Although it’s best known for building conservative middle-class sedans, GM’s Buick division has occasionally cultivated a rather racy image. In the mid-1980s, Buick took one last stab at the performance market with a ferocious turbocharged version of its popular Regal coupe, a malevolent-looking, all-black street rod that even some Buick executives nicknamed “Darth Vader.” This is the story of the turbocharged Buick Regal Grand National and the fearsome Buick GNX.
THE CAR GUY
Buick’s curious excursion into turbocharging in the late seventies and early eighties came largely at the behest of Lloyd Reuss, Buick’s chief engineer and later general manager.
Like his spiritual successor, GM product czar Bob Lutz, Reuss was beloved by enthusiasts and the automotive press. Reuss was bright, handsome, stylish, and, above all, a committed “car guy,” in a way that reminded some observers of John DeLorean. Nonetheless, Reuss had a somewhat checkered early career. He came to Buick from Chevrolet, where he had served as chief project engineer for the disastrous subcompact Vega, and later as assistant chief engineer, in which capacity he led the development of the unsuccessful, limited-production Cosworth Vega. It was not until his promotion to chief engineer at Buick that Reuss would finally have the chance to make his reputation.
Reuss worked on many projects at Buick, including early exploration of the concept that became the Reatta, but perhaps the most notable was the revival of an engine the division had designed and then abandoned a decade earlier: the old Fireball V6.
The original V6, based on Buick’s innovative 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V8, had been dropped due to lack of interest and sold to Kaiser Jeep in 1967. By the early seventies, however, the new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules made Buick desperate for a compact, lightweight six-cylinder engine. In 1974, Buick bought back the tooling for the V6 from AMC, which had acquired Kaiser Jeep in 1970. The tooling was quickly reinstalled in the same spot from which it had been removed seven years earlier, and the revived engine, expanded to 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) displacement, became optional on some Buick models for the 1975 model year.
The V6 was cheap, compact, and relatively light, although it was neither particularly smooth nor very powerful. Designed to be built on the same line as the small V8, it had the V8’s 90-degree cylinder bank angle, which gave it an uneven firing order and a tendency to shake. However, it provided a reasonable combination of power and fuel economy for its time.
It’s important to remember that in the mid to late seventies, most of the auto industry thought the V8 engine, which had been the American standard since the mid-1950s, was living on borrowed time. It was assumed that emissions and CAFE requirements would make the V8 obsolete by 1985. As unpromising as the Buick V6 appeared in power and overall refinement, it also looked like the future.
Buick therefore embarked upon what would prove a lengthy improvement process. The first effort, which appeared midway through the 1977 model year, was a split-pin crankshaft that eliminated the uneven firing order, for greater smoothness. Over the next decade, the engine would receive a host of incremental changes, aimed at increasing power, refinement, and fuel economy. This was a slow process, though, and Lloyd Reuss was considering the strong possibility that the V6 would eventually have to replace the division’s V8s. To do that, it would need a lot more power. To invigorate the V6, Buick turned to a technology GM had pioneered for passenger cars more than a decade earlier: turbocharging.
In 1962, Buick’s rival Oldsmobile division had created the world’s first turbocharged production car, the F-85 Jetfire, which used Oldsmobile’s version of Buick’s aluminum V8. The Jetfire’s complex turbocharger arrangement, which included water-alcohol injection to prevent detonation, failed to endear itself to either buyers or dealers, and it was dropped after only two seasons. Chevrolet’s simpler turbocharged Corvair engine, introduced a few months after the Jetfire, survived through 1966, but the imminent demise of the Corvair made it a dead end.
The rise of federal emissions standards created a resurgence of interest in turbocharging at several GM divisions. As early as 1971, Chevrolet fitted an experimental Camaro with a turbocharged straight-six. The intention was not to create a high-performance car, but one that would provide V8 power with six-cylinder fuel economy and emissions. Nothing came of it, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
According to Cliff Studaker, who was Buick’s assistant chief engineer for engine development in the seventies, the idea of turbocharging the V6 actually came from a 1974 Boy Scout project that Buick’s engineering department had sponsored. The results were so promising that Buick’s chief of advanced engineering, George Polen, started exploring the possibility of turbocharged production engines, with Lloyd Reuss’s enthusiastic backing.
Although it would have been simple enough to turbocharge Buick’s existing V8, the V8’s days seemed numbered, so Polen’s group concentrated instead on the V6. The first fruit of their labor was Buick’s “Free Spirit,” the pace car for the 1976 Indianapolis 500. The pace car was a heavily modified Buick Century with a turbocharged V6, making over 300 horsepower (224 kW).
The pace car replicas sold to the general public were not turbocharged, but Reuss and Buick general manager Dave Collier intended the Free Spirit as more than an exercise. The first production turbo engines appeared about a year and half later for the 1978 model year. The first production turbo six made 150 hp (112 kW) with a two-barrel carburetor, 165 hp (123 kW) with the optional four-barrel. Even the latter was anemic by modern standards, but it was still a lot better than the normally aspirated V6 and on a par with most contemporary V8s. Detonation was controlled with a computerized knock sensor called the Turbo Control Center, a novelty at that time.
Buick sold more than 30,000 turbo cars for 1978. Unfortunately, despite extensive precautions, including a pre-delivery test drive for each turbocharged car, the early turbo sixes fell short in both driveability and reliability (although they were nowhere near as disastrous as the old Vega engine). Turbo sales for 1979 dipped sharply, despite the engine’s new availability on the popular new Riviera.
Although the turbo engine was eventually offered across most of the Buick line, it was most popular in the intermediate Regal series. The Regal had bowed in 1973 as part of GM’s restyled A-body intermediate line. Initially offered only as a “Colonnade” semi-hardtop coupe, the Regal was a sub-series of the midsize Century, distinguished by a unique roofline and interior trim. It was essentially Buick’s answer to the popular Olds Cutlass Supreme and Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the low end of the booming personal luxury segment. A four-door sedan was added to the Regal line in 1974.
GM downsized its big cars in 1977, and the A-body followed suit in 1978, now riding a shorter 108.1-in (2,746mm) wheelbase and weighing hundreds of pounds less than before. The lighter weight made the standard V6 engine a more viable prospect than previously, and it allowed the new turbo six to return respectable performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in under 10 seconds, sprightly for that era. The 1980 models were up to 175 hp (131 kW), but sales slumped, affected by a new energy crisis and lingering concerns about reliability.
BUICK REGAL GRAND NATIONAL
Lloyd Reuss left to become chief engineer of Chevrolet in 1978, but he to Buick in 1980, as general manager. As we discussed in our article on the Buick Reatta, when he returned to Buick, Reuss saw that the division’s market was changing. During his previous stint at Buick, the primary adversary had been Oldsmobile, but by the early eighties, the affluent, upper-middle-class buyers who had traditionally been Buick customers were shifting to imports like Audi and BMW. Reuss was well aware that Buick couldn’t match the luxury imports’ sophisticated engineering or autobahn-bred road manners, but he could reach out to younger buyers with a Bunkie Knudsen-style focus on performance and sport.
Buicks had often been strong performers — the original Century was one of America’s fastest cars before the war and cars like the early-sixties Wildcat had been quite muscular — but they were still oriented toward respectable, upper-middle-class buyers. A Buick was traditionally a car for doctors or perhaps a successful attorney who hadn’t yet made partner. In the late sixties, the division had taken a stab at the Supercar market with the intermediate Gran Sports, but while the later GS and GSX were formidable, they had never sold very well; they were too expensive for younger buyers, but too racy for Buick’s usual customers.
Reuss hired Herb Fishel, a Chevrolet engineer working under Vince Piggins (whom Camaro fans will recall was behind the creation of the original Z/28), to launch Buick’s own performance arm. Finding little help from Buick’s design studios, then run by Jerry Hirshberg (designer of the boattail Riviera and later head of design for Nissan), Fishel obtained permission for designer Gary Smith to do design work for him on a freelance basis. Among Smith’s tasks for Fishel was developing a series of concepts for high-performance Century and Regal models, including the Regal pace car for the 1981 Indianapolis 500, refined into production form by Buick Two studio assistant chief Steve Pasteiner, and the Buick 80X, a performance-oriented promotional model.
The Indy pace car was one phase of Fishel’s performance push; another was a strong push into stock-car racing, which had long been the domain of Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth. Many NASCAR teams used the Regal from 1981 to 1983, with impressive results. Darrell Waltrip won the driver’s championship for 1981 behind the wheel of a Buick Regal. He did it again in 1982 despite strong competition from Bobby Allison, who won the 1982 Daytona 500 even after a collision tore off the rear bumper of his own Regal. Allison finally took the driver’s championship for 1983, which also earned Buick its third consecutive Manufacturer’s Championship.
Buick’s NASCAR success benefited both Regal sales and Buick’s total volume, which reached #3 in the industry for 1982 and 1983 — a ranking Buick hadn’t held since 1956. In late 1981, Buick decided to commemorate that performance with a special-edition Buick Regal Grand National (the original name of NASCAR’s top racing series, since 1971 known as the Winston Cup Grand National). The Regal Grand National, which were announced about a week before Bobby Allison’s Daytona 500 victory in February 1982, was just a trim package, developed by Steve Pasteiner and Moly Designs. It featured a unique black-over-silver two-tone paint job prepared by Cars and Concepts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Grand National’s standard engine was the 252 cu. in. (4,128 cc) version of Buick’s V6 with a modest 125 hp (93 kW). It could be ordered with the 3.8 L turbo, but no more than 15 or 16 buyers did so. Only 215 Grand Nationals were built in all, a very minor footnote in Regal production.
THE REAR-DRIVE REGAL GETS A REPRIEVE
The popularity of the Buick Regal coupe — and that of its in-house cousins/rivals, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Olds Cutlass Supreme, and Pontiac Grand Prix — presented GM with a problem. The A-body line was slated for its second round of downsizing for 1982, abandoning rear-wheel drive and body-on-frame construction for front-wheel drive and unibody design, but GM was reluctant to cancel the popular rear-drive coupes. The new Reagan administration was putting the brakes on emissions, safety, and fuel economy standards and had recently implemented voluntary restraints on the Japanese automakers (the effects of which we discussed in our article on Lexus). GM still had a long-term commitment to downsizing, but it no longer seemed as urgent as it had in the mid-seventies.
GM therefore opted to leave the rear-drive intermediates, renamed G-body, in production alongside the new front-drive A-body. The Regal wagon disappeared in 1984 and the sedan faded a year later, but the rear-drive coupes would continue through the 1987 model year.
The Regal coupe remained Buick’s performance leader and in early 1982, Reuss told Car and Driver that he wanted it to be the fastest of the G-body coupes (Monte Carlo/Grand Prix/Cutlass Supreme). Although 1983 was the last year for Buick’s NASCAR dominance, Reuss sought to sustain the momentum with sporty T-Type versions of every Buick except the full-size LeSabres and Electras. For 1984, he revived the Grand National. This time, it was a $1,282 appearance package on the Regal T-Type, inspired by Gary Smith’s earlier concept drawings and offered only in monochrome black, with black bumpers and and side moldings. Buick’s ad agency dubbed it “Darth Buick,” a name that eventually caught on even within Buick itself.
By this time, the T-Type and Regal Grand National were notably more potent than before. The turbo V6 now had sequential fuel injection, bringing it to an even 200 hp (150 kW). It was backed by GM’s new four-speed THM 200-R4 automatic with a shorter 3.42 axle ratio. In July 1985, Car and Driver found that the Buick Regal Grand National could run 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 7.5 seconds and do the standing quarter mile (402 m) in 15.7 seconds at 87 mph (140 km/h), with a top speed of 121 mph (195 km/h). This made it faster than its V8-powered G-body siblings, and quicker (though not faster) than a BMW 635CSi. Like the Supercars of old, the turbo Regal’s performance in other areas was less inspiring: it had ragged rough-road handling, a depressingly rectilinear, industrial-gray interior, and disc/drum brakes that were little changed from the far slower standard Regal. Still, the Turbo Regal offered a fair amount of speed for its relatively modest price, around $13,000.
The Regal Grand National was a limited edition, this time capped at 2,000 units. That rose slightly to 2,102 for 1985, better than the regular T-Type, which accounted for only 2,067 sales that year. By comparison, Chevrolet sold more than 35,000 of its Monte Carlo SS, probably because it was around $2,000 cheaper than the Grand National. The publicity value of the T-Type and GN was apparently worthwhile, however. Although Buick lost its #3 slot to a newly resurgent Oldsmobile, its actual volume was up 22% in 1984. It topped one million units for 1985, the division’s all-time record.
In January 1984, Lloyd Reuss was promoted to run GM’s new Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada organization. He was replaced by Don Hackworth, who continued the performance focus Reuss had begun. The results were even more formidable T-Types and Regal Grand Nationals. The addition of an intercooler for the turbo boosted it to 235 hp (175 kW) for 1986 and 245 hp (183 kW) for 1987, both of which were probably somewhat conservative. In August 1987, Motor Trend clocked a 1986 Buick Regal Grand National from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in six seconds flat, running the quarter mile (402 meters) in the high 14-second range. As is common with turbocharged cars, a good deal more could be extracted from the GN with a little effort; a modest amount of souping-up could elevate the turbo Regal’s quarter-mile performance to otherworldly levels.
Despite the performance of the turbo cars, the Regal was getting old, and sales were quickly evaporating. Although Grand National sales climbed to 5,512 for 1986, total Regal sales dropped by more than 25%, falling under 100,000 units for the first time. Total sales for 1987 would be under 65,000.
THE END OF EVERYTHING: THE BUICK GNX
Although the end was in sight for both the Buick Regal Grand National and the G-body coupes, Buick chief engine Dave Sharpe wanted to make sure that it went out with a bang. In May 1986, he approached the firm ASC/McLaren about developing a special end-of-the-line version of the Grand National. Dubbed Buick GNX, it had dual exhausts, a new intercooler, and a new Garrett turbocharger with a lightweight ceramic impeller. It was deliberately underrated 276 hp (206 kW) and 360 lb-ft (488 N-m), although its actual output was somewhere north of 300 hp (224 kW). It also received a revised rear suspension, bigger wheels, a new Stewart-Warner instrument cluster, and some minor trim changes, including louvers in the front fenders.
As the GNX was being readied for production, Don Hackworth, who had approved the concept, was replaced as general manager by Ed Mertz. This was more than a routine changing of the guard: Mertz was under orders from GM chairman Roger Smith to return Buick to its traditional family car territory. Buick was losing most of its formerly separate engineering staff and there would be no more turbo cars after 1987, just corporate engines and corporate engineering. In the face of that ominous reorganization, Dave Sharpe was understandably concerned that Mertz might put the kibosh on the GNX project. After Mertz drove a prototype in August 1986, however, he signed off on it. The turbo Regal would have a Viking funeral.
With even more horsepower than the already-quick Grand National and T-Type Regals, the Buick GNX was very, very fast. In July 1987, Car and Driver clocked one from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 4.7 seconds and through the quarter mile (402 m) in 13.5 seconds at 102 mph (164 km/h). To put that in perspective, the GNX would run with a manual-transmission Porsche 928S4 all the way to 100 mph (161 km/h) and would leave an automatic 928 (or a contemporary Corvette) for dead. The GNX was electronically limited to a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h), but at any legal speed, it had little to fear from any but the most exotic or heavily modified cars. As with the Grand National on which it was based, however, the GNX was still no sports car, and its handling and brakes were not up to the standards of its fearsome engine.
By the time the 1987 models went on sale, word had spread that it would be the end of the line for the turbo Regals and sales of the turbocharged cars swelled. The T-Type was gone, although its functional pieces could be ordered on a standard Regal; 5,303 were sold that way. In addition to the Grand National, there was also a rare “Special Turbo T” package (RPO WE4), which included the turbo engine and lightweight aluminum bumper supports and rear brake drums; it accounted for 1,547 sales. The GNX, meanwhile, was limited to 547 cars with a sticker price of $29,900, nearly twice the price of a regular Grand National.
By the end of the model year in July 1987, demand for the Regal Grand National was strong enough that Mertz agreed to keep the production line running for another five months. When production finally ended in December, Grand National sales totaled 20,193 (not including WE4 or GNX sales), its best year ever. It was the last gasp for the G-body, which was replaced in 1988 by a front-drive Regal on the new GM10 (W-body) platform.
In 1988, the most powerful engine you could order on any new Buick was a normally aspirated V6 with 165 horsepower (123 kW). All the T-Type models vanished for 1989 (save, curiously, for the big Electra T-Type, which survived through 1990). The turbo 3.8 got one final outing for 1989, but this time, it was under the hood of Pontiac’s 20th Anniversary Trans Am. Wildly underrated at 250 horsepower (187 kW), it was every bit as fast as the GNX. Only 1,555 were sold.
With that, the line of turbo Buicks came to an end. The 3.8-liter V6 survived through 2008, getting several progressive redesigns and a new name: 3800. In the nineties, GM developed a supercharged version of this engine for front-wheel-drive cars, which in final L32 form produced 260 horsepower (194 kW). It had less real power than the last of the old turbo engines, although it was smoother, cleaner, and a good deal more civilized. Production of the 3800 ended in August 2008, more than 47 years after the first Fireball V6 came off the assembly line.
Despite the formidable performance of the Buick Regal Grand National and GNX, Buick’s success of the early eighties evaporated quickly by mid-decade. Total sales slipped about 150,000 units for 1986 and a further 200,000 units for 1987. One reason for the decline was the public’s disdain for the new front-drive LeSabre, launched for 1986, which tried to marry traditional Buick styling cues to the new aerodynamic idiom with mixed results; sales plunged more than 30%. (The new ’86 Riviera fared even worse, dropping by nearly 70%.)
The bigger problem was that Pontiac had also re-embraced its sporty image with great success. Other than the turbo engines, there was no longer much mechanical difference between the Buick and Pontiac versions of most models (or, for that matter, the Chevrolet versions) and the Pontiac and Chevy were cheaper with arguably better styling. Trying to return Buick to the middle-class sedan market didn’t help; total Buick sales for 1988 plunged to fewer than 460,000 units. Sales for 1989 were a little better, but still only half the division’s 1985 peak.
As Lloyd Reuss climbed the GM ladder — he eventually became president of the corporation — he eventually admitted that trying to take Buick in a sporty direction was a mistake. This is a conclusion that will no doubt pain Regal (and NASCAR) fans no end, for while the Buick Grand National and GNX accounted for few sales, they have an understandably loyal following. Nevertheless, from a cold-blooded business standpoint, it was probably true. As with the original Mercury Cougar 20 years earlier, the turbo cars had definite virtues, but those virtues were rather far afield from Buick’s established brand identity. The GN and GNX appealed to younger buyers, which is always good, but they were an anomaly within the Buick lineup, which was reflected by their modest sales. Even if Buick hadn’t abandoned that market, it’s not clear where they could have gone with the sporty theme without completely eroding their existing brand.
Keeping the rear-drive G-body models alive for an extra five years was an odd decision for GM. While it made some short-term business sense, it also suggested that the corporation was ambivalent about its new front-drive cars. As impressive as the GN and GNX’s raw performance was, we question the decision to pour so many resources into lame-duck models. Buick might have been better off devoting some of that energy and enthusiasm to the H-body LeSabre and GM10 Regal, which were rather lackluster efforts.
The real reason the GN and GNX existed was not that they made sense from a business or brand-management standpoint, but because they were the cars that Lloyd Reuss (and Don Hackworth and Dave Sharpe) wanted to build. That kind of passion is admirable, and, when backed by a coherent marketing concept, can produce great successes, like the Ford Mustang or the Datsun Z car. When it is not backed by such insights, however, it produces self-congratulatory gestures like the Chevy SSR or Plymouth Prowler, which get a lot of press attention, but are ultimately irrelevant to the company’s customers and brands.
The Grand National and GNX, are highly collectible today and have many dedicated fans. That’s not surprising, because whatever their limitations, both the Grand National and GNX have earned places of honor in the ranks of the great American Supercars. Still, we have to conclude that — as is sometimes sadly the case — they were the right cars in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Polish Buick enthusiast George Przygoda has (with our permission) translated this article into Polish. You can read the translation on George’s website here: http://buick-riviera.pl/Buick-Grand-National-/-GNX/Panie-Twoj-pojazd-jest-gotowy.html. (In the interests of full disclosure, George has made several financial contributions to support Ate Up With Motor, although we did not charge him for either the use of the article or this link.)
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on Lloyd Reuss’s career came from Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia, Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1995). White and Ingrassia’s judgment of Reuss is much harsher than most automotive writers'; they attribute his GM success to good connections more than talent. General information on the earlier Turbo V6 come from “b4black’s” website BEFORE BLACK (n.d., www.beforeblack. net/, accessed 20 July 2009); Terry Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, Buick: A Complete History (Automobile Quarterly Magnificent Marques Book) (New Albany, IN: Automobile Quarterly Publications, 1980); Don Sherman, “Buick Regal Sport Coupe,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 64-70; Jean Lindamood, “Buick Turbo Regal: When Lloyd Reuss Returned, so did performance,” Car and Driver Vol. 27, No. 8 (February 1982), p. 83; and Larry Griffin, “Buick Regal T-Type: Boost mastery approacheth,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), p. 69.
Information on the Grand National and GNX came from “The Grand National and GNX Story” (n.d., Buick Street, www.buickstreet. com/ buickstories.html, accessed 21 July 2009); “humbler,” “1982, 1984-1987 Grandnational history” (25 May 2007, Motortopia forums, www.motortopia. com/ forums/viewtopic /tid/3472/i/1982_1984_1987_grandnational_history/tp/1#post_11054, accessed 21 July 2009); Tony Asenza, “Buick GNX: Death of a Barbarian,” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 11 (May 1987), pp. 135-137); David E. Davis, “Modern Muscle” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 1 (July 1985), pp. 38-43; Wes Gueninger, “The Power of the Dark Side,” Motive Magazine 2007, www.motivemag. com, accessed 21 July 2009); William G. Holder, Bill Holder, and Phillip Kunz, Buick Muscle Cars (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1996); and Gary Smith, “Early History of the Buick Grand National and Performance Design” (10 March 2009, Dean’s Garage, deansgarage. com/ 2009/ early-history-of-the-buick-grand-national/, accessed 29 August 2009). Some details also came from the Turbo Regal Website (www.gnttype. org/ resources.html, accessed 21 July 2009).
Information on Buick’s 1980s NASCAR career came from “Buicks in NASCAR 1981-1983″ (n.d., home.flash. net/~rjgeorge/nascar.htm, accessed 21 July 2009); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Recap” (02 August 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ auto-racing/ nascar/ season-recaps/1980s/ 1981-nascar.htm, accessed 21 July 2009), “1982 NASCAR Winston Cup Recap” (2 August 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ auto-racing/nascar/ season-recaps/1980s/ 1982-nascar.htm, accessed 21 July 2009), and “1983 NASCAR Winston Cup Recap” (2 August 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ auto-racing/nascar/ season-recaps/1980s/ 1983-nascar.htm, accessed 21 July 2009); and “List of NASCAR Manufacturers’ championships” on Wikipedia® (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/ List_of_NASCAR_Manufacturers%27_champions, accessed 21 July 2009).
Some info on Fast & Furious came from John Pearley Huffman, “Fast & Furious Cars: 1987 Buick Grand National GNX” (13 March 2009, Inside Line, www.insideline. com/ buick/grand-national/ fast-furious-cars-1987-buick-grand-national-gnx.html, accessed 21 July 2009).