If you had to sum up the 1980s in one word, it would have to be “excess.” From Wall Street power brokers like the fictional Gordon Gekko with his French cuffs and pinstripes to athletes like Brian Bosworth with his haircuts and loud mouth, flamboyance defined the decade.
Cars were no exception. Even the muscle car, which had been dominated by mainstream brands like Ford, Chevrolet, and Pontiac, received a new champion from a luxury class. And of course, it had a name to match: the Buick Regal.
But while the exterior of cars in the 80s had flash and style (even if they only played a supporting roll in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” music video), there was less going on under the hood. To understand why, we’ve got to go back a few years.
During the 50s and 60s, gas-guzzling land yachts ruled the American road. In 1971, government safety and emissions regulations sent that model into a tailspin. Then the oil crisis of the mid 70s threatened to deliver the knockout punch. Eight-cylinder chrome dinosaurs faced extinction.
A new trend was on the rise, and it came from across the pond. To squeeze a few more horses into their little sports cars, many European manufacturers equipped their smaller engines with a turbo charger. Porsche, for example, launched its legendary 911 Turbo Carrera in the U.S. in 1976. Many American manufacturers followed suit, and in 1978 Buick introduced the Regal Sport Coupe.
But like any new technology it took a few years to work out the bugs. For its first iteration, the brand dug up its original, all-iron, 90-degree, overhead-valve V-6 from the 1960s. The engine packed a mere 165 horses when topped by a four-barrel carburetor.
By 1984, things were different. Buick rolled out a new creation complete with a new name: the Buick Regal Grand National. The name borrowed equity from the old NASCAR top class of cars, Grand National Stockers, and the Regal’s specs lived up to the high expectation it set for itself. Buick introduced a new and improved version of its turbocharged V-6. The engineers replaced the carburetors with sequential electronic fuel injection. Plus the car received suspension upgrades, including revised bushings, and a facelift to top it off. It all added up to 200 horsepower at 4000 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 2400.
Buick was back in black. Seriously. Most GNs were all black with blackout trim. The absence of chrome was novel at the time, but what else would you expect from the bold 80s style? And over the next few years, the improvements only grew: a better suspension with stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, larger Goodyear Eagle GT radials on aluminum wheels, and an intercooler. By 1987, demand surged.
That same year would be the last for the Regal. So it’s only fitting that 1987 would be its fastest: 245 horses would push that hunk of metal up to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and through the quarter mile in 13.85 seconds at 99.2 mph. But the real belle of the ball was a demon in black: the GNX.
Before putting the Grand National out to pasture, Buick’s chief engineer teamed up with McLaren Engines to build the ultimate GN. They ratcheted up the horsepower to 276 for the GNX, thanks to a Garrett intercooled turbo governed by a new chip and a sequential fuel injection system. In addition, the chassis received tweaks and upgrades. It all came wrapped in what had become Buick’s trademarked blackout paint scheme, and the result was a force comparable to Darth Vader in both look and ability. The GNX would do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and a quarter mile in 13.43 at 104 mph. Not even the venerable Corvette could hold a candle next to the GNX.
The GNX, in all its glory, was only produced for one year. And during that time, only 547 were made. In 1988, Buick redesigned the Regal with a more modern look, front-wheel drive configuration, and no serious performance options to aim it squarely at the personal luxury buyer. The Grand National days were gone. Just like big hair and Members Only jackets faded from center stage of American culture, so did the Buick Regal formerly known as a muscle car.
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