When people speak of the “Golden Era” of muscle cars, most immediately think of the 1960s and early-1970s, when cheap gas and loose emissions restrictions allowed for V8s of prodigious size and power output.
Personally, I believe the real golden era is happening now, with muscle cars packing 800-plus horsepower behemoths under their hoods. Nonetheless, I agree the years of the Hemicuda, the SS Camaro and Chevelle, and the original Shelby Mustang were some tantalizing ones for American auto enthusiasts.
One thing is clear, though, the 1980s and 1990s saw a pronounced dearth of American muscle cars. In their stead, a myriad of European sports cars and high-performance sedans seemed to dominate the fancy of car guys. This phenomenon was most directly the result of American automakers not yet embracing the method of achieving high-output from smaller, turbocharged engines like the folks across the pond.
That is, with one exception.
In this month’s edition of “Rare Rides,” we will take a look at that car — the sole, true example of American Muscle in the 1980s and 1990s — the limited edition 1987 Buick GNX!
Okay, I know some folks will argue there was a trio of American muscle cars throughout the era, namely the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird. But those folks would be incorrect.
A muscle car, according to its original definition, is an intermediate-sized two-door, rear-wheel drive, high-performance model designed for straight-line speed, and sold at an affordable price. The Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird are more accurately considered to be pony cars, as they were designed more to handle at speed than to claim stop-light racing glory.
Understanding this distinction, it is apparent the reign of the muscle car had gone the way of the Dodo after the gas crisis as more stringent safety and emissions regulations took hold. Some kind folks at the Buick Division of General Motors took notice of this too in the early 1980s and started toying with ideas that had been percolating for a few years.
Buick had been suffering from an image problem for a while by this time. Its offerings were considered by most to be milquetoast, old-man cars with little in the way of style or performance. Buick General Manager Lloyd Reuss decided he wanted to change that perception and saw the lack of American muscle cars as an ideal niche to fill in the market at the time.
Reuss’s first effort to add some pizzaz to the brand was a tentative one. In 1982, Buick unveiled the Regal Grand National at that years’ NASCAR Daytona 500. Essentially just a trim package, the Grand National was only available in Charcoal Gray with light silver paint added to the sides. The car wore red pinstriping and a “Buick” billboard callout on the rear fenders. Additionally, the exterior of the car was bequeathed with a bespoke front air dam and rear spoiler.
Inside, distinctive black and silver seats featuring an embroidered “6” logo (denoting a six-cylinder engine) and unique badging differentiated the Grand National from its run-of-the-mill Regal brethren.
Under the hood lurked a not-so-special, 4.1-liter V6 engine that put out 125 hp and 205 lb-ft of torque. If a buyer also opted for the Sport Coupe Package, they received an upgraded power plant in the form of a 175 hp and 275 lb-ft, turbocharged 3.8-liter V6. Only 215 Regal Grand Nationals were produced in its freshman year, and the car did not receive much in the way of fanfare or positive reviews.
But what the automotive world generally missed in their appraisal of the GN was the fact it was the only turbocharged American car (the Chrysler Conquest was a rebadged Mitsubishi Starion.) It represented not only the baby steps towards Buick’s desire to increase the performance of its vehicles but simultaneously addressed the issue of fuel efficiency, which at the time was still at the forefront of auto consumers’ minds.
Buick decided to skip the 1983 model year with the Grand National so they could focus on developing a better product for ’84. And a better product they indeed produced.
The 3.8-liter-turbocharged V6 engine was now standard and was tweaked with several improvements, including a computer-controlled ignition and a revised sequential-fuel-injection system. The result was a 25 horsepower/lb-ft improvement, at 200 and 300, respectively. The GN was now a car that would run with a contemporary Corvette in a straight line, with sub-16 quarter-mile times.
The car was also heavily revised aesthetically. Out was the silver paint and billboards, and in was a sole exterior color scheme: a sinister, all-black treatment. Inside was a special, model-year-only cloth and leather interior.
Two-thousand 1984 Grand Nationals were produced and were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts. Buick finally had a car to change peoples mind’s about the brand.
The GN continued on for 1985 with minor improvements, but the 1986 car saw a significant boost in muscle. An air-to-air intercooler and a new two-piece aluminum intake manifold that increased airflow by 10-percent were added, giving Buick’s bad boy an extra whopping 35 ponies and 30 lb-ft lift.
Raves from the automotive press followed. A major publication was able to convert all that power into some serious numbers (even by today’s standards) during a performance test. They managed a zero-to-60 run of 4.9 seconds and tripped a quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds.
All the praise and hype resulted in over 5,500 GNs being sold, more than double the previous year’s model, and a respectable count for a niche vehicle.
Ed Mertz took over from Reuss as Buick’s general manager in 1986. He decreed that production would cease on the brand’s rear-drive, mid-sized offerings after 1987 to be replaced by front-drive models for 1988. Mertz did, however, acquiesce to the desires of a trio of executives and project managers within the division who badly wanted to send the Grand National off with a bang.
That bang was in the form of a low-volume, special-edition Grand National Experimental, or, more commonly, the GNX.
Teaming up with sunroof manufacturer and occasional custom car builder, ASC/McLaren, the GNX was designed to be the ultimate expression of the Grand National from the start. The project’s objective, according to an internal memorandum, was “to create a limited-production Buick Grand National that achieves a memorable place in the history of high-performance automobiles, one that car collectors will want to own and that automotive writers will never forget.”
The planned to do it by upgrading to a lightweight and faster-spooling Garrett AiResearch T-3 turbo, a larger intercooler, better-breathing heads, revised engine systems, a reprogrammed Turbo Hydramatic 200-4R transmission with a custom torque converter and cooler, and a low-restriction exhaust. Output was upped to a factory-underrated 276 horses and 360 lb-ft of torque. Actual numbers were closer to 300 ponies and a massive 420 lb-ft of torque.
But powertrain improvements were just the start.
The body was significantly stiffened. Meanwhile, the suspension was reconfigured with a Panhard rod, torque bar, stiffer springs, shocks, and sway bars. Unique aluminum wheels of increased width and diameter were added, and rubber was bumped up to 245/50VR16 in the front and 255/50VR16 out back. Composite fender flares were necessary to accommodate these wider shoes.
Functional front-fender vents aided in lowering engine bay temperatures, and the all-black exterior was bestowed with GNX logos on the grille and trunk lid.
Inside, Stewart-Warner analog gauges, including tach and boost pressure, resided in a modified cluster, and each GNX wore a unique serial-number plaque on the dashboard.
Performance of “Darth Vader” as the automotive press dubbed it, was positively scorching. Incredibly, the $29,900 GNX was faster than the vaunted Ferrari F40, with a zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 12.7 seconds at a 113.1 mph trap speed.
Initially, plans were for 500 GNXs to be built and allocated to Buick’s 500 top-selling dealers, but after the prodigious beast was revealed, demand outweighed the projected supply. It was deemed that extra cars would be produced for the brand’s 47 “Select Sixty Program” dealers.
The GNX was indeed the end of an era. The last old-school American muscle car in terms of looks, it laid the groundwork for the small-displacement, forced-induction, high-efficiency engines of the imminent future. These days, collectors are beginning to cotton to it, and one sold at auction a few years back for $165,000.
I have no doubt that the Dark Side of the Force will continue to lure enthusiasts into the GNX’s fold.