Focused. Type A. Or just straight anal (the personality type, not the Craigslist ad). These are a few words that describe a detail-oriented person. We’re the uptight folks who do your taxes (the right way), engineer your bridges (that don’t collapse), and write and edit car mag features (then edit them one more time).
We on the OCD do crazy stuff, like triple-checking light switches, spending an hour making sideburns level, and binge-watching Monk. But once in awhile, a detail-oriented type does us all proud—enter David Sapper and his perfect Grand National.
This 35-year-old Las Vegas resident runs car dealerships, but his free time is dedicated to building flawless GM pro-touring machines. The GN seen here has details on top of details—its TurboBuick.com build thread covered 2.5 years and 60 pages. So don’t be surprised when we spend more time describing the fully re-welded factory frame than the entire engine build. It’s that in-depth.
But first, some backstory: David didn’t always build perfection. In fact, his first project was about as far from perfect as it gets. “Growing up, I knew nothing about cars but loved classics,” Sapper starts. “Years later I saw a 1969 Camaro on eBay that I couldn’t resist. I bought it out of state, sight unseen, and it was a disaster. I busted knuckles and dumped tons of cash into it, and it still was trash. I finally sold it, then cut my teeth on another ’69 Camaro, a ’64 Impala SS, a ’72 Camaro, and a few Corvettes.”
However, it was the ’72 Camaro that helped turn him toward modern EFI rides. “I went way overboard with the Z28, and after everything was said and done it was still an old car. Temperamental, loud, missing creature comforts, and not very road trip friendly. So I decided for my next project I wanted something a bit more modern.”
Enter the Grand National. David’s first recollection of the sinister black Bufords was during elementary school. He would walk by a Buick dealership, and soon became “obsessed with the GN’s look.” And he realized that the GN’s EFI, cruise, A/C, and power everything made for an awesome pro-touring ride. Some Internet browsing and one overnighted cashier’s check later, Sapper landed a clean, low-mile ’87 GN for only $9,000.
Now, this car would mark a first for him: while he’d done the previous builds himself, a hectic work schedule prevented him from being hands-on with the GN. Which meant that his lofty aspirations would be left in the capable hands of Hackers Hot Rods, of nearby Henderson, NV. You can call them Hackers, but we prefer “poor bastards that had to R&D half of this Grand National by scratch.”
That’s because Sapper’s ideas were so obsessive, they made our eyelids twitch with envy. “I’m an idea guy—very detail oriented and a bit of a control freak,” Sapper explains. “And I wanted to modernize the car, inside and out. The goal was a very reliable pro-touring car that I could take on road trips and to the Power Tour. To have an updated, comfortable interior full of modern electronic goodies. Tasteful exterior upgrades that could have come from a very forward-looking GM designer. Big power, amazing handling, and track ready—the full package.”
What the hell, while we’re at it, let’s take this nearly 30-year-old car’s noise, vibration, and harshness, and turn it down to roughly “modern Mercedes” levels. And by the way, it’s a G-body…with the rattling plastics, the misaligned windows, the missing body bushings, the wet-noodle frame strength…“That Hackers team clearly had their work cut out for them,” we now say diplomatically, silently shaking our heads and wondering if Hackers’ medical plan covers mental breakdowns.
And so, with David’s edicts fresh in their tortured minds, Hackers’ first order of business was removing the body, disassembling everything, and inspecting the perimeter frame. “I’m more about handling than straight-line performance,” David reveals. “And you can’t have consistent handling with a very flexible frame. We could lift the right rear corner of my frame by almost a foot—with the other side on the ground.”
Even worse, during the post-sandblast frame inspection they noticed something scary: the factory welds were so bad that there were two-foot sections where the weld wasn’t even on the seam. So a decision was made to grind out every original weld on the frame, then fire up the MIG and re-weld every seam. This process, while undoubtedly consuming ungodly amounts of Hackers’ time and Sapper’s money, made quite a difference when the corner-lift frame test was done again.
Next, the center frame sections and frame mounts were boxed, and any unused holes on the frame were filled. Then, the chassis’ braces and mounts got the TIG treatment: the front and rear upper and lower control arm mounts were strengthened, as were the rear control arm braces. And the front control arm mounts were gusseted and re-welded too. The motor mounts were welded in, and the space between the mounts was reinforced. Finally, it got a silver vein powdercoat for rust protection. The G-body’s frame now had the necessary strength to handle a big-power, corner-carving GN.
And speaking of corners, Hackers scrapped GM’s bind-happy four-link rear suspension with a Currie 9-inch and a Watts link kit. The Watts link controls the solid axle’s lateral motion, keeps the axle centered, and lowers the car’s roll center, resulting in improved handling. Just one thing though: the Watts link kit was for a stock 10-bolt GM rear. Long story short, Hackers got it to work on the 9-inch, and you don’t want to know how much effort it took. Anyhoo, helping Señor Watts out are Currie upper and lower control arms, coilovers, and an adjustable, frame-mounted sway bar.
The handling upgrades continued up front. SPC control arms were added, with adjustable upper arms allowing massive caster and camber adjustments, and fixed lower control arms replacing the flimsy stockers. Coilover shocks and a Hellwig bar complete the suspension, and 18-inch CCW Classics and 13-inch Baer brakes are ready for anything the street and track can throw at them.
Now, normally with a feature car, we showcase every nut and bolt of that sweet, sweet engine build. (Builds in this case: his buddy Scott Atkinson built the engine, the machine shop left an oil plug out, there was no oil pressure, and he had to rebuild it again.) But not today, intrepid GMHTP readers. Don’t get us wrong, this stock-bottom LC2 is sweet: GN1 heads, 206/210 roller cam, 6262 ball bearing turbo, 60-pound injectors, TurboTweak chip, and Razor’s AlkyControl makes for around 600rwhp; however, it’s still not the most impressive powertrain piece on this car.
That honor goes to the TCI 6x six-speed trans, and the hefty dose of hot rod hacking needed to install it. This modified 4L80E contains a deeper set of gears (including a 2.97 First) for crazy-fast spool, and an overdrive for low-rpm Sixth gear cruising. Which is all well and good, but the 6x wasn’t exactly a bolt-in deal. Hackers had to use an adapter plate, install the PTC converter, add a massive crossmember, and fit a custom aluminum driveshaft between the gearbox and the 9-inch.
The engine that magically came together a couple paragraphs back wears TA Performance stainless headers, which dump into RJC’s 3.5-inch downpipe. Now, while the unholy Watts link/9-inch union would greatly improve the GN’s handling, David found out that no normal set of exhaust pipes would actually fit through that tangle of rear-end metal. Turndowns were a no-go as getting high at stoplights isn’t his thing, and so the Hackers crew was again called on to magic up some type of solution. It came in the form of NASCAR oval exhaust pipes, which just cleared the massive rear and suspension. God help the Meineke mouth-breather who has to replace this exhaust.
Now, about those tasteful exterior upgrades: An ’87 GN clearly has lots going for it looks-wise. But these ’80s G-bodies still wore legacy GM items like drip rails, bumperettes, and blocky door handles. So Sapper had the drip rails and bumpers shaved, and replaced the door handles with a killer set from an Aston Martin. C4 mirrors added some angle, a shaved antenna smoothed the lines out, GNX fender vents flow well, and a custom rear spoiler and LED taillights are more expressive than 37 pieces of flair.
In keeping with the project’s theme, one exterior feature just had to break David’s balls. “The biggest issue overall was the paint,” David admits. “I found a GN owner, he had good references and I was very impressed with his paint work. A couple months into my job, he left town in the middle of the night. I had to go to his shop with boxes, and gather my car up from parts scattered on the floor. So I had to pay for two paint jobs on this car.” Ouch. But the second time was a charm, as some GM black, six coats of clear, and some wet sanding resulted in a mirror-like finish. And speaking of spraying things, the entire body got a Line-X coating for sound deadening before it was re-married to the chassis.