While pure muscle cars had faded into history, some carmakers in the 1980s were still searching for performance and excitement for their customers. But rather than shoving oversized engines into their offerings, some brands sought to combine technology with smaller power plants.
Arguably, the greatest example of this is Buick’s use of a mundane V-6 and a turbocharger in the Regal coupe. And what stands out among these efforts is the legendary 1987 Buick GNX. Read on as we explore some unique aspects of this treasured classic.
It’s easy to confuse Buick’s GNX with the Grand National. They are both based on the Regal personal luxury car model. Plus, the GNX moniker (short for Grand National Experimental or Experiment) seems like an abbreviation for Grand National, but there are distinct differences.
The simplest way to understand this is that GNX is a modified version of the Grand National built solely for the 1987 model year. The less powerful (but still more robust than a stock Regal) Grand National was made from 1982-1987. We’ll skip the line-by-line distinctions. But basically, the GNX is the rarest of the upgraded Buick Regals from the 1980s. Read on to learn more unique aspects of the GNX.
The 3.8-liter V-6 underneath the GNX’s hood was no ordinary engine. Sure, it started out as one, but a Garrett turbocharger with an intercooler made all the difference. In addition, the setup featured beefier turbo components, a reworked transmission, a less-restrictive dual exhaust, and a reprogrammed engine control module (ECM).
It resulted in a potent powertrain with 276 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque. But, GM downplayed the engine’s actual output. Independent testing revealed that this turbo V-6 really kicked out 300 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. That meant the GNX could hit 60 mph from a standstill in 4.7 seconds, according to Car and Driver. To put that in perspective, this was faster than the Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches, and even the Lamborghini Countach. For a brief period, the fastest production in the world was the Buick GNX.
Before McLaren started building its own supercars in the 1990s, it was the go-to company for performance and racing know-how. Its expertise traces back to the early 1960s when Bruce McLaren founded a Formula 1 group that would race to victory later in the decade. Recognizing that Buick’s internal team could only take an amped-up version of the Grand National so far, management brought in McLaren and American Speciality Cars (ASC) to help.
Buick had stated its goal was to build the fast GM production car and “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.” McLaren and ASC got to work on not only improving the GM V-6 but reworking the suspension as well.
Buick entered the 1980s with the idea that performance sells. Perhaps this thought was a leftover from the muscle car era of the previous decade, or Buick felt left out from what internal rivals Pontiac and Chevrolet were doing. But much of the motivation came from the brand’s 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory. So, Buick embraced this success by adding the T-Type variant to many cars in its lineup, including the Regal.
These efforts eventually morphed into the 1982 Regal Grand National launch, which called attention to Buick’s NASCAR success. So, for much of the 80s, buyers could choose from a Regal Turbo, Regal T-Type, or a Regal Grand National. All offered respectable turbocharged performance and other upgrades. But, to commemorate the last year of the Regal on GM’s G-body chassis, Buick created the GNX for the 1987 model year.
But to put it all in perspective, Buick built 20,193 Grand Nationals that year. But, only 547 GNXs were made. That’s what makes the GNX so rare.
The standard operating procedure for General Motors (even today) is to sell vehicle variations of a single platform. It was especially prevalent in the 20th century when there were even more GM divisions (Pontiac and Oldsmobile). Given this approach, each platform underpinned different cars. So, the G-body platform served not only the Regal but also the Chevy Malibu and Monte Carlo, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Cutlass Cruiser, and the Pontiac Grand Prix and Bonneville. In other words, this chassis tried to be all things to many GM vehicles.
To counteract the drawbacks of this at-best adequate platform, Buick made improvements to the GNX suspension a priority (along with engine upgrades). These steps included a beefier rear axle, additional chassis support, and extra bracing behind the rear seat. Not only did this help with handling, but the GNX was well-planted at the back which enabled full power launches.
In GM’s hierarchy, Buick has always been positioned in that low-premium position. Below Cadillac, but above Chevy. This was no different in the 1980s. However, the GNX was a rule-breaker even when it came to cost. For instance, the base Regal Grand National was priced at $16,617 (about $40,600 today). Add in all the options, and the total rises to about $18,300 (roughly $44,800 in 2021 money). In comparison, a 2022 Camaro SS costs about $40,000.
But, pricing for the GNX goes off the scale. With a sticker of $29,290 (about $71,700 today), the GNX has a price tag equivalent that exceeds today’s top-tier Camaro, the ZL1 (with a $66,000 sticker).
To help justify the GNX’s substantial premium over a regular Grand National, Buick also had to provide cabin upgrades. To start, the run-of-the-mill GM instrument cluster was swapped out for a complete Stewart-Warner gauge package. This enhancement featured a 160 mph speedometer, an 8,000 rpm tachometer, and individual gauges for turbo boost, oil pressure, and water temperature.
While the black and grey seats were a carryover for the Grand National, every GNX was fitted with a numbered commemorative plaque on the dashboard. Interestingly, unlike the lesser Grand Nationals, the GNX was unavailable with a sunroof or T-tops (Buick was concerned with structural integrity).
It’s easy to confuse the GNX with its Grand National and T-Type siblings, especially regarding the paint color. So, let’s get this out of the way. GNXs and 1984 and later Grand Nationals only came in black from the factory. Early Grand Nationals were available in a black and charcoal two-tone treatment, and the Regal T-Type could be ordered in numerous solid colors.
Other GNX-only distinguishing features include front fender air vents to extract heat from the engine compartment, composite wheel-well flares to accommodate the more robust wheels and tires, 16-inch black-mesh wheels, and “GNX” (not Grand National) badging on the grille, trunk, and wheel hubs.
Among the lesser-known facts about the GNX is that Buick gave every original buyer a unique jacket. No surprise it was all-black, except for the GNX logos. It was a way for owners to show off their cars when not behind the wheel. You’ll find that rate GNX jacket on eBay going for $1,500 or more.
Because of the GNX’s rarity, these Buick’s fetch a pretty penny. And things are only getting more expensive. At one point, finding a GNX in the $50,000 to $100,000 range was possible with a bit of luck. But that’s no longer the case. Examples in reasonably good shape and reasonable mileage now start at $100K, and pristine GNXs with under 1,000 miles begin at $200,000.
While Trust Auto sells premium late-model used cars and trucks, we also love classic rides like the Buick GNX. Be sure to read our articles on unique cars like the Plymouth Barracuda and 1967 Shelby Cobra. Is there a legendary vehicle you’d like to know more about? Contact us with your suggestions.