Studying the legacy of Buick is a never-ending perplexing one, to say the least. They’re among the oldest automakers to still be in existence today, having been founded in 1903, 118 years ago. As is the Buick way, many of its earlier automobiles are truly ground-breaking, helping to shape the very essence of the car as we see it today. Among those gems is the 1987 GNX, an icon in its own right.
These days, however, what majesty and pioneering spirit have been eschewed for the sake of building cookie-cutter SUVs and crossovers. While not the most terrible fate to befall a carmaker, the state of Buick as we know it now nonetheless paints a shadow of its former self. How is it that a brand whose cars used to define the pinnacle of luxury automobiles has fallen so far? How did we get here?
If we take a peek at Buick’s current line-up, models such as the Encore, Enclave, or LaCrosse don’t at all remind me of the wow-factor that the Buick brand should’ve meant. If those three don’t suffice then, one has to wonder… Where did the buck stop? Which of the models in Buick’s long history could be called the last great Buick, one that turned heads wherever it went. Could it be the 1987 GNX?
- The History Of Buick
- Buick’s Rise
- Buick’s Grand National
- The Birth Of The GNX
- GNX’s Performance
- Changes Elsewhere
- Market Impact
- Final Thoughts
What’s The History And Origin Story Behind Buick?
As we look at the 1987 GNX, why not go even further, and study a bit more on Buick’s history as an entire brand? Technically, Buick’s genesis began much earlier than 1903, with its first two Buick cars being made in 1899 and 1900. At the time, they were recognized as the ‘Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company’. Interestingly, its eponymous founder, David Dunbar Buick, was hesitant about cars.
Why risk it all these new-fangled motorcars, when his namesake company, then producing engines for boats, was doing well all on its own? Within just 10 years, however, the Buick brand was making just under 10,000 cars a year – quite a feat back in the day. Buick didn’t just dabble in road cars, as they also built one of the first American-made race cars, the Buick 60 Special, in 1910.
The most consequential of the early Buicks was undoubtedly the Model B of 1904, as their first truly mass-produced vehicle. It may not equate in popularity with Ford’s Model T, but the Buick Model B sold well enough that Buick became the largest American car company by then. So much so, that Buick went on an acquisition spree, as Buick became the founding company of General Motors.
Yes, THE General Motors, was built upon Buick’s successes. Sharing costs, Buick pioneered the idea of sharing platforms between marques. The GM A platform was adopted with other GM stables, like Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac. Among the many firsts that Buick accomplished, one that we still use today is turn signals, which Buick invented and used 10 years before other brands.
How Did Buick Continue To Keep Rising In Popularity?
Buick’s cars had rapidly grown in popularity in the early 1900s. It became the car of choice for royals and VIPs, while also being dependable enough for long-distance cross-desert transport services. The Second World War put a stop to automobile production, but Buick still kept at it. Mainly, they were building tank destroyers, as well as radial engines for bombers and transport aircraft for G.I.s.
The end of the war saw Buick continue to innovate with new ideas. The most noteworthy of them is the introduction of Dynaflow, one of the first automatic transmissions on the market. They took a fairly active part in the muscle car wars of the 1960s and 70s. Buick’s vanguard was led by the Skylark, as their premier grand-tourer. With the GSX Stage 1 kit installed, it was an incredibly powerful beast.
As the 1970s came, Buick ventured into importing and rebadging foreign cars as well, in particular models like the Isuzu Gemini and Opel Kadett. The mid-80s also witnessed one of Buick’s crowning achievements, selling their one-millionth car. At this point, though, Buick lost their upscale luster, as they started focusing more on turbocharged, racing-inspired performance cars for their customers.
By 1999, Buick had manufactured a total of 16-million cars. Sales were doing brilliantly for old Buick, but in turn, it lost the brand’s aspirations. We can mostly blame GM’s cost-cutting for this, as every other GM-branded model looked almost identical. Corners were cut, build quality was cheapened, with design and performance were thrown out the window. And now, Buick makes family runabouts.
But What About The 1987 GNX’s Father, The Grand National?
There was, nonetheless, one bright spot in its ever-lasting legacy, the 1987 GNX. Before we can get to that, we should of course discuss how the 1987 GNX got there. To begin, we’ll have to look at the underlying Buick Regal Grand National, which started life in 1982. Built atop a respectable if not a tad dull Buick Regal, the Grand National – or “GN” – was a special edition to celebrate NASCAR.
Specifically, the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series, which lasted until 1986. Buick won the Manufacturers Cup in both 1981 and 1982 and clearly didn’t want to miss out on capitalizing on their successes. Besides, it was Buick who coined and popularised the term, “What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday”. At first, Buick originally intended to produce just 100 Regal Grand Nationals, no more.
Yet, aftermarket dealers quickly retrofitted just any Regal with the Grand National upgrades, with only 215 of them made. The first Grand Nationals of 1982 came with a naturally-aspirated 4.1-liter V6. It made 125hp and 205lb-ft of torque, with peak power available as low as just 2,000RPM. This isn’t interesting today, but these output figures were quite impressive when compared to a Regal.
Even better, at least 35 of them (out of 215 Grand Nationals) had the powerful Sport Coupe package fitted. It comes with a smaller 3.8-liter V6 but is subsequently turbocharged. This ramped up power to around 175hp and 275lb-ft of torque. To be clear, roughly 2,022 Regal Sport Coupes were built in 1982. Nevertheless, Regals that had both the Grand National and Sport Coupe upgrades are rare.
More changes came along in the succeeding years…
1983 – No GNXs Or Grand Nationals, But There Was The T-Type
The Grand National had a brief hiatus in 1983. In its place, Buick redesigned and renamed the Sport Coupe to the ‘T-Type’. I believe “T” stood for “turbocharged”, which was precisely what Buick did, as they axed the 4.1-liter motor. With turbochargers fitted to its V6, the T-Type can output 190hp and another 280lb-ft of torque.
Around 3,732 T-Type Regals were made in 1983, and the branding expanded, too. Other models, like the Riviera, were also promptly given a sportier T-Type version. On the Regal, a few tricks were used by Buick to extract more power from the engine. This included using tubed header designs, as well as an uprated 4-speed overdrive-ready gearbox.
1984/1985 – The Grand National Returns, With Some New Paint
The Grand National finally made a return in 1984, with a fresh coat of paint. This time around, it’d been painted in the now-distinctive and iconic all-black “Darth Vader” look. The engine thus saw an upgrade here and there. Namely, these would include a change to sequential fuel injection and an ignition system that relied on computers rather than a distributor.
This is on top of the already potent 3.8-liter turbocharged V6, which now boasts 200hp and 300lb-ft of torque. Both healthy figures, and marked the beginning of the use of intercoolers within the later Grand Nationals. Although Buick’s “little V6” may only have six cylinders, its power was on par with even the larger V8s on the market. That’s without aftermarket tuning, mind you.
Just for comparison, a 1984 Grand National could do the 1/4-mile run in 15.9 seconds with the stock turbo boost. The same year’s Chevrolet Camaro V6 took a relatively lethargic 17.0 seconds. On the other hand, the top-of-the-line Corvette had only marginally beaten out the Grand National, with a time of 15.2 seconds. With some modifications, sub-13 seconds for a GN is quite possible.
Just 2,100 Grand Nationals were made in 1984. In the next year, Buick’s 1985 edition of the Grand National was largely unchanged. The most noticeable difference was a redesigned front grille and front air dam. Both are made for styling, as well as cooling and performance purposes. Just like in 1984, a total of around 2,100 Grand Nationals were made in 1985, as well.
1986 – Buick’s Grand National Reaches Legendary Status
The most memorable year of the Grand National is without a doubt, 1986. This was the year when Buick decided to make substantial tweaks to the engine. It all culminated with the inclusion of the air-to-air intercoolers within the Grand National’s tried and tested turbocharged V6. This managed to ramp out the performance figures immensely, now rated at 235hp and 330lb-ft of torque.
Fitting an intercooler to the turbocharger was the single best decision they could’ve made. With that being said, many still think Buick’s 235hp figure is undercounted. The actual figure, most claim, is at least 300hp, but is most likely far above this mark. For that reason alone, the speeds of the Grand National from 1986 onwards were utterly awe-inspiring.
When the automotive press tested an intercooled Grand National, they clocked a 0-60mph time of under 5.0 seconds. Even today, such acceleration is astronomical and reserved only for higher-end sports cars. In addition, the Grand National was able to complete the 1/4-mile run in the mid-13 seconds. Again, quite impressive among the 5,500 GNs sold in 1986.
1987 – The Last Of The GN (And The Beginning Of The GNX)
1987 was the final production year for the famed Regal Grand National, and Buick wanted to go out with a bang. To make sure of this, the same old V6 was upgraded further, adding another 10hp for a total of 245hp. Moreover, torque was boosted to 355lb-ft. Interestingly, 1987 also saw Buick unveil the WE4 variant of the Regal, which actually proved to be faster than the GN.
While most of the WE4’s differences were in interior trim and exterior styling, it had aluminum rear drum brakes. That’s compared to the heavier cast iron rear brakes of the GN. Consequently, Buick’s WE4-spec Regals were lighter and is thus more performant. However, only 1,547 WE4s were ever made, as most people were still infatuated with the Grand National.
Apart from that, 1987 saw many other odd specifications with the Buick Regal as a whole. For example, regular Regals can now be fitted with a similar LC2 turbocharger as the GN. You can spot this with the large power bulge hood to accommodate the big turbo. These Turbo Regal Limited cars were also quite rare, with only 1,035 cars made. This makes it nearly as rare as the 1987 GNX.
The difference, of course, was that the Limited is a plush luxury cruiser, rather than a muscle car. It meant comfier cushioning on the seats, and with thick wool carpets. Fascinatingly, you can fashion the 1987 model year Regal T with a 5.0-liter 307-cubic inch V8 instead of the sprightlier turbo V6. 1987 would be the last year before Buick transitioned to GM’s front-wheel-drive platforms.
How Did The 1987 Buick GNX Came To Be?
To top it all off, Buick desired an even more potent last hurrah of the Grand National before it was to end production. So, they decreed that the already limited-edition Grand National would spawn its own limited edition. Referred to as the Grand National Experimental, this is where the legend of the 1987 GNX was born. Just 547 1987 GNXs were built, making it an especially rare collector’s item.
Sold for a then-pricey sticker price of $30,000, the GNX was conceived first as your standard Grand National. It was then shipped off by Buick to McLaren Performance Technologies in Michigan, where it will be converted to the GNX, with all its upgrades included. And no, that shouldn’t be confused with that other, more famous McLaren, which made world-beating F1 cars and supercars.
Nevertheless, McLaren did wonders with the GNX, earning it the near-mythical status symbol that it brandishes today. The 1987 GNX had eye-watering performance, where even the Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis of the late 80s could just barely keep up for sheer pace. So, what exactly did they do with the 1987 GNX? Let’s start with the performance, shall we?…
What Did Buick Do Performance-Wise With The 1987 GNX?
From the factory, Buick claimed a 276hp output and (rather high) 360lb-ft of torque. Although, this was immediately debunked, as many claim that these figures are – once again – underrated. Buick’s 1987 GNX had an actual output of around 300hp and 420lb-ft of torque. The underlying block is still the same, venerable 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 that featured back in 1982.
But, Buick and McLaren undertook major tweaks and modifications, which included:
- Its turbochargers were swapped to a Garrett AiResearch T-3 unit. It had a ceramic turbine blowing through the turbos, which proved to be more efficient than the old intercoolers. Additionally, they were rated to higher capacities, with a ceramic-aluminum (“Cermatel”) coating on the pipes that led into the engine.
- The EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory) was an early form of ECU. In this case, the GNX had a specific EEPROM modified just for it.
- Low-restriction and free-flowing exhausts were fitted to the GNX, with dual mufflers in the back. This is to accommodate the turbo’s highly-tuned 21psi boost, which was higher than the stock cars that the GNX was inspired by.
- A bespoke torque converter and transmission cooler were fitted to the redesigned, and heavily reprogrammed Turbo Hydramatic 200-4R 4-speed automatic gearbox.
- The rear differential cover was revised and unique to the GNX, as well as the inclusion of a Panhard bar torque arm. The latter is a form of sway bar, helping to reduce the side-to-side body roll of the GNX and improve its handling characteristics. Furthermore, this also helped to stiffen up the chassis.
- Its suspension geometry has been adjusted slightly with stiffer springs and shocks, as well. Primarily, this was done to make the bodywork lift upwards, while simultaneously keeping the rear-driven tires planted onto the ground. This aided in improving traction.
What About 1987 GNX Changes That Were Made Elsewhere?
The 1987 GNX, for all its lovely performance, wasn’t merely about the power. To set it apart from a “normal” Grand National, there were numerous other alterations elsewhere around the GNX. Most noticeably, the exterior styling is bolder and more aggressive, with wide arches, fender flares, and fender-side vents to aid in cooling and venting air pressure out of the wheel wells.
These widened fenders are an afterthought to fit in the wider Goodyear Gatorback tires. The earlier Grand Nationals had a limited top speed of only 124mph. This new rubber is rated for higher speeds, with thick P245/50VR-16s on the front wheels, and P255/50VR-15s in the rear. Besides that, you get special 16-inch alloys, which were forged to be ever so slightly lighter than the regular fitment.
Inside, you’ll soon notice more changes with the interior trim. On the dash, there’s a plaque with a unique GNX-only serial number. Seeing that performance was its focal point, you get an analog turbo boost gauge in the GNX. The distinct Stewart Warner instrumentation is unique for the GNX, with simple white-on-black dials. And of course, every single 1987 GNX was painted in black.
This stealthy look, combined with the rising popularity of Star Wars movies at the time, earned the title of Buick’s GNX as “Darth Vader’s Car“. Then, there was the design of the 1987 GNX’s front grille, which looked like Vader’s helmet and mouthpiece. 1987 GNXs were also called the “Dark Side”, as its turbo V6 and Buick branding was contrarian to the more popular V8 Mustangs and Camaros.
Buick’s 1987 GNX, And Its Impact On The Market
As the 1987 GNX rolled on, what blew most people’s minds the most was its performance claims. It even outpaced some of the fastest supercars of the late 80s, which we’re more fondly remembering today than the mostly forgotten about 1987 GNX. Just for a spot of context:
- The 0-60mph acceleration in a Buick 1987 GNX took a speedy 4.6 seconds. The iconic Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 were just 0.4 seconds and 0.3 seconds quicker, respectively.
- A 1/4-mile run with a 1987 GNX is finished in just 12.7 seconds, at a pace of 113.1mph, as tested. The Ferrari F40 is only 0.3 seconds and 2.9mph faster. Meanwhile, Porsche’s 959 is just around 0.8 seconds and 13.3mph faster.
In other words, America’s boxy 1987 Buick GNX could very easily keep up with some of the fastest cars on the planet at the time, brought by thoroughbred performance-focused marques. As was noted by journalists at the time, Lamborghini’s Countach and its monstrous V12 is slower than the 1987 GNX. Given its limited production run, it’s no wonder why they’re so collectible.
For example, a low-mileage Buick 1987 GNX was very recently auctioned off on Bring A Trailer for an astounding $205,000. It only had 262 miles on the odometer and was practically pristine. This isn’t even the most expensive price paid for a 1987 Buick GNX. In 2017, the final 547th GNX was sold through Mecum auctioneers for an even costlier $220,000 price tag, the highest so far.
Final Thoughts On The 1987 Buick GNX
Was it worth it, you might ask? Well, most other 1987 GNXs, through Bring A Trailer themselves, are usually sold for around $60,000. That’s in relatively good condition, as well. Although, this particular 1987 GNX is so unused, it still has the factory plastic wrapping on the seats and interior trim. On top of that, we also have to consider the historical importance of the 1987 GNX, and what it presents.
It was made in only one model year and with such a tightly limited production span. Within this one model, Buick then took that extra step forward in improving the GNX upon the already praised and beloved Grand National. So much so, that you could almost call it a different car entirely, with such a monumental leap in performance. Even supercar-makers had their feet trembling due to the GNX.
Finally, there’s the notion which many people hold to this day, that Buick’s 1987 GNX is the last of the old-school muscle cars. While it may have a turbocharged V6 instead of a N/A V8, the GNX had all the grunt and aggression that a muscle car of decades prior would be characterized by. In the end, we may also call the 1987 GNX the last, truly breath-taking car with a Buick badge on it.
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