tuning the Regal. For about $30k you could get a limited production GT car with performance to match anything that came out of Detroit while shaming much of Europe and Japan. Refinements to the 3.8 L V6 now included a Garret Turbocharger, more efficient intercooler and other improvements boosted horsepower to 276. That was more than a Camaro Z28 or Corvette! Other changes now included a low restriction dual muffler exhaust system, reprogrammed 4 speed automatic transmission and vents on the front finders. A unique ladder bar rail was added to improve traction to the rear wheels.
The press loved the new GNX. The low-key stealth like appearance was enhanced by black paint and the general lack of bright work. Inside was not too much different from any other Regal. Grey interiors anchored by a sport steering wheel, dual color sport seats, a few badges and of course full instrumentation including a boost gauge rounded out interior features. 16 in wheels completed the sporting effect, but the Regal was more than a looker. The GNX was the fastest American car in 1987 with a 0 to 60 time of 4. 7 seconds and the quarter-mile around 15.9 seconds. Handling was considered as good as or better than the Camaro and even compared well to the Corvette. The old school American notion was turned on its head thanks to V6 turbo power. Soon the term “Bat Out of Hell” applied to the neck snapping acceleration that the GNX was becoming known for.
The Grand National cars succeeded in their mission to drive sales of other Buicks. It also established Buick as a producer of performance cars, something that might not have sat well with Pontiac who had no turbo powered equilovent for its Grand Prix (or Chevy’s Monte Carlo SS). Interestingly, enough the most hyped incarnation of the 3.8 V6 found a home in Pontiac’s Trans-Am in 1989 as a way to use the remaining turbo engines Buick had after Regal production shut down. Pontiac’s version was tuned differently and produced about 20 less horsepower. As a result, much of the fame from this remarkable engine is associated as much with the Trans-Am as it is the Regal.