Vintage Views: Buick Grand National


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One of the most iconic–and feared–muscle cars of the ’80s came with a somewhat unorthodox drivetrain: a turbocharged V6 backed by an automatic transmission. Meet the Buick Grand National and its variants, including the nearly all-conquering GNX.

Buick V6 engines, both turbocharged and naturally aspirated, were all over the place during that decade: They were raced in Trans-Am, IMSA GTP and even the Indy 500. It was the future–or at least that’s what we were told.

This look forward also featured smaller cars, so like its GM siblings, Buick’s two-door coupe was downsized for the 1978 model year. The optional turbocharged V6 included on that new Regal’s spec sheet was radical stuff at the time, while the car dominated NASCAR competition with a good ole V8 under the hood. Richard Petty won the 1981 Daytona 500 in a Regal, Bobby Allison did the same the following year, and Buick claimed the 1981 and 1982 manufacturer’s titles.

The brand celebrated by gifting the world with several muscular options. After testing the waters in 1982 and ’83, Buick unleashed a string of machines that still perfectly capture the day’s street performance scene.

1984: This is the year that the turbo Regal fully matured. Sequential fuel injection gave the Grand National’s turbo V6 engine 200 horsepower, putting it on par with the Mustang GT and Camaro Z28. The Grand National also received a stiffer suspension, wider wheels, and front and rear spoilers. Only one color was available–black–but buyers looking for other hues could get the same drivetrain in the Regal T-Type. The turbo Regals would carry over into 1985 largely unchanged.

1986: Time to turn up the wick once again, with an intercooler that allowed the Grand National and T-Type to produce 235 horsepower. A tweaked Grand National was a 5.0-liter Mustang’s worst enemy.

1987: This would be the final year for Buick’s G-body, and the Regal went out with a bang. The T-Type was replaced by the “T” package that, like the Grand National, now produced 245 horsepower, enough for a 13-second quarter-mile. An optional WE4 package featured aluminum wheels and brake drums.

Buick delivered more than 20,000 Grand Nationals just in 1987. Today, Bring a Trailer shows Grand Nationals for sale starting in the teens.

The 1987 model year also saw Buick upping the ante with their GNX. McLaren Engines did the under-hood work, subbing in dual exhaust, an upsized turbocharger and a recalibrated ECU. Engine output was underrated at just 276 horsepower. The rest of the upgrades were handled by ASC and included tweaking the transmission, installing a torque arm rear suspension, and fitting 16-inch aluminum wheels wearing 50-series Goodyear tires. Look closely and you’ll notice the full gauge package, flares and front fender vents.

Like the Grand National, the GNX only came in black. Car and Driver recorded a 4.7-second sprint to 60 for the model, which was quicker than anything else available that year save the Porsche 911 Turbo. While a base Grand National could be bought new for less than $20,000, the GNX stickered at nearly $30,000. There were only 547 examples of the GNX built; today, Hagerty says to budget about $100,000 for an excellent one.

Practical Guidance

Kirban Performance has catered to the Buick Grand National since the cars were new, and company founder Dennis Kirban shared some tips.

It’s best to avoid one with T-tops. T-tops weaken the overall structure of the car. They also create wind noise and water leaks.

Always check the SPID label–also known as the trunk ID label. This label is glued to the underside of every trunk lid. It has the 17-digit VIN number and all of the options on that car. Example: Limited slip was not standard but would be listed as code G80.

That seat material in the Grand National and the GNX is Pallex cloth and is next to impossible to buy today. None of the reproductions match it exactly.

Paint jobs in 1986 and 1987 were not the greatest, and the black showed even more of the problems.

Flush the brake fluid. Brake fluid should be clear and not look like Pepsi or Coke. Buick failed to tell owners to do this, and dirty brake fluid contributed to Powermaster brake issues.

Check the boost lines to the wastegate actuator–critical because if it swells up from the heat and falls off, you could over-boost the engine and blow a head gasket.

The first thing to address is to stiffen up the suspension. GM left out, on every car, four or six lower body bushings, so there is a gap in those spots. Install the front frame brace set and the rear seat brace set. You will notice the difference before you drive a block.

Install the fuel pump feeder kit. It plugs in and delivers a constant 12 volts to your fuel pump. Install an adjustable fuel regulator. This way you get good fuel flow. An upgraded pump should also be done as the fuel system was marginal at best 30 years ago. Don’t forget about the fuel filter–usually overlooked because a new owner may not realize that it is located in front of the axle, under the car.

These cars love cool night air.

Parts, Service and Community

Kirban Performance
kirbanperformance.com
(215) 766-1611

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turbobuick.com

The Official Buick GNX Registry
gnxregistry.org

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
tuna55
tuna55 MegaDork
4/3/18 3:02 p.m.
grover
grover Reader
4/3/18 6:14 p.m.

I'm not sure if there is another car in history that was so instantly recognizable by sound alone.  Always loved these. 

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels New Reader
4/3/18 6:46 p.m.

In reply to grover :

of course there are...just about any ferrari or opened up rx-7...or one of my favorites an opened up subaru with unequal length headers...that boxer rumble turns heads. :) 

te72
te72 New Reader
4/3/18 8:31 p.m.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say that mountain in the background of the top picture was Superstition Mountain, on the east side of the Phoenix valley...

 

These are definitely cool cars. I'm sure mine is as fast as most of them, but man... they've imprinted a fear of them in my mind, from seeing so many of them rocket down the track in 10 seconds or less.

malibuguy
malibuguy Reader
4/3/18 8:38 p.m.

My dads best friend bought his Ttype new in 87, so I pretty much grew up with it.

The feeling of that thing on drag radials launching at 5psi still makes my back twinge in memory 

Klayfish
Klayfish PowerDork
4/4/18 5:52 a.m.

One of the top 5 cars of my teenage dreams.  Had a poster of it on my wall.

StuntmanMike
StuntmanMike New Reader
4/4/18 7:44 a.m.

I still love these cars but at the same time, I get tired or hearing how these are faster than anything else, even current cars. Yea they dominated the streets 20 years ago, and especially when modified, but just don't compare to todays hot rods.

acbauza
acbauza
4/4/18 12:26 p.m.

In reply to tuna55 :

I remember Buddy Ingersoll beating Bob Glidden in his mountain motor t-bird. My brother started what was Eastern Peformance which specialized in Buicks. He bought an 84 GN and then sold it to get an 87 GN. 245hp is way under-rated as out of the box those cars ran mid 13's on streets and with no cat on slicks 12's was easy. The biggest issues with them were oiling and head gaskets. When you pump 25 to 30psi into them they start popping gaskets.

The car was years ahead of its time and Buddy help spearhead that with his Regal in Comp Eliminator then Pro Stock.

My brother STILL has his GN and I was fortunate to be part of that evolution of cars and even saw the prototype GNX's at the Buick meet in Bowling Green, KY.

crankwalk
crankwalk SuperDork
4/4/18 1:08 p.m.

Turbo Buicks and SyTy's are the only dream cars I've had as a kid that when I've gone to look at them with cash in hand I just couldn't pull the trigger.

 

Boost, nostalgia, cool 80's looks (IMO), but I sit in it and they just all feel like awfully cheap garbage from dark days at GM.  The need slide speedo that was straight from my grandmother's Olds 88. The door trim, shifter.....everything. The materials and construction just make me feel like these are better kept as dreams rather than actually owning one.

Tom_Spangler
Tom_Spangler UberDork
4/4/18 1:38 p.m.
StuntmanMike said:

I still love these cars but at the same time, I get tired or hearing how these are faster than anything else, even current cars. Yea they dominated the streets 20 years ago, and especially when modified, but just don't compare to todays hot rods.

True, they were low-14 second cars stock.  Which was damn fast in it's day, but these days most cars with sporting intentions (and some without) are quicker.  But they had real presence on the road, and a bad-boy image that made them damn near the coolest thing on the road for a few years there.  I'll never forget the C&D review with the sub-headline "Speed is a gunslinger in black" devil

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/4/18 4:37 p.m.
StuntmanMike said:

I still love these cars but at the same time, I get tired or hearing how these are faster than anything else, even current cars. Yea they dominated the streets 20 years ago, and especially when modified, but just don't compare to todays hot rods.

That is true, but it's been fun writing these Vintage VIews pieces. Hope everyone's been enjoying them. The next issue showcases the original 1LE. Our expert basically said it: Don't buy one for performance because the later Camaros are better on track.

Still, the original has that cool factor. 

te72
te72 New Reader
4/4/18 9:18 p.m.

In reply to crankwalk :

GM quality is pretty much the only reason I don't have a C5 already. That was perhaps the first car that I truly "noticed" as being special in my youth. That said, I did try to buy one in 2007, but finances just weren't lining up at the time.

 

I still see them and think, hmm... but then I realize I have a Miata, and I have a Supra, so I pretty much check off the "needs" list that a Corvette provides. Still... can't help but think on it sometimes!

Tom_Spangler
Tom_Spangler UberDork
4/4/18 9:24 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:
StuntmanMike said:

I still love these cars but at the same time, I get tired or hearing how these are faster than anything else, even current cars. Yea they dominated the streets 20 years ago, and especially when modified, but just don't compare to todays hot rods.

That is true, but it's been fun writing these Vintage VIews pieces. Hope everyone's been enjoying them. The next issue showcases the original 1LE. Our expert basically said it: Don't buy one for performance because the later Camaros are better on track.

Still, the original has that cool factor. 

Personally, I love them, they are one of my favorite parts of the magazine.  Then again, I'm one of those weirdos who bought a "sports car" that's slower than a base model 2018 Camry.

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
4/5/18 9:30 a.m.

I love em.....always have.   Of course I was also 17 in 1987 when these were roaming the streets.   They were the first American Muscle car in ages that could run with the cars from the 60's.   Keep in mind, growing up in the 80's, we weren't pining for new cars.....we were lusting for the Hemi Cudas, SS Chevelles, and GTOs of the late 60s- early 70's.   Nearly all cars were dog slow.....with a 16 second 1/4 mile being seen as quick.   Here comes the intercooled T-Type and GN, which could run mid to high 13 second 1/4 miles......bone  stock!   They were a revalation.

We quickly learned to keep an eye out for the third tail-light, which was mandated in 1986.   If a GN had one.....watch out, it's an intercooled car, and fast!    If it didnt'......no  sweat, it was an older one, and  only capable of a high 15- low 16 second 1/4 mile.  The fast ones also had those ugly steel wheels--- although you could still get the "turbine" wheels on the T-Types.  Those T-Types were the real sleepers, as you could get them in colors other than black.   Sneaky cars that looked alot like the Regals your grandma was driving.  

Keep in mind, those 80's Japanese cars we now lust over, like the Starion Turbo, Second gen Supra, and RX-7 would take 15 to 16 seconds to clear the 1/4 mile.  Yes, they handled better than the GN, but on anything but a twisty mountain road, or a race-track, the GN would humiliate them.   The GN was even quicker than the Corvette, the Ferrari 308, or Porsche 911 of the day.

I remember the first time I saw a genuine GNX on the road.  We followed the guy, trying our best to get him to floor it.....just so we could see it in action.   That damn responsible bastard wouldn't fall for it.......but we did gape at his car for a good long time.  

It's hard to explain how cool the GNX was........ at the time we all thought it would be the last true Muscle car, as everything was headed for FWD.   GM thought so too, and they allowed their engineers to have some fun.    It reminds me of the Demon and Hellcat these days---- one last F-U, look at what we can do---- before the autonomous cars take over.  

 

wspohn
wspohn Dork
4/5/18 10:57 a.m.

I thought these were a neat alternative to V8 power when they were new, but now that they are slower than many hot hatch commuter imports, there is nothing left to admire but the appearance and I never liked that at all - generic American sedan.

Before that I thought the Yenko Stinger was neat, too, but when the performance that seemed brilliant back in the day evaporates with time, what is left has to appeal and neither car does that, at least for me.

StuntmanMike
StuntmanMike New Reader
4/6/18 10:43 a.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Yes I like the vintage articles too and don't get me wrong I still love GN's, Monte Carlo SS's, all the old big body cars, hotrods, etc I guess it just made me think of anytime we start talking cars and the old timers that like cars (but not really "gearheads") start talking about how fast cars used to be. I don't want to be that guy and start dropping facts but, my conservative build would smoke any build from that time and your average minivan or camry would smoke anything off the showroom from then. Anyways, off my soapbox, keep up the good work! 

te72
te72 New Reader
4/7/18 5:16 p.m.

In reply to StuntmanMike :

Always thought it amusing to point out to those with the rose-tinted glasses that a modern Miata runs 14's, just like a lot of beloved muscle cars from back in the day. Really gets some folks hot under the collar haha. Modern cars are just scary fast compared to most of what we grew up with.

Ranger50
Ranger50 UltimaDork
4/7/18 5:46 p.m.

Buddy of mines “street” car....

StuntmanMike
StuntmanMike New Reader
4/13/18 10:20 a.m.

In reply to te72 :

I think a lot of them would have turned better times if they had better tires back then. A lot of the old big blocks made 4-500hp but had little 215 tires and crappy suspension! I guess thats why restomods are so popular now.

Tyler H
Tyler H UltraDork
4/13/18 10:42 a.m.

"1987: This would be the final year for Buick’s G-body, and the Regal went out with a bang. The T-Type was replaced by the “T” package that, like the Grand National, now produced 245 horsepower, enough for a 13-second quarter-mile."

 

13 seconds seems suspiciously quick for a big ole car with 245hp.  

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
4/13/18 10:56 a.m.
Tyler H said:

"1987: This would be the final year for Buick’s G-body, and the Regal went out with a bang. The T-Type was replaced by the “T” package that, like the Grand National, now produced 245 horsepower, enough for a 13-second quarter-mile."

 

13 seconds seems suspiciously quick for a big ole car with 245hp.  

Those engines were seriously underrated.  Also, although the GN was a fairly large sedan, they weren't total pigs weight wise---- 3600 lbs or so.  

A 401 CJ
A 401 CJ Dork
4/15/18 4:55 p.m.

I think they were 3400

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