Looking back, the American cars of the 1980s were not fast, slick or exciting which was so contrary to the wild life of LA’s Sunset Strip or Miami’s South Beach. We can’t imagine how deflating it must have been pulling up to the club valet in a two ton, V8 powered coupe so suffocated with smog technology it was producing an anemic 140 horsepower. What a difference from today, where you can walk in to any North American dealership and drive away in a 425+ horsepower rocket ship branded Dodge Challenger, Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang. Nevertheless, there were two American models from the 1980s that did represent the era’s excess and decadence and that is the Buick Grand National and Buick GNX.
The Buick Regal Grand National debuted in 1982 following Buick’s victory of the NASCAR Grand National racing series in 1981 and 1982. This was an era where manufactures attempted to capitalize on their NASCAR success with the old adage: “What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday”. The 1982 models were not painted black, which may confuse those not familiar with them since they all started out as charcoal grey Buick Regals that were shipped off to a subcontractor for final touches.
In 1984 the Grand National returned with the all black paint scheme along with the infamous turbocharged 3.8 L V6 which included sequential fuel injection, distributor-less computer controlled ignition, and potent punch of 200 hp and 300 lb·ft of torque. The power of the engine was improved slightly every year and minor changes cosmetically were made but for the most part the 1984-1986 models look the same.
However, for the Grand National’s final year in 1987, Buick introduced a new model called the GNX priced at a very expensive $29,900. Produced by McLaren Performance Technologies/ASC, Buick underrated the GNX at 276 hp and a very substantial 360 lb·ft of torque. Designed and created to be the “Grand National to end all Grand Nationals.”, changes in the GNX included the addition of a special Garrett T-3 turbocharger with a ceramic-impeller blowing through a more efficient and significantly larger capacity intercooler with a “CERMATEL (Ceramic/Aluminum) coated” pipe. In addition, it was also equipped with a low-restriction exhaust with dual mufflers, reprogrammed Turbo Hydramatic 200-4R transmission with custom torque converter and transmission cooler.
Performance for this Black Knight was measured with a quarter mile time of 13.5 seconds at 102 mph (164 km/h) and a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time of 4.7 seconds – this was faster than a Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach. The GNX really was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing: and auto journalists who tested the car experienced this first hand. For example, the esteemed Car and Driver editor, Csaba Csere is famously quoted as saying after his first run “the tires, made not the squealing sound…it was a harsher sound, almost like the tread was being ripped off the tires.”
Unfortunately, it was a very short run of only five years and consequently the last Grand National rolled off the Buick City assembly line in Flint, Michigan on December 11, 1987.
To mark this somber silver anniversary, a new documentary film has been created called Black Air which details the history of the Grand National from many different perspectives including the enthusiast, the collector, the media and even from those at General Motors responsible for designing the infamous G-body coupe. The film is created in a very doc style, reminiscent of the visceral characteristics the Grand National exuded when it rolled off the line.
From all accounts, the film does a solid job of portraying the story of why this low volume, American muscle car is the object of obsession for many automotive enthusiasts a quarter century after the last one came off the line.