The Buick Grand National is a well known icon throughout car culture. It seems that no matter what manufacturer flag you fly, everyone seems to have a soft spot for the little 231 cubic inch V6 that rewrote the Muscle Car handbook single handedly. This article is going to be a love letter to the two Grand Nationals I have owned, as well as a full history.
In 1981 and 1982, Buick won the NASCAR manufacturer championship and, consequently, wanted to build a car to celebrate that victory. Enter the 1982 Buick Regal Grand National.
Yes, that’s right, the first GN was a 1982, it wasn’t black, and the majority of them were not turbocharged. This was another stripe and decal package, like so many of the “muscle car” gimmicks from the late 1970s. Buick had an aftermarket company equip 215 Regals with the Grand National package. The majority had a naturally aspirated 4.1 liter V6 that made 125 horsepower; however there were thirty five 3.8 liter carbureted, turbocharged V6s that made it into the ’82 Grand National, to the tune of 175 horsepower. Most people are unaware that Buick had been experimenting with turbochargers since the mid 1970s, but nothing had really caught on yet. In 1983, Buick decided not to make a Grand National in order to figure out which direction they wanted the car to go.
“What’s that whistling sound?”
Buick brought back the Grand National for the 1984 model year with some huge changes. Gone was the silver paint, the carburetor, distributor, and the 4.1 liter V6. New for 1984 was the sequential fuel injected 3.8 liter turbocharged V6 with computer controlled ignition making 200 horsepower and 300 foot pounds of torque. This was a huge gain when you remember that the V8 “muscle cars” were making around 180 horsepower and no where near the torque. Buick Grand Nationals were slowly showing up at cruise nights and drag strips around the country, and running the quarter mile in the low 15 second range. Embarrassing the V8 faithful, not with the usual blast of noise, but with a subtle whistle. People couldn’t believe they were beaten by a boxy black Buick, but the real slap in the face came when they asked what was under the hood. I speak from experience when I say you always have a devilish smile when announcing “It’s just a V6”.
Going into 1985, Buick left well enough alone, only changing the interior and a few other minor details. It was slowly getting to the point where GNs and T-Types couldn’t get a race, except against another turbo Regal. People knew they had to be very careful around these cars. Something inevitable began to occur: owners were finding ways to modify their cars to squeeze out more power. Unbeknownst to them, Buick was doing the exact same thing. Production numbers were pretty low for 1984 and 1985, which was Buick’s choice. 1984 introduced 2,000 GNs to the street, and 1985 brought on about 2500 more. What came out for the 1986 model year only added to the Grand National’s legend.
In 1986 all of the major changes took place under the hood. Buick relocated the turbo near the front of the engine, added an open plenum style intake manifold, improved computer, and the biggest thing of all: an intercooler. All of these changes had the 1986 SFI Turbo V6 claiming 240 horsepower – underrated to keep their brethren opponents at Chevrolet happy. It would not do well to have a Buick rated more powerful than GM’s flagship sports car. The ’87 GN would run high 13 second quarter mile times straight from the show room. With a little tweaking, these engine responded like the race engines they were designed to be. Around 5500 Grand Nationals were produced for the 1986 model year.
The Grand National remained unchanged in 1987 except for a few trim pieces. The horsepower rating was still underrated, but upped to 245 horsepower, putting it exactly even with the 1987 Chevrolet Corvette. This naturally ruffled a few bowties.
The GN had quite a following by this time, and the intercooled cars were running low 11s with bolt on performance parts, and could still manage 24 miles per gallon. It was announced mid model year in 1987 that the Grand National and the G body platform as a whole were going to be replaced with front wheel drive economy luxury cars for 1988. With this news reaching the automotive buying public, Buick was over run with orders for the last Grand Nationals. This actually pushed production into December of 1987. In total, about 27,000 1987 GNs were produced, and on December 11th 1987, it was all over. The plant in Pontiac, Michigan was closing…for good. The last car built in that plant was, of course, a 1987 Buick Grand National. These people were losing their jobs, yet every single person building that last Grand National was smiling ear to ear.
Just like that, it was over. Four short model years after it first made a splash in the automotive market, it was gone. The turbo Regals made people think differently about what was considered a muscle car. It also proved that a car could be fast, pin you in the seat and be very fuel efficient. This car also helped the automotive industry as a whole, being the first commercially successful turbocharged car.
In like a lion, out like a … bigger lion?
You thought I forgot, didn’t you?
When word came down from the ivory tower that the G body was being discontinued, some people at Buick Motor Division knew they had to send the Grand National out with a bang. They wanted “the Grand National to end all Grand Nationals”.
The GNX was born. A mere 547 fully loaded Grand Nationals (with the exception of a sun roof or T-Tops since they reduced structural strength) were taken to ASC/McLaren of Livonia, Michigan to be modified. The modifications to the drivetrain were minor; a ceramic exhaust turbo impeller, modified exhaust housing, bigger intercooler, free flowing exhaust, and improved electronics. This helped the GNX make an underrated 275 horsepower and 360 foot pounds of torque. The body had some light modifications; the fender flares to fit the wider mesh aluminum wheels, and functional fender vents to extract heat from the engine bay. However, where the GNX really received an upgrade was in its suspension. A ladder bar was fixed to the rear differential, and attached to the transmission mount. This caused the tires to be forced into the pavement during a boost launch. These modifications helped the GNX have a 0-60 time of nearly 4 seconds flat – almost a full second faster than a standard 1987 Grand National.
A stock GNX famously beat a Callaway twin turbo Corvette in four out of four races at Milan Dragway. To add insult to injury for the Corvette, one of the races was completed with the automotive journalist’s whole family in the GNX. This caused the journalist’s wife to ask, “Why is the Corvette slowing down?” to which her husband replied, “It’s not slowing down, we’re pulling away”. Automotive magazines loved the GNX, but not only was this car extremely limited in production, it was very expensive. The GNX option was an additional $11,000 on top of the $17,500 Grand National price tag; and $29,000 was a lot of money for 1987. With that being said, every GNX was sold before the first one was even built. It was quite the exclamation point on the end of the Grand National’s short but dominant run.
I’ve had the fortune of owning two Grand Nationals, a 1986 and 1987 model. The ’86 was purchased as a rolling chassis in March 2007. The car came with all the components to make it a running and driving car. With the help of a local shop called Aggressive Performance, the car was running and driving by August of the same year. The ’86 had some minor bolt on parts, the most substantial being methanol injection. It was tuned to run 26 pounds of boost on 93 octane fuel. It was definitely very fast, but the transmission gave up on me. I had a ’93 Typhoon for awhile after the ’86, and now I have my bone stock 1987.
These cars have such a unique sound, and when the turbo starts to spool it is an orchestra of pure ecstasy. Even bone stock it throws you back into the seat and will not let you sit up until you lift your foot off the accelerator and you hear the turbo flutter.
The interior is typical 1980s GM, but with a Grand National badge on the dash and Power 6 emblems stitched into the head rests it just feels right. These cars aren’t built to corner, however thanks to technology, this can now be achieved with upgrades. The car rides like a luxury car: it’s calm, comfortable, and quiet. That is until you put your foot down. Grand Nationals are the ultimate case of automotive Jekyll and Hyde.
In closing, I have been in love with these cars since I was in high school. I had an idea of what these cars were like, and I had made up my mind that I had to have one. Sometimes when it comes to celebrities, athletes, and well known people, after you meet them, it becomes a case of “Don’t meet your heroes”. This can sometimes be the case with a car you’ve always had a love for as well.
I have great news for you, a Grand National is not one of those cars. Take all of the things you know about the Grand National, multiply it by about ten, and you’ll be somewhere close to what a GN actually is. If you have to chance to ride in one, or own one, DO IT! You’ll never ever regret it. Yes they’re fickle, yes they can break, yes they can leak. Remember that they are old, and have lived a hard life. Give them the love they need and deserve.
The Buick Guy
Don’t crush ’em. Restore ’em