The only thing to know about any high performance American car is how many cylinders it’s got. For decades we were taught that unless it’s a V8, it’s not even worth the time. That was, until Buick redefined the standard and set the bar for what we know as high performance with a mighty V6. In the 1980s Buick gave the world the Buick Grand National which would stomp the competition left and right, including GM’s Holy Grail, the Corvette.
Buick was always left out when the big kids got to play. They were known as the company that made family cars. People just weren’t wired to expect anything high performance to come with the name. When they dropped the bomb, it was black; it was fast; and no one saw it coming.
First Impressions of the Buick Grand National
Buick dominated the NASCAR Grand National series in 1981 and 1982. In light of their victory, they whipped up the Grand National package for the Regal. Although this was technically the birth of the icon, it wasn’t exactly the one everyone remembers. The 1982 Grand National came stock with a naturally aspirated V6 that made 125 horsepower. The turbocharged 3.8 liter V6 was fitted to a select few, but it still only made around 50 horsepower more. These cars weren’t even black either. The base paint was charcoal gray, and they were suited up with a light silver accent along the side of the vehicle with red pinstripes.
In the year 1984, Buick quit beating around the bush and released the Power Bulge. The Grand National was blacked out. Chrome was blacked out. A custom interior package was added. And yes, the notorious Power Bulge was added to the hood. These cars rolled off the factory line making 200 horsepower and were completing the quarter mile in 15.9 seconds. Sure, that sounds quaint by today’s standards. But at the time, it was enough to keep Corvette owners on edge as they were only finishing at 15.2 seconds and they were doing it with a ‘wimpy’ V6. The 1980s wasn’t exactly the era of superior performance because of industry regulation. So to people of the time, that was fast for a modern production car.
Holding Its Own
The Grand National was an instant hit. But it was a V6–how can anyone rightfully declare this a muscle car? It was based on the same G-body platform as the Monte Carlo, Cutlass, and Grand Prix but there was no denying it stole the show. The 442s and SS Montes were in the same league when it came to the power output but they were V8 cars.
In 1984 and 1985, the Grand Nationals were virtually the same in performance specs. In 1986, they began ramping things up with 235 horsepower. They also won the title as the fastest American production car. That’s right, a Buick made Chevy and Ford look like a bunch of fools with cute toy cars. To add insult to injury, 1987 was even better as they squeezed some more power out of the 3.8 liter, making it that much harder for the competition.
That wasn’t all, though. As Buick planned to send off the Grand National after 1987, they knew they had to do it right. They took 547 of these cars and sent them to McLaren. There they vamped up the 3.8 with a bigger turbo, bigger intercooler, and a few other special ingredients. A diabolical machine, they called it the Grand National Experimental—better known as the GNX.
This version of the car was absolutely ridiculous. They advertised it as making 276 horsepower and 360 pound feet of torque. It finished the quarter mile in 12.7 seconds. And the claim was when designing the car, they had to keep it from doing wheelies. It was off the charts when compared to other American production cars of the time.
Seeing Through Appearances
The Grand National & the GNX were designed to move in a straight line. That was really it. They were big and bulky, and turning at speed was something of a terrible idea. So despite opting for six cylinders instead of eight, they held true to American tradition.
At the end of the day, this car was a symbol of hope for the underdog. No one took Buick seriously. And before this car, they would laugh at the idea of getting beaten by one in a race. People mocked the V6 platforms, as small and weak little engines that could never parallel the proven power of a V8. The Grand National justified that Buick didn’t have to pound their chest year after year to prove who’s the king of the hill. With a V6 under the hood, they brought the age old saying to life—don’t judge a book by its cover.