The Doctor Is OUT

Buick’s black stallion.

Buick Grand National. Image: Car and Driver

Buick’s Regal: sweeping lines, restrained aggression, comfortable but hardly sporting – that being Pontiac’s purview. G-body-on frame, engineering that cut no mustard, but was never meant to. That the second generation Regal became a factory backed NASCAR winner, driven in the early 1980s by luminary Darrel Waltrip triggered a tangential change that, if not for a skunkworks plan, may well have fallen at the first hurdle.

When first shown, the car that was to become known as the Grand National, fell foul to top brass reaction. Ed Mertz and Dick Payne were livid at the thought of potentially sullying the Buick ethos. However, chief engineer Dave Sharpe, Mike Doble (Advanced Concepts), marketing boss Darwin Clark and impetus from then divisional manager, Lloyd Reuss, saw an opportunity to make Buick more youthful with some real muscle.

Buick Regal NASCAR entrant. Image: Car and Driver

We must first dive under the hood to ascertain the Regal’s source of power. In 1973, young engineer Ken Baker took up an after-hours turbocharged V6 engine project, begging, borrowing or stealing parts. With this rudimentary engine stuffed into a scrapped Skylark body shell, tests went well. Reuss heard along the grapevine of Baker’s plan and upped the ante – placing the engine into the 1976 Regal as NASCAR’s pace car.

The V8 contingent took notice – with umbrage. With knock sensors and pre-ignition controls, the 1978 production 3.8 V6T shoved out 165 bhp. Further enhancements led to smoother delivery and thirty five additional horses, seizing the advantage of winning Sunday, selling Monday.

Source of the light. Image: Car and Driver

Then as now, for reasons not wholly clear, the Grand National’s green light was given but even with interest sky high, numbers built were low, the GN lasting only seven short years. Offered only in black[1] with a four speed automatic transmission, five second 0-60 making this a street weapon, a sleeper amongst the Hot-Rod fraternity; the elderly doctor was ousted, desperately in need of resuscitation. With the addition of an intercooler in 1986, (standard) power was now at 235bhp with easy accessibility to more. 1987 brought 245bhp.

Suddenly, Buick had a two door coupé faster than their internal rivals. Knowing they were onto something sales wise, the Tri-Shield still must have blanched. The buying public cried out for more. The trickle became a stream but rear wheel drive was coming to an end for GM. With Mertz in overall control and with GM10 front wheel drive coming on stream for ‘88, the final GN run out was good for 20,740 GNs built for 1987 (versus 5512 in 1986) but there was time for one final, explosive twist.

As a nod to victories rattled up in the Indy and Daytona 500’s, the final run out was for 500 GNX (for Experiment), that is until Mertz requested forty seven extra units for special dealership incentives, thus creating an eminently collectible and lusty Buick. Hastening to add, the car remained far happier at the drag strip (even if the competition did not!) or caressing the boulevard, as opposed to those roads containing radii or an apex. A leaden right foot would create smoke and noise aplenty at any given carrefour, usually accompanied by a moustached grin.

Skirting the issue of factory induced uprating, Buick had the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC), along with McLaren (not the Woking outfit) collaboration invoking body modifications along with altered suspension for improved performance and handling. Also enhanced were freer-flowing heads, improved electronic engine controls with a wider exhaust emitting sounds like no other Dunbar product, attached to the Garret turbocharger.

This equated to 276bhp[2] and over 360 foot pounds. Assisting making the X more over a standard GN included 16” new design aluminium wheels, stiffer springs, analogue gauges, functional ventiports (finally!), a transmission oil cooler along with exclusive badging outside and individually numbered plaques to the passenger side dashboard. Every GNX arrived in a sinister black. One original Regal relic – the rectangular speedometer whose limit was 85mph – the GNX making the maniacal needle bounce. How un-Buick.

At the time, Buick ran a Select 60 programme, whereby the best sixty performing dealers could land the biggest sales models. Competition and interest was fierce. Oversubscribed but strictly limited numbers led to almost black market profiteering methods. A standard 1987 Grand National, already a highly regarded machine cost $18,295. The GNX ramped up the sticker price to $29,250 though very few sold for that.

Image: Car and Driver

Dealers had customers bid against each other; examples sold anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand dollars above. Today, values maintain a high ceiling, a GNX Palm Beach 2015 auction exhibit managing $165,000. The bespoke leather jacket supplied with each car commands $4,000 if found in excellent condition. Both car variants became targets of ultra-high horsepower makeovers.

Adding spice to an already hot dish, the GNX was subjected to some fun before actually being sold. A Milford Proving Ground set up followed by a tour conducted by Mertz and Bill Hogland taking in Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Phoenix and Las Vegas, often with police assistance raised GNX awareness by not entirely revealing the cars identity. That is until ASC took the factory un-assisted notion of entering a GNX in a dirt bowl race, handsomely victorious, the secret was out.

Image: Car and Driver

GNX statistics were staggering; Car and Driver magazine recorded the 0-60 at 4.7 seconds. The all important quarter mile stood at 13.5 seconds, 102mph, usurping internal rival Corvette, not to mention Italian exotics, Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini’s Countach. Notwithstanding the black as night stance with no chrome embellishments whatsoever, the GNX shone. Rivals managed corners, mind you.

The demise of the GNX caused nationwide uproar. The car was practically mourned by many potential customers, eternally hopeful enthusiasts and, one would expect, GM’s accountants. From America’s least likely stable rode a pony whose one dimensional trick remains revered, thirty years on. Rather sadly, Europe’s take on such, akin to the doctor, may well be out. 

[1] The first few were silver over black

[2] When independently tested, 300+

Data sources: Car and Driver, 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

6 thoughts on “The Doctor Is OUT”

  1. Thank you for this article, Andrew. It’s not often that something this black brightens up my morning. I definitely like it. Unassuming, yet powerful. I’ve seen some pretty rare Detroit metal at American shows here in the Netherlands, like a 2007 Ford Mustang Saleen Parnelli Jones Edition, but until now never a Buick Grand National. Maybe one day. For those of you who don’t like black I’ve added a photo of the Mustang mentioned.

  2. Good morning Andrew. Thanks for bringing has the story of another car of which I was only vaguely aware. I would summarise it as follows: have a good idea, execute it well, then allow internicine rivalries and jealousy to kill it prematurely. Good old GM!

  3. Cannot say am a fan of the Buick’s styling (the same with most US cars of the time) yet the GNX has its appeal due to its powerful Buick V6 Turbo engine.

    Seems the Buick GNX and related models featuring the Buick V6 could have benefited from being based on the V-Platform earlier (instead of 1991 in the Commodore and 1996 in the Monaro), particularly the Opel Monza that appeared around the same time which inspired the likes of Peter Brock building the HDT Monza V8 prototype.

  4. Here’s a documentary film about the Grand National/GNX:

    And the entire turbo V6 story, recounted by a former Buick engineer who was there from the start:

  5. Another great read Andrew. Fascinating stuff I knew nothing about before. As I’ve said before, every day is a school day reading your articles 👍🏻

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