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.