Additional photos courtesy of Susan and John Foster
2014 marks 30 years since the black, turbocharged Buick Grand National, 20 years since the big, bad Impala SS, and 10 years since the new GTO set foot in America. These days, GM regularly builds high-quality, high-performance vehicles, and each of these three EFI GMs have their own dedicated followings. But over the past 30 years, each of these three vehicles had an enormous transformative effect on General Motors performance as we know it today.
1984 Grand National
The 1984 Grand National’s sinister looks and powerful V-6 turbo were a match made in car-guy heaven. But it took a hell of a lot of work for Buick to get to that point.
The marque’s 1978-83 Sport Coupes looked nice enough, but were hampered by mild styling and archaic carburetors and engine management systems. Early engines could muster only 150hp and 245 lb-ft of torque—not much yank for a 3,600-pound, midsized car.
When the early ’80s rolled around, the Buick design team started to pick up steam. Buick was determined to change its stodgy image, and the NASCAR-inspired looks of the 1982 Grand National were a step in the right direction. (Power-wise, it was snooze city: purportedly only 16 turbocharged ’82 GNs were made—the remaining 199 cars had 125hp, naturally aspirated V-6s.)
Then, Buick engineering honcho Herb Fishel tapped design legend Rollin “Molly” Sanders to create a new Regal concept. Molly, having spent time around NASCAR Regals at Junior Johnson’s shop, responded with a red Grand National prototype in 1983. Molly’s “Street Regal” had the race Regal’s attitude, with a power bulge hood, rear deck spoiler, and a monochromatic paint scheme. All exterior chrome was deleted, aggressive rims were added, and the now-famous “performance 6” emblems told the world that this Regal meant business. After presentations to top GM brass—and a color change to black—this awe-inspiring concept was given the green light as the 1984 Grand National.
And this wicked car got a wicked engine. While the carbed V-6 eventually made respectable power, the real breakthrough happened when Buick’s engineers added Bosch sequential multi-port fuel injection and computer controlled coil ignition. The ’84 GN’s 3.8-liter V-6 jumped to an underrated 200 horses and 300 pound-feet of torque, and drivability was worlds better.
Add in a revised suspension and a beefed-up 200-4R overdrive trans, and Buick’s recipe was nearly perfect. So when the 1984 Grand National was unleashed on the world, journalists were flabbergasted. The $13,000 GN was regarded as a “fast,” “mean” car with a “wonderful V-6 engine.” Flattening the accelerator pedal snapped your neck back and held you deep in the seat, as the turbo boost hit a screaming 15psi. The GN’s mid 15-second ETs at 87 mph destroyed Mustangs (as well as its Monte Carlo SS/Olds 442 stable mates), and put it only a few ticks behind the brand-new C4 Corvette’s times. Braking and skidpad performance—198 feet from 70-0 and .80g, respectively, were also good.
However, the new GN had a few drawbacks. Its aging G-body chassis racked up its share of complaints—it wasn’t as stiff as its Monte SS brother, an odd development as the Buick was capable of much higher performance. And the shaky foundation showed out on the road, where rough surfaces and corners upset the four-link suspension. The interior was a bit low end, and the 85-mph instrument panel just screamed LeSabre.
But those gripes weren’t enough to dissuade a fanatical public. Despite using a V-6, the Grand National had ushered in a new, EFI muscle car era. It was a high-powered, in-your-face animal that annihilated appearance-package wannabes and serious performers alike. Only 2,000 were built in 1984 (along with 3,401 T-Types), but this was just the beginning.
From that point on, the GN and its equally powerful T-Type brethren added more technology and more power every year. An intercooler was added in 1986, and peak ass-kicking came in 1987, when the GN’s intercooled 3.8 put down a severely underrated 245 horses and 355 lb-ft of torque. That power rating really pissed off the Corvette team, as their “halo car” ’87 Corvette was only rated at 240 hp. But it made sense, as the ’87 GN was up to half a second quicker in the quarter mile. In fact, no American performance vehicle could touch it in straight-line performance, and the car-buying public took notice. Buick had to extend production of the GN through late December, when a total of 20,193 were built. In all, 27,590 Turbo V-6 Buicks were built that year, including 547 of the mind-blowing, low 13-second GNXs.
In the years that followed, domestic performance vehicles adopted fuel injection and advanced ECMs to squeeze maximum power from their engines. But no 1980s muscle car would ever approach the power and mystique of the Turbo Buicks.
1994 Impala SS
In the late 1980s, incoming Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins looked at the new, fourth-generation Caprice and thought, “How could anyone have approved this for production?” And he wasn’t alone: when the 1991 model was released, its bulbous exterior, land-yacht size, and plodding 170-horse V-8 led to an apt nickname: Orca. The rear-drive Caprice—like its sales—was slow, ugly, and generally disappointing.
Perkins knew someone had to un-beach this whale, and in 1991 he reached out to Jon Moss. Moss, an ex-street racer and Chevy engineer, was a member of Don Runkle’s famed Special Vehicles group. Jon had created many of the forced-induction concepts for Chevy’s famed “toybox,” and he was tasked with creating a high-performance Impala SS concept vehicle from the hapless Caprice body in time for the 1992 SEMA show.
Moss immediately tore into a Caprice, and after a lightning-quick build, the concept was delivered to SEMA.
The Impala SS concept wore deep black paint, and was devoid of any chrome. A blacked-out grille complemented a trunk lid spoiler, and new-design Impala logos adorned the exterior. It sat two inches lower than a Caprice, and 17-inch alloy wheels wearing huge Goodyears filled up the wheel wells. A big-inch V-8 provided power, with its fumes exiting through a dual exhaust system.
The Impala SS concept was a striking departure from the run-of-the-mill B-body: it was the powerful, downright mean-looking performance sedan the Caprice wanted to be. The SEMA crowd loved it, and GM garnered so much positive attention from the public and its Chevy dealers over the next year, that it put the Impala SS into production.
The 1994 Impala SS stayed true to the concept’s monochromatic exterior, and it would only be available in black. The aggressive grille, rear spoiler, quarter window treatment, radiused wheel openings, and new emblems carried over to production as well.
At its heart was the powerful, Corvette-derived LT1. This version was all iron, and while it was retuned to produce less noise, it was also tuned to enhance low-rpm grunt. The B-body LT1 made 260 horses at 5000 rpm, as opposed to the Vette’s 300. But a whopping 330 lb-ft of torque was available at 2400 rpm—only 10 shy of the sports car’s rating, and at a lower rpm. The 4L60E four-speed auto’s 3.05 first gear blasted the big Impy off the line, and a .69 overdrive—matched with the 3.08 posi rear—kept the revs low on the highway.
The SS’s short long arm front/four link rear suspension was based on the Police Package Caprice’s, and then enhanced with tuned front and rear stabilizer bars and de Carbon monotube shocks. Combined with a quick-ratio power steering unit, 12-inch vented disc brakes with ABS, 17x8.5-inch five-spokes, and 255/50ZR17 tires, the Impala SS showed nimble, confident handling and stopping that very much belied its 4,200 pounds and live axle.
Early test drivers were astounded by its performance. The SS stopped from 70-0 in 179 feet, recorded lateral gs over .85, and did well in tight corners and through lane-change maneuvers. And while its 15.0-second quarter-mile times at around 92 mph wouldn’t set the world on fire, it was respectable for this smog-lite behemoth. Plus, it was a better overall performer than Ford’s Taurus SHO, a nice feather in GM’s cap.
But performance aside, cruising is where the big SS really excelled. Its wheelbase was long, at 115.9 inches, and the SS simply sailed over rough roads and potholes. The five fully formed humans that it was transporting enjoyed a smooth ride and great visibility. A few gripes could be heard: the door-mounted side mirrors looked like last-minute add-ons, and though the rear end looked better, it was still biiiiggg. Inside, the lack of a console shifter and tachometer was a big turnoff to hot rodders, and the instrument panel looked a bit spartan. Also, the leather chairs lacked bolstering for those high lateral gs, and weren’t the most comfortable buckets.
But for the big and tall crowd—or anyone who’d begrudgingly considered the Caprice—the SS was a $21,920 godsend. The first-year allotment of 6,303 cars was quickly snapped up. Production grew to 20,000-plus in 1995, as the Black paint was joined by Dark Cherry Metallic and Dark Green Grey Metallic options, and sleeker, redesigned side mirrors bowed. And it all came together in 1996 for the SS’s swan song. The final-year SS got a floor-mounted shifter, an electric tach, and for better or worse, OBD-II. The same three exterior colors were available, and buyers snapped up over 33,000 Impala SSs.
During and after its three-year run, the Impala SS proved many points to a complacent GM. It proved that sharp-looking concepts can reignite Americans’ imaginations. That clean, powerful engines like the LT1 can make high performance and clean air regulations coexist. And that if you make it beautiful, fast, and competent, you’ll sell a ton of them. Thankfully for us, GM listened.
The 1964 Pontiac GTO was not only the world’s first muscle car—it was a four-speed, triple carbed coupe that sounded mean, went fast, and looked faster. In short, it was a quintessentially American machine that the buying public went nuts over.
Forty years later, GM imported an IRS-equipped Australian Monaro to America, made it both U.S. legal and more bland looking, and called it the 2004 GTO. Many GTO purists promptly became furious. There were a couple reasons: first, the hallowed GTO name was being used for a car that one motoring press member described as a “phone company fleet car.” Secondly, car enthusiasts love ‘Murican-made iron, and the new Goat was just about as far from being “American” as it could be. In short, the buying public did not go nuts over it.
So how the hell did we get it, and who the hell got it? Pent-up demand and globalization, with a huge assist from legendary auto exec Bob Lutz.
Ever since the mighty GTO left with a whimper in the 1970s, Pontiac aficionados have dreamed about a rebirth. Pontiac itself alternately stoked and stifled those dreams, depending on how sweet or God-awful its concept cars were. (Looking at you, 1999 Detroit show concept.)
In the early aughts, the Firebird was dying and “Maximum Bob” Lutz was searching for a rear-drive performance car to plug into Pontiac’s portfolio. And when he saw what GM’s Australian arm, Holden, was up to, he was impressed. Holden’s Commodore line had been a huge success, so the Aussie automaker’s next step was to create the 2001 Monaro. This rear-drive performer had a solid foundation, nimble suspension, and a 302-horse, 5.7-liter LS1 that made for 14-second quarter miles.
Interestingly, the Monaro’s foundation was really old: GM Europe subsidiary Opel built the Omega midsize sedan on it in the 1980s—we knew this chassis from the 1990s Cadillac Catera. Now, the Catera may have been awesomely bad, but the chassis was okay. In fact, Holden further refined this platform in the late 1980s, and built the Commodore and Monaro on it.
Pontiac knew that this platform’s age and styling was long in the tooth. However, as GM wasn’t about to spend millions to completely design a new GTO from scratch, turning the Monaro into the GTO was the next best thing. So in the span of around 17 months, Monaros were converted to US-spec GTOs. They switched to left-hand drive, moved the fuel tank into the now-tiny trunk to handle US crash requirements, and made other structural modifications for safety’s sake.
However, while the safety gear would pass American muster, the styling would not. Compared to the fairly aggressive Monaro, the new GTO’s styling was too sleek, too simple. American buyers need in-your-face exhausts and moar hood scoops; the flat hood and one-sided exhaust exit turned some buyers off.
But once in the hands of owners, the furor died down: Turns out, the new Goat was in many ways a world-class vehicle. The chassis and suspension were hella beefy to handle rough Aussie roads, and owners used to C4 and F-body shakes and rattles experienced BMW-like stiffness. The front strut/rear semi-trailing arms with adjustable toe-in link suspension, despite being paired with smallish 245/45/17 BFGs, provided surprising balance and roadholding chops; the 3,800-pound beast could push nearly .90g when prodded. And the 350-horse, 365 lb-ft LS1, while slightly underpowered, created 14-flat quarter miles at 102 mph, and perfect, rumbling exhaust notes. Best of all, the interior was flat-out the nicest GM cabin in decades. Ultra-comfortable and supportive, the eight-way power seats were considered the best seats in a GM vehicle ever. Classy, well-lit gauges were encircled by silver bezels and wore colored faces. The steering wheel and shift boot were leather wrapped, and accent stitched. Outside of strange window control locations and a manual shifter that was like “stirring a jar of peanut butter with a stick,” this $33,000 GM’s interior felt like the cabin of a $70,000 luxury vehicle.
The 2004 GTO was a mixed bag, and 15,740 were sold that year. While the 2005-06 models benefited from the 400-horse LS2 engine, hood scoops, dual-exit exhaust, and a host of other enhancements, they couldn’t outsell the 2004 model. Years later, Lutz himself pointed at the sales culprits during the three-year run: stale styling, overpricing, and poor distribution. And why not throw in a train wreck, too. So it’s easy to realize that we were damn lucky to get three years of the GTO at all!
But as imperfect as it was, the 2004 GTO was a change agent to GM, and a godsend to GM buyers. Before the new GTO, the General’s non-Corvette models had been built with the “good enough” mentality left over from the bad old days. Those of us who lived with the NVH nightmares and shoddy build quality of the ’90s and ’00s vehicles were amazed by the Goat’s refinement. And those inside GM North America knew that this European/Aussie machine was the future of vehicle manufacturing.
So whether you love it or hate it, the 2004 GTO left a lasting influence on GM that’s still felt today. GM is building vehicles that have much stronger chassis, better, more sophisticated independent rear suspensions, and more comfortable interiors. The 2004-06 GTO says, “You’re welcome.”
Legacy: 2014 Chevy SS
It’s early 2014, and the next chapter of EFI GM performance, the Chevy SS, is now in showrooms. With today’s resurgent GM selling fantastic Chevys, Cadillacs, and Corvettes, it’s easy to take this 415-horsepower, IRS-equipped, rear-wheel-drive sport sedan for granted.
But think about this: if the ’84 GN had never embraced new technology and used sequential fuel injection with a powerful ECM, would GM’s engines have developed into the high-tech, high-powered, fuel-injected wonders that they are today?
If the ’04 GTO hadn’t made the trip from Australia, would American GM execs and enthusiasts have ever experienced world-class power, handling, rigidity, and comfort from a GM performance car not named Corvette?
And if bold vehicles like Jon Moss’ prototype and production Impala SS hadn’t shaken GM out of its slumbering mediocrity, would collectable, high-powered niche vehicles like the fixed roof coupe Corvette, TrailBlazer SS, G8 GXP, or Chevy SS even exist?
It’s very possible that the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.” And so the high-tech 1984 Grand National, the fiercely unique 1994 Impala SS, and the trailblazing 2004 GTO gave enthusiasts more than just a few fun cars to play with. They pushed the limits, broke the rules, and helped usher in today’s golden age of refined EFI GM performance.