The Buick Grand National Aimed to Beat the Corvette—and Ended Up Passing Ferrari
How Buick built a highway terror out of its grandma coupe.
It’s 1987 and powerful two-door sports cars abound. The turbocharged version of the Supra just hit the American market for the first year, producing well north of 200 horsepower. You can walk into a Chevrolet dealership and drive out in a brand new IROC Z. Acura just launched with the first-generation Integra, hitting US streets with two cams, high revs, and a sub-2,500 lb curb weight.
And if you had a bit more coin, the Ferrari Testarossa and the Lamborghini Countach were the wedge-shaped styling icons of the decade, with the power to match their spaceship looks. Yet, short of a Porsche 911 Turbo or a Porsche 959 (a literal Group B homologation car that wouldn’t even be legal to import until 2001), there was one car that stood tall above all of them. One that stood against the grain. And it wasn’t what you’d think.
Behold, the Buick GNX, the ultimate version of Buick's NASCAR-winning, Darth-Vader-styled Grand National. With its roots in the humble Regal coupe and only six cylinders instead of the competition's eight (or more!), it showed that a legendary car can come from anywhere. Stick around, The Drive’s got some schooling to do on Buick’s greatest muscle car.
How’d The Grand National Come to Be?
The Grand National, like all satisfying American automotive success stories, had humble roots starting in auto racing. In 1978, as the fuel crisis demanded more svelte platforms, the gargantuan 17-and-a-half-foot-long Buick Regal lost a foot of length and a pair of cylinders. With this sportier base built on the G-body platform and an aerodynamic redesign in 1981, the Buick became a serious contender in NASCAR, with Richard Petty winning the first race of the season—the ‘81 Daytona 500—in his Regal.
The Regal steamrolled the competition. 1981 and 1982 saw Darrell Waltrip pilot a Regal to win the Winston Cup Grand National Championship back-to-back. If that wasn’t enough, the car swept the manufacturer’s championship, with a Regal in the winner’s circle in a staggering 47 out of 62 races.
In 1982, Buick moved to capitalize on this success and introduced the Grand National, named for the Winston Cup Championship it had just won. The original Grand National was a Regal option package that could be ordered on any trim level. GM would send the cars out in base charcoal grey paint to Cars and Concepts, a modification shop in Michigan, and once there they would be hand-painted two-tone silver on the base charcoal paint and striped with red accents.
The seats were replaced with Lear Sigler vinyl ones with the Buick turbo 6 insignia stitched into the back; the trim was blacked out, stiffer suspension came standard, and a fiberglass spoiler was bolted into the trunk. Because it was an option package and not its own model yet, only a handful of the Regals were equipped with a turbocharged V6 from the Regal Sport package, but most were sold with the base model normally aspirated V6.
The option package disappeared in 1983 but in 1984, the name reappeared, this time as its own model. This was when the Grand National gained the mythos that surrounds it today. The package went for a more serious presentation upon its reintroduction, with black paint and trim framed at the corners with brushed turbine wheels. Most importantly, the turbo V6 was now standard and was tuned to produce a very respectable 200 horsepower. Instead of a commemorative special option, it was now a muscle car with one of the hottest six-cylinders on the market.
The Grand National of 1984 was already a serious contender as it debuted, with a quarter-mile time only a few tenths of a second off of the newly-introduced C4 Corvette. But in 1986 the turbo V6 gained an air-to-air intercooler, a relatively new technology for the era as turbos were still in their infancy for road cars. The intercooler along with a few other bolsterings to the motor bumped the G-body to 235 horsepower, shaving an entire second off the quarter-mile time. Now the blacked-out Buick was officially faster than a Corvette, and it only needed six cylinders to do it.
All good things must come to an end, and the Grand National was no exception. The final year of production was 1987, as GM retired the G-body platform across all its brands. The regular Grand National got a boost in the form of slightly more boost and a tuning upgrade, pushing the power to nearly 250 HP from the stout V6, but the final ballad of the platform was sung by what rapidly became an automotive legend.
What’s Up With the GNX?
The GNX, so named for Grand National eXperimental, is to this day an icon of American automotive engineering. The GNX was a potent final-year Grand National packaged up and shipped out to ASC/McLaren, a high-profile tuning house that would go on to work with GM on other projects before their eventual dissolution. ASC/McLaren dropped in a larger turbo with a ceramic turbine.
They changed the ECU to squeeze more power from the now-ported 3.8L V6. The suspension, already firmed up for the Grand National repeatedly throughout its life, was made even stiffer in the rear, for better straight-line traction. Boost was upped to 16 PSI in first gear. It was, according to internal marketing, intended "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."
And how could we possibly forget? It was blindingly quick, with a 0-60 time checking in at a Countach-defeating 4.7 seconds and a jaw-dropping mid-13 second quarter mile. In 2021, a car that runs 13s from the factory is impressive; in 1987, it put it in the conversation with the greatest supercars of the era.
Even beyond performance, the dark Lear Sigler interior trimmings and performance-minded gauge cluster installed by ASC/McLaren, combined with the already blacked-out Grand National styling, made it menacing to behold.
Multiple journalists who reviewed it when new said it looked like Darth Vader designed a car, and they weren’t wrong. You could wear a pocket protector and librarian glasses and still be the raddest person in your state if you drove one of these things; it possesses an aura of sheer intimidation and power that could imbue the dorkiest driver with a sense of inimitable coolness.
Officially, 547 were built and distributed to high-performing Buick dealers, and auto outlets—when they could finally get their hands on one—permanently ensconced it in the collective memory as one of the greatest American cars ever built; Buick’s mission to end the Grand National project with a legend was accomplished. Buick has brought back turbocharged Regals in the years since, but nothing has ever come close to the raw shock and awe campaign of the GNX or the sinister styling of the Grand National, and with NASCAR losing its cultural hold in the ensuing decades, it’s unlikely we’d ever see anything quite like it again.
But they’re still out there, and if you’re cruising down a lonely freeway at night in a Testarossa or a 911, smugly assured you can outrun anything you may encounter, keep your eyes peeled for a blacked-out coupe with a turbo whine and quad headlights. One of these might just take your lunch money.
Learn How To Drive Your Grand National With Skip Barber Racing School
Learning your car’s behavior, quirks, and personality can be done on your own, but you’re not exactly doing so in a vacuum. A missed braking point or target fixating on that tree over there could mean a bent bumper or some serious medical bills. Why take the chance when you can learn safely how to drive your Grand National from the professionals at Skip Barber Race Car Driving School?
The Drive has partnered with Skip Barber, the legendary racing school, to ensure that when you first prime your Grand National’s ignition, you won’t fly off into a ditch.
FAQs About Buick Grand Nationals
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q. How many GNXs were made?
A. GM built 547 GNXes, all in 1987.
Q. How much is a Grand National worth?
A. Hagerty’s valuation tool puts the average Grand National sold today in good condition at around $22,000.
Q. Did Grand Nationals have T-Tops?
A. They could be equipped with either t-tops or a standard slicktop.
Q. What is the top speed of a GNX?
A. General Motors limited them to 124 mph electronically, out of fear higher speeds would cause the car to severely destabilize from a lack of downforce and insufficiently rated tires.
Grand National Fun Facts
You know you want more Grand National facts!
- The Buick LeSabre also had a Grand National trim level in the early 80s that ran alongside the original Regal package.
- The rarest Grand National is the original 1982 model, with only 215 produced.
- The 1987 GNX was sold with a matching GNX jacket given to original owners, and mint examples of the jacket have sold for $4,000.
See the 1987 Buick GNX In Action
Enjoy this retro review from Motorweek’s legendary John Davis from when the GNX was a brand-new car!
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