Buick isn’t known for performance today, but for a brief time they had a car that competed with Corvettes. Let’s look back at the Buick Grand National.
When we think of Buick as a brand today, it’s regarded of as being bland, unremarkable, and “something our grandparents drove.” Their lineup today sadly only consists of the Encore, Envision, and Enclave; all of which are commonly forgotten in the overloaded crossover and SUV segments. I mean, other countries, especially China, are more enthralled by Buick than America ever will be again. The keyword in that previous sentence being “again”, because Buick actually used to be pretty popular.
1986 Buick Grand National – carsforsale.com | Shop Buick Grand National on Carsforsale.com
While you may think of the boring LeSabres and Centurys of the late 90s as being Buicks peak in popularity, there was actually a period in the 80s where Buick was regarded as being the one of the fastest cars on the road. While this performance era was just a blip in Buick’s history, it is still regarded as a huge moment for the company, and the car that resulted from this time is fondly remembered by car enthusiasts. Here’s a run-down of one of the best production cars to ever come out of Buick, the Buick Grand National.
Buick was leaning on a motto in the early 80s, “Win Sunday and Sell Monday.” Winning races in the popular motorsport of Nascar correlated to better sales on the car lot. The Buick Regal nameplate was a champion of Nascar at the time, having won the Nascar Winston Cup Grand Nationals back-to-back in 1981 and 1982. However, this racing heritage didn’t directly translate to the same cars found at dealerships. The Buick Regals of the time were your classic underpowered econoboxes due to government emission and safety regulations.
1979 Buick Regal – carsforsale.com | Shop Buick Regal on Carsforsale.com
The minds at Buick knew they had to celebrate their motorsport success in a better way than just a basic car under the same name as the championship model. In 1982, Buick unveiled the Regal Grand National, a trim level that shared its name with their Nascar championship titles, added a little bit of exterior flare, and squeezed a couple more ponies under the hood. The naturally aspirated 4.1L V8 engine made 125 horsepower, which was just 15 more horsepower than the 3.8L V6 engine produced in base models. There was a limited few Grand National versions in ‘82 that had the turbocharged variant of the 3.8L V6 making 175hp, but it’s estimated that there were less than 50 ever made.
1982 Buick Regal Grand National – carsforsale.com | Shop Buick Regal Grand National on Carsforsale.com
While this model variant was the beginning of the Grand National’s story, it wasn’t the one we all remember the namesake for. Instead, after a brief hiatus for the Grand National name in 1983, it would return in 1984 better than ever. That’s when we finally got the blacked-out beauty that really brought the heat.
In 1984, Buick brought back the Grand National in all black and only black. The body still resembled that of a Regal, but the hood now had the iconic Power Bulge (yes that’s the real name for it). This little bulge in the hood was created to fit an enhanced turbocharged 3.8L V6 engine with a sequential fuel injection and a distributor-less computer-controlled ignition that helped generate 200hp and 300 lb-ft of torque.
That amount of power can be found in plenty of basic cars today, but consider that the Corvette, GM’s poster child of the same time period, only made 205hp. The circumstances surrounding emissions and safety standards of this decade made cars underpowered and limited. Buick used this to their advantage. They found a way to make their car competitive with its corporate cousins from Chevy, by using proper tuning and engineering R&D. The stock 1984 Buick Grand National ran a quarter mile in 15.9 seconds, that is 1.1s faster than the 1984 Camaro and just 0.7s slower than the 1984 Corvette.
The big wigs at GM were having none of it and implored that Chevrolet improve upon the Corvette. Their 1985 model produced an extra 25hp over the previous year, creating a little more room between the Corvette and the Grand National. In 1986, Buick fought back by adding an air-to-air intercooler and adjusted the generated boost to increase the Grand National’s output to 235hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. Buick had finally surpassed the horsepower of the base Chevrolet Corvette by 5hp (Corvettes with aluminum heads matched 235hp).
The improvements to the Grand National allowed the car to set a quarter mile time of 14.2 seconds and it reached 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds. Finally, the 1986 Buick Grand National was considered the fastest American production car of its time. It beat out the Fox Body Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Trans Am, and, of course, the Corvette. However, GM wasn’t celebrating Buick’s success like one would think.
Buick was sadly forced to announce that the 1987 Buick Grand National would be the last of the model. GM couldn’t have some econobox styled car from their very own company sap sales away from their sleek Corvette. This doesn’t mean that the Grand National went out with a whimper however, oh no, this thing went out with a bang. Buick acted like the outspoken middle child and told its big brother Chevrolet to “go pound sand.”
For the Grand National’s final year of production, Buick once again increased the car’s performance. The turbocharged 3.8L V6 was tuned to produce 245hp and 355 lb-ft of torque, which once again trounced the Corvette. Buick had proven their point, but they made sure that the Grand National would always be remembered as a thorn in Chevrolet’s side.
Buick sent 547 Grand National models to ASC-McLaren Performance Technologies. McLaren was known at the time for performance racecar development, having made the famous McLaren M30 for F1 and the McLaren M8A for Can-Am. We all know how that company has turned out, but take a look at the McLaren Senna if you’re out of the loop.
McLaren gladly took in the Grand National models and packed them with an ungodly amount of performance upgrades for an American production car in the 80s. They swapped in a larger turbocharger, added a larger intercooler, added a low-restriction exhaust with dual mufflers, updated the transmission with a custom torque converter, added a transmission cooler, and had to tune the suspension to make sure the car didn’t make wheelies so easily. Along with some ECU (electronic control unit) calibrations, the Mclaren tuned Grand National made 276hp and 360 lb-ft of torque, but it was no longer called just the Grand National.
The old badging was removed, an updated set of analog gauge clusters were added, and the Grand National Experimental, or GNX, was introduced to the world. All that new power packed into a Buick Regal body allowed the GNX to make the quarter mile in a staggering 12.7 seconds and set a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds. The 1987 Buick GNX was faster than the Porsche 930 and the Ferrari F40! The only other production car at the time that could beat a GNX in a straight line was that 80s Classic, the Lamborghini Countach. Needless to say, the Chevrolet Corvette was an afterthought that year, as Buick had mic dropped the entire industry with the final iteration of the Grand National.
1987 Buick GNX – buick.com | Shop Buick Grand National on Carsforsale.com
The Grand National was the car that showed us, no matter the model, Buick could make a performance car. It faced company adversity, continued to outperform, and left in the best way possible. Buick attempted to bring back the nameplate in a Chevy S-10 installed with their turbocharged 3.8L V6, but obviously Chevrolet was at odds with Buick after their recent spat and had the 454 SS already in development. The idea was then brought to GMC in their S-15 and the company gladly took the design, creating the GMC Syclone. While it isn’t the direct descendent of the Buick Grand National, the Syclone still carried on the strictly black paint job and the inter-family rivalry with the Corvette. Be sure to read more about this Grand National avatar in our Retro Review: GMC Syclone.