Buick Grand National

by Bill Vance

The Buick Grand National, built from 1982 to '87 (except '83), was an anachronism, a blunt-instrument throwback to the muscle cars of the '60s. It represented a kind of last gasp of the somewhat crude, but still high performance rear drive chassis left over from pre-energy-crisis days.

True, it did have a sophisticated engine management system applied to its pushrod, turbo V6 used from '84 to '87. But apart from that, the rest was pretty much 1960s technology.

The Grand National was a dressed-up Buick Regal. The latter dated back to 1978, the year in which Buick re-introduced turbocharging in domestic cars in the Regal and LeSabre Sport Coupes. General Motors had pioneered production car turbos in 1962 with the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire V-8 and the flat-six Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder. But in those days of cheap gasoline, the large displacement V8 engine was the lowest cost route to high performance, so the turbo soon passed from the scene. Oldsmobile discontinued turbocharging after only a couple of years, while the Corvair kept it until 1966. Buick introduced the original Regal Grand National in February, 1982, at Daytona Beach, Florida, an appropriate venue for a car named after a stock car racing series. But in spite of the race-related name, the Grand National was far from a stormer. Power came from a "cooker" variety 4.1 litre V6 that developed a modest 125 horsepower.

In an attempt to attract younger buyers, Buick painted this Regal spinoff in an attractive two-tone combination of charcoal-grey and silver-grey, accented with red pinstriping and "Grand National" lettering on the fenders. It also featured a T-roof and all power equipment.

But to appeal to youth you need more than fancy paint jobs and slick striping; you need power, and here the Grand National fell short. Its big V6 gave performance that was adequate, but far from muscle car strength. Only 215 1982 Grand Nationals were built, and no 1983s at all. Buick had realized that more performance was needed, and wisely declared a Grand National hiatus until appropriate muscle could be put under the hood.

The wait wasn't very long. Buick's engineers got busy and the Regal Grand National reappeared for 1984 equipped with the hormones to do the job. Fitted with Buick's turbocharged 3.8 litre V6 pumped up to 200 horsepower, it now had the performance to match its image. Car and Driver magazine (7/85) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 195 km/h (121 mph).

This was impressive, but Buick engineers knew there was more to be had from their old cast iron six. They added an air-to-air intercooler to the turbo, a kind of air radiator that lowers the temperature and raises the density of the air entering the cylinders. This in effect packed more air into the engine, and since power is a direct function of air and fuel flow, more power is developed. In this case it was a reported 225 horsepower.

When Car and Driver (4/86) tested this more muscular Grand National (now up to 235 horsepower), they reported an astonishing zero to 96 (60) time of 4.9 seconds, or faster than all of the world's production cars available in North America except the Porsche 911 Turbo, which did it in 4.6 seconds.

The reported top speed, although the car was capable of more, was 200 km/h (124 mph). The engineers limited it to that speed with the engine management computer because that was the maximum rating of the tires.

The Grand National was so fast that C and D's testers thought they smelled a rat; they suspected that the turbo 3.8 was putting out much more than its advertised power. When questioned, Buick's engineers more or less admitted that the 235 horsepower rating was artificially low for reasons we can only guess at. It may have had something to do with insurance rates, or that perhaps the corporation didn't want to upstage the Corvette's 230 horsepower, or both.

The final kick of the Grand National was its evolution into the even more outrageous GNX in 1987. It was like the last bright flash of a meteor just before it burns out. The GNX was rated at 300 horsepower, and Car and Driver (5/87) reported a zero to 96 (60)) of 4.7 seconds. Top speed remained controlled at 200 km/h (124 mph).

This would mark the end of the Grand National/GNX. For 1988 the Regal joined the modern movement to front-wheel drive, relegating the old rear-wheel drive chassis to history. The V6 engine lives on, however.

The Grand National was never made in large numbers, but it had revived the spirit and performance of the 1960s muscle car era. This, plus its prodigious performance and limited production, bodes well for it as a future collectible. Reflections on Automotive History by Bill Vance, Volumes I, II & III available through www.billvanceautohistory.ca bvance@cogeco.ca