Lighter and featuring a slipperier, more angle design, the redesigned 1981 Buick Regal surpassed the preceding eight years of Regals in nearly every facet. So much so, that the newcomer to the NASCAR racing circuit was being dominated by the new Buick. The automaker had not won a NASCAR race since the fifties, but rule changes and aerodynamic considerations paved the way for the Regal’s dominance.
At the 1981 Daytona 500, 15 of 42 cars competing were Regals. Richard Petty won the race in his STP-sponsored #43 Buick Regal. That same year, Darryl Waltrip won 12 of the season’s 32 races to take the driver’s championship in the Winston Cup Grand National series, while Bobby Allison came in second, also in a Regal. Overall, Buick Regals won 22 of the 32 Grand National races that year.
To capitalize on these successes, Buick introduced a limited-edition Regal “Grand National” model for the 1982 model year. The old saying, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” was still very much at work and these first examples of a waking legend – while among the rarest – were rather haphazard in production. Cars were pulled from the production line whether equipped as Regal Coupes, Regal Sport Coupes or Regal Limited Coupes, just so long as they were charcoal gray and featured T-tops. Shipped out to a subcontractor for completion, the first Grand Nationals arrived in dealer showrooms with blacked-out wheel opening and rocker panel moldings and a front air dam and rear spoiler. A two tone paint job – silver (“Gray Firemist”) on the top with a charcoal lower body featured a red pinstripe running between the hues. The 3.8L V6 turbocharged engine that would later make the Grand National famous was absent this first year (save for a purported handful), rather buyers found a 125 hp 4.1-liter V6 under the hood. Just over two hundred 1982 Regal Grand Nationals were built.
Buick’s competitive dominance continued through 1982, but for reasons unknown, there would be no 1983 model year Regal Grand National. The turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 engine, though, would continue to be developed and delivered in the newly coined Regal “T-Type” model, which replaced the Sport Coupe. When the Grand National resumed production in 1984, it was with that same engine, now rated at 200hp at 4000rpm and 300 ft-lb of torque at 2400rpm. A new sequential fuel injection system and 15psi of electronically-limited boost pressed out the extra performance from the 3.8-liter engine.
Regular Regal Grand Nationals were both powerful and driveable. By itself, the 1987 Grand National is stately, but when parked beside a GNX it looks rather pedestrian.
The option WE2 Grand National package came with a 3.42:1 Posi-Traction-equipped rear axle and the now-familiar blackout exterior package. This paint scheme would forever define the Regal Grand National’s appearance, which included standard black paint, black bumpers, rub strips and guards, a black front air dam, deck lid spoiler, aluminum wheels with black paint, special front and rear seats with a stylized “6” embroidered on the front seats and Grand National identification on the exterior and instrument panel. While production for the 1984 car blossomed to 2000 units, it was still a limited edition and carried through the 1985 model year with little change.
The following year would see significant changes as the 1986 Regal Grand National arrived with 235hp at 4000rpm and 330 ft-lb of torque at 2400 rpm. The addition of an air-to-air intercooler, along with intake manifold and exhaust system changes were largely responsible for the heightened credentials. Demand for the car skyrocketed and over 5,500 of the hot coupes found new homes that year.
The GNX's interior did benefit from upgraded gauges, as well as this serialized badge on the dash cover.
For reasons not completely understood, the 1987 model was scheduled to be the last year for the Regal and to send the Buick off properly, the final model was planned to be a special one. Additional engine tweaks increased output to 245hp and 355 lb-ft of torque, while those enthusiasts already working with the existing 3.8L turbos knew much more power was well hidden. Production was ramped up and over twenty thousand Regal Grand Nationals would be sold. The big news, though, was a new limited edition model – the GNX.
A special ceramic turbine wheel was used in the GNX's turbocharger. Service replacement units did not have this upgrade.
To build the GNX model, regular Regal Grand Nationals were shipped to ASC/McLaren for modifications, which were extensive. The standard GN turbocharger was replaced by a so-called hybrid Garrett T-s turbo which featured a ceramic turbine wheel. The significantly lighter weight of the ceramic component allowed much faster spin-up, which in turn acted to reduce turbo lag – the dreaded dead time between when you put your foot down and when the engine responded. Boost remained limited to 15psi by an electronically-controlled wastegate.
Additional changes included a new air-to-air intercooler and a ceramic-coated pipe connecting the intercooler to the engine. These changes imparted a rather new personality with conservatively-rated 276hp at 4400rpm and 380 ft-lb of torque at 3000rpm. The additional power, by itself, was cause for additional driveline upgrades. The Turbo Hydramatic 200-4R automatic transmission received a special torque converter and reprogramming for firmer shifts. The rear axle was strengthened with a new aluminum rear axle cover and more firmly supported by both a longitudinal torque arm and a panhard rod.
The 1987 GNX was only available with an automatic transmission. With almost 400 ft-lb of torque, the car needed a custom torque converter as it was.
New body and chassis stiffening measures were put in place and, for the first time ever a Regal rode on 16-inch wheels from the factory. The rear wheels were wider than those up front and were matched with P245/50VR16 tires in front and P255/50VR16 tires out back. New fender flares were needed to accommodate the wider rolling stock. Front fender vents had also been added to help keep things cool under the hood.
With its all-black livery and nearly total absence of badging, the GNX was an understated street terror. Those who didn’t know about it probably never found out, unless they were foolish enough to challenge Buick’s latest rocket of the day. Out of the box, an unmolested GNX would run the 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and quarter mile in 13.43 seconds at 103 mph, comparable, if not superior to the muscle cars of Detroit’s heyday.
The GNX option was not available with T-tops. The resulting loss of body rigidity was felt to be too great for the increased power, compared to a regular Regal Grand National.
Just shy of 550 GNX’s were built and they enjoyed a brief period as the fastest car that GM built, much to the chagrin of Corvette. These days, GNX Buicks can be seen at auction ranging in price from $30,000 to $75,000. In the collector car world, this is probably out of line with the intrinsic and historical value of the special edition car. Perhaps there are still a few bargains waiting to be found by the astute enthusiast.
Nonetheless, the ’87 Buick GNX is unique on a far larger scale, in that traditionalists claim the GNX as the last hurrah of classic old fashioned muscle while late-model enthusiasts have adopted the Buick as the grandfather of modern muscle. Either way, the ’87 GNX, and the indelible impact that the machine made during the performance lull of the 1980s is profound; so much so, that as Buick brings the Regal back to North America this year, there is a long line of enthusiasts hoping that history can repeat itself. Until that time, the ’87 Buick GNX – alongside the ’70 Buick GSX – will remain as the prime example of GM’s personal luxury brand’s muscle car authenticity.