27 Nov 2012

The Return of the Buick GNX?

Max Prince looks at the history of the Buick GNX (Grand National), a cult American car, that promised so much from GM in the 1980's - and sees hope in rumours of it's revival.

I couldn't help but wear an enormous grin reading Autoblog yesterday, as they added to the ever burgeoning rumors that Buick is aiming to launch a new Grand National model, probably with a GNX variation.

Those reading this in the UK might be wondering, "Why on Earth would anybody care about a Buick?" Fair question. These days it seems the most exciting thing GM's grandpa arm could do is stop making cars. But suspend that notion momentarily and travel to the strange, warped universe of General Motors in the 1980's. Entering the fuel injection era, GM and its subsidiaries actually produced a number of rather remarkable performance engines, including a certain 3.8-liter turbocharged V6. Beginning in 1983, this motor powered the two-door G-body platform (Grand National and Regal models), steadily increasing in horsepower annually until the end of 1986, eventually settling at a respectable 245hp.
1987 Buick GNX
With the G-body facing extinction, GM decided to send the chassis off with a Viking funeral of sorts, one last 'hoo-rah!' before burying it in the history books. The Grand National was commissioned for a limited-production run of special 'GNX' models, and the 3.8 V6 was subsequently passed off to McLaren/ASC for modification, where it was not modified. Yes, you read that correctly. After thoroughly inspecting the 12-valve pushrod unit, the F1 deities did not have a single suggestion for improvement...Buick had built a performance powertrain to the standards of McLaren.

Shocking, I know. Changes at ASC were limited to external bits – a larger intercooler, quick-spooling ceramic Garrett turbocharger, retuned computer software, and a special torque converter that, from what I've seen, must have be fashioned from a industrial bank vault. Out rolled a supremely menacing coupe, widebody wheel arches bulging, with massive 255mm rear tires inspiring (false) optimism for the possibility of traction. New owners were also delighted to find that the rear control arm suspension had been lifted for a hardcore panhard rod setup, and that the car featured a bolt-in transmission cooler. To top it off, GM pulled a page from Henry Ford's book: You could have the turbocharged super-Buick in any color, as long as that color was black.

Thus, in 1987, the new Buick GNX redefined the term 'badass.'

Not wanting to upstage the flagship Corvette, GM estimated the GNX's output at 276hp and 360lb-ft of torque. Considering the 4.5-second 0-60 and 13.2-second quarter-mile times, coupled with the 3,450lbs (1576kg) curb weight, it's safe to assume those power figures were only slightly more accurate than a James Frey autobiography. Leaving behind wrinkled pavement, Buick's turbo leviathan trumpeted a novel return of the muscle car; an American big-body coupe that would humiliate any presumptuous Ferrari Testarossa owner on a two-lane blacktop. Actually, the GNX could hang with the era's performance benchmark Lamborghini Countach, while costing $100,000 less than the finest from Sant'Agata.
1987 Buick GNX
This Buick has a special cult following in the States – only 547 examples of the GNX were ever produced, thus completing the holy 'cool, fast, rare' trinity that all classic auto collectors seek out. But the iconic G-body is more than just a rare bird with dragstrip bragging rights. For American car guys, the GNX is a glimpse of what could have been had GM not slipped into front-wheel drive, pseudo-luxurious monotony. The powertrain was far ahead of it's time, outproducing almost anything, even exotics with twice the cylinders. 

This was a concept so uniquely un-American, yet bestowed unto a chassis unmistakably Detroit: futuristically fast but with a proprietary, devil-may-car swagger. So yes, I did get excited about Buick, but maybe now it's easier to understand why. And there's one last bit that makes it all the sweeter. Buick GNX #449 belonged to a young man named Mark Reuss, who is now General Motors' North American president. His father, Lloyd, was the GM executive in charge of pushing the original McLaren/Buick project through in the 80's. I'd say there's a pretty good chance the new GNX sees production.

I just hope they'll only offer it in black.

Article by American writer Max Prince, who is currently living in the UK and studying for his masters degree in auto journalism at Coventry University

All images courtesy of www.gmhightechperformance.com