Crucial Cars: Buick Grand National

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on Buick’s iconic ’80s muscle car, the Grand National.

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The year 1982 marked the slow rebirth of American performance cars. The “malaise” era, which ran roughly from 1975 through 1981 and marked a dark time when engines continually lost power, was finally ending. Thanks to new technologies, such as computerized fuel injection and ignition timing, engines could run more cleanly and efficiently while making more power than before.

Performance started its return to American car showrooms as Ford crowed “The Boss is Back” in advertisements for the ’82 Mustang GT with its “high output” 5-liter V8. General Motors was at the party, too, as Chevy and Pontiac rolled out leaner, sharper handling versions of the Camaro and Firebird, while Buick quietly brought out the Grand National.

Right about now, some of you might be thinking we’ve got the introductory year of Buick’s bruiser wrong. We can see it now: “Did you skip your morning coffee, guys? The Grand National came out in 1984, not 1982.” But serious Buick buffs may know that the Grand National debuted when “We Got the Beat” and “Eye of the Tiger” were burning up the Top 40 charts. And that the Grand National wore, for that one year, a silver/gray paint scheme.

Started out in silver

Something of a spiritual successor to Buick’s Skylark Gran Sport of the ’60s and ’70s, that first Grand National was similarly based on Buick’s midsize Regal personal luxury coupe. A 4.1-liter V6 with just 125 horsepower was the standard mill, with Buick’s turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 as an option. The turbo six made a respectable 175 hp—keep in mind these were the times that 5.0-liter V8s were making on the order of 150-165 horses.

Inspired by Buick’s success in NASCAR racing, the Grand National drew its name from the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National race series. A number of tweaks set it apart from your aunt’s vinyl roof-topped, bench-seated Regal. The Grand National featured a sharp charcoal gray/silver two-tone paint scheme with large “Buick” decals on its rear quarters, along with turbine-style alloy wheels. Inside were bucket seats, a console and a sporty metal-spoked, leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Given that there were only 215 Grand Nationals made that first year, one might be forgiven for not knowing this car ever existed.

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Skipping a year

For 1983, the Grand National took the year off. So did the Chevy Corvette, but that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird saw their performance variants getting stronger. Although those smaller, “pony car” segment cars aren’t direct rivals to the Grand National, it’s important to note that performance was now steadily on the rise for these American cars.

What was a direct rival came from Chevrolet, as it chose this year to debut its Monte Carlo SS. A cousin to Buick’s Regal (and Oldsmobile’s midsize Cutlass), it was built on the same platform, but rather than offering a turbo V6, the Monte SS sported a high-output 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) V8 making 180 horsepower.

Back in black

Returning to the Buick lineup for 1984, the Grand National took on a decidedly more sinister visage. Available only in black, with color-keyed bumpers and grille insert to further the menacing vibe, the Grand National also featured cool turbo V6 emblems on the body and inside the car.

Under the skin, the 3.8-liter turbo V6 was standard, and now fortified with sequential fuel injection and computer-controlled ignition, made 200 hp along with a healthy 300 lb-ft of torque. Running through its standard four-speed automatic (the only transmission available) and able to dash to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and run down the quarter-mile in the high-15s, the Grand National backed up its tough looks with serious-for-the time street cred. The 1985 Grand National was essentially a repeat of 1984.

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Gotta be cool now

Things got more serious for 1986, as the Grand National received a major increase in performance. The turbo V6 saw the fitment of an intercooler, which as the name suggested cooled the air going into the engine. Cooler air is denser than warmer air, which helps to create more power. Bottom line? A walloping output of 235 hp and 330 lb-ft.

It all made for a blacked-out personal luxury coupe that, in terms of straight-line gusto, could show its tail lights to the mighty Corvette, let alone those pesky Mustang GTs, Z28s, Trans Ams, Monte Carlo SSs, and Olds 442s. You want numbers? The ’86 Grand National could blast to 60 mph in the high 5-second range and unreel the quarter-mile in the low- to mid-14s.

Sadly, 1987 would be the last year for the Grand National (as GM prepared to launch its completely redesigned, front-wheel-drive midsizers for ’88), but it wasn’t going out quietly. Instead, Buick boosted the Grand National’s firepower to 245 hp and 355 lb-ft. Performance numbers were stunning, as car mags of the day got sub-5-second 0-60s with their quarter-mile times ranging from high-13s to low-14s.

It takes a keen eye to discern the minor visual differences between an ’86 and an ’87, as the latter has a completely blacked-out grille (no chrome mustache) with thicker vertical bars inside it.

As for that not “going out quietly” statement, the limited production (just 547 produced) Buick GNX was the Grand National taken to a higher level. Built in concert with McLaren Performance Technologies and ASC, the GNX boasted an upgraded turbocharger with a ceramic impeller and bigger intercooler, along with a less restrictive exhaust system, reprogrammed engine controller, beefed-up transmission, and reworked rear suspension.

Somehow, the GNX managed to look even more menacing than a standard Grand National, fitted with 16-inch wheels with black mesh centers, front fender vents and the deletion of the Grand National’s various emblems from the body sides and hood bulge. Unique interior treatment was part of the deal, too, as the dash featured round gauges and a serial number plaque on the dash, indicating which production number of the 547 GNXs your car was.

The GNX’s more powerful 3.8-liter turbo V6 made (a very conservatively rated) 276 hp and 360 lb-ft. Performance was unbelievable — this Buick was one of the quickest cars in the world with a 0-to-60 time of around 4.6 seconds and the ability to obliterate the quarter-mile in about 13.3 seconds. Put another way, the GNX could spank most anything on four wheels apart from the top dogs from the kennels of Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Indeed, the Grand National could not have gone out with a bigger “bang.”

Do you have fond memories of a Grand National? Share them in the comments.

Comments

  1. I bought a 87 GN for my 25th birthday in July of 1987. It was a blast to drive and out run most production cars between red lights. It was garage kept for 25 yrs. I sold it in 2012 in excellent condition with 65k mi. for more $$ than I paid new. Not to worry the the 2009 G8 GXP that I purchased with the proceeds is equally a blast to drive with almost twice the hp of the GN.

  2. Kevin Johnson says:

    Flared fender wells

  3. Richard A Plummer says:

    Why did Buick stop making this car?

    • Buick even though it has had performance vehicles over the years was never consider by GM it’s parent company as a sports/performance division they always consider it more as the family car division and has focused it to being that it’s ashame because the GN was a decade ahead of all other performance cars of the day and it paved the way for many of the performance vehicles we have today another issue with it’s demise was cost in 87 a GN could run from 18k-22k that was a hard sell when you could buy a Mustang GT for 12K with a v-8

    • John Collins says:

      If I had to guess, I’d say General Motors killed it because Chevrolet complained that they did not want a car from the in-house. “luxury” division that could beat the Corvette

      • John, that’s exactly why it was killed. The Corvette is “supposed” to be the top dog performance car in the GM lineup. IT WASN’T in 1986 and 1987 and Chevrolet complained to the highest levels at GM. I remember when all the cool car magazines of the day were having headlines like “Buick V6 Beats Corvette” and Buick Turbo GN’s Fastest Car in America”, etc. Fun Times. No wonder these cars are so highly sought after…..

  4. michael ford says:

    I remember being a teen visiting and cruising Myrtle Beach in my Monte Carlo SS. I saw some blacked out Buick come up beside me and laughed. “Look, they are trying to imitate the SS,” is what I thought to myself. I stopped laughing when the light turned green. Found out quickly I didn’t know very much about cars.

  5. Lyle Hunter says:

    Have a 81 3.8 grand national motor and transmission with turbo charger for sale – – LY LE Lyle Hunter 402-580-3339. 80,000 mi.

    • Michael Henry Brooks says:

      How much would you want for the motor and is it a complete engine and the tranny did it shift well when you took out of car.

      Mike Brooks

  6. Robert Thomas says:

    The thing I remember about the GN’s was the way they left the line. Unless the driver held the brakes and used the throttle to spool the turbo and flash the converter, it left the line fairly sedately. For about 30-50ft…. Then the turbo lag was gone, and so was the GN, sometimes in a haze of tire smoke. A very neat car. What not mentioned in the article is the GN was really the beginning of the turbocharger revolution. Sequential multiport fuel injection was NASA technology back then. Really big power was just a few bolt on parts away. It was not all that difficult to extract 50 and even 100% more power out of that 3.8….

  7. Bought my ’87 new and kept until 2000 when I let it go for a song with only 42k miles on it. Garage kept most of the time but 3 little girls and a wife meant fun was over. Now I have a 2005 GTO which is even more awesome to drive

  8. Randy Mullis says:

    No mention of the T-Type or Turbo T Regal. Same wolf, different colored sheep’s clothing!! Mechanically identical with only cosmetic differences. Some times better optioned too. Runs just as hard with out the Darth Vader jokes. Lower production numbers so much more rare as well. Still, the GN gets all of the press while the T remains our little secret.

    • Tommy Turbo says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your statement ! T-types are just as cool without being all black. Although, the interior in the GN’s was much more eye pleasing.

    • John DiPietro says:

      @ Randy:
      Indeed the T-Type is the same car minus the dipped in black exterior and chrome wheels. That said, we wanted to keep the focus on the iconic Grand National though a blurb about the T-Type would have been okay. Some time ago I saw a light blue metallic T-Type that for the most part looked like a Grandma/Grandpa car aside from the bulging hood. Talk about a sleeper!

      @ Tommy:
      Agreed on the GN’s interior which adds to the car’s allure.

  9. Keith Dunlap says:

    I have an 87 GN , I bought it in sept of 2015 . Its been my dream car since I rode in one back in the late 80’s . I love the Turbo Regals

  10. In 1989 and then twenty years later in 2009 I would every now and again spot a GNX, I believe it was the very same vehicle, cruising next to me on morning traffic commute even in heavy rain on I-10 in Houston. I believe it was a daily driver for the owner which I hold great respect for.

  11. Tommy Turbo says:

    Wow ! If I could go back in time and do it again. Bought a new 87 in Feb. 88 for $ 17,260. Last of 500 built. Had my pick from Fischer Buick in Troy MI. as they had like 20 lining the concourse. Could have bought a GNX for around $ 25,600 from the one in showroom. Man what a deal it was and I should have done it. Mine was just as advertised though. Had 2 different proms for it. Eastern performance and a chip that would not shut down the computer at any point. I had that stupid 85 mph speedo buried for so long one time I swear it seemed like a minute until it came back to 85 without any pedal in it ! Was on a Northern Michigan road that went forever and the car never wanted to stop climbing up with boost gauge pegged all the way. That car was a beast and was so much damn fun. Sold it for a Chevy Lumina van that my growing family needed, UGH. I want it back as family is grown now and I want another one !

    • John DiPietro says:

      I feel your pain Tommy! There are so many cars that I owned back in the day(s) that I wish I had today: 1969 Chevelle SS396, 1969 Pontiac Firebird 350 convertible, 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, 1988 Toyota MR2 Supercharged.

      The ’69 SS396 was scary fast with its built big block,TH400 with a shift kit and a 4.11 posi rear end. The ’69 Firebird was sharp and a nice cruiser. The ’79 T/A wasn’t that quick for a car with “6.6 Liter” on the shaker hood scoop, saddled as it was with emissions controls and a 2.56 rear end, but it flew on the highway and handled really well for a near two-ton car with a solid rear axle. The MR2 is not a misprint, that little go kart was a rocket and not much could stay with it on a tight twisty road!

      Never owned a GN or T-Type, though I wouldn’t mind getting one ; )

  12. Bought my first Turbo Buick used in 1992, and Turbo T, with 70,000 miles on it. Put a chip, K&N filter, adjustable wastegate on the turbo, and installed an exhaust dump pipe. We turned the boost up to 20lbs, uncapped the exhaust and ran 10 gallons of Turbo Blue race gas. With about a grand total of $400 bucks spent the car ran 12.70’s at about 110 mph with borrowed slicks. I WAS SOLD! Had that car for about 9 years, and sold it to buy a 87 Grand National. I still have it and it looks as good as the day it left the Pontiac assembly plant in May of 1987.

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