Last month, we recognized the Buick GNX as the greatest American car of the 1980s. In an era when the C4 Corvette and Fox Body Mustang were supposed to be the industry’s halo performance cars, Buick quickly entered the conversation with an offering of its own. While it’s dated G-Body platform was anything but groundbreaking, the GNX’s lasting legacy lay beneath the subtle bulge in its hood.
With a 3.8-liter V6 engine that far surpassed the horsepower and torque specs of both the ‘Vette and ‘Stang, the GNX proved that there was, in fact, a viable replacement for displacement, and it came in the form of a turbocharger. But the GNX didn’t suddenly emerge from the shadows and steal the spotlight overnight.
Though it’s often forgotten, the GNX’s recipe for performance was painstakingly developed after 10 years of trial and error. Instead of aiming its efforts to make V8 engines more fuel-efficient like other auto manufacturers in the late 1970s, Buick came up with the wild idea of turbocharging a six-cylinder engine. By doing so, Buick hoped to achieve excellent fuel economy without sacrificing the performance that many expected less than a decade removed from the muscle car era.
As the low-compression big-block V8s slowly died off with unleaded gas and smog pumps in full effect, Buick made the unpopular decision to look toward the future instead of wasting its efforts in a valiant attempt to revive the past.
Buick first launched its turbo V6 engine into production in 1978 in the newly redesigned Regal and LeSabre Sport Coupes. Long before the Grand National and GNX’s sequential fuel injection, the‘78 Sport Coupes were available with either a two-barrel or four-barrel carburetor.
By 1979, Buick’s peppy engine also made it’s way under of the hood of the front-wheel drive Riviera S-Type and Century Turbo Coupe. With a turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 of its own, the 1979 Buick Century Turbo Coupe was one of the original predecessors to the legendary Grand National. Its fastback shape, bulged hood, and aggressive rear spoiler gave the Turbo Coupe a muscular look that hadn’t been seen since the since the Skylark Gran Sports of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
A black-painted grille, headlamp trim, and window moldings also contributed to the car’s sporty profile. A “Turbo Coupe” labeled deck lid panel and wide rocker treatment were additional hints that this was no ordinary Century. Though the brand is known for its reserved styling, the Turbo Coupe was an exception. With hawk decals adorning each fender, Buick wanted you to know this Century could fly.
With a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust as standard equipment, the Turbo Coupe made an astounding 175 horsepower and 275 pounds-feet of torque. Amazingly, the Turbo Coupe fell just shy of the 1979 Corvette’s performance specs of 195 horsepower and 285 pounds-feet with a V8 at the helm.
Sporting a paltry 3,051-pound curb weight, the Century Turbo Coupe was 430 pounds lighter than the Corvette too — making the performance comparison between the two much closer than General Motors would care to admit. It’s also worth noting that the Century was much lighter than its sibling Regal — making the Turbo Coupe the most potent offering in Buick’s lineup.
Only an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 models were made until production halted in 1980. But the Century Turbo Coupe proved that Buick’s innovative methods had the potential to succeed. A six-cylinder engine could be both fuel-efficient and powerful in spite of widespread disbelief.
Even though the Century Turbo Coupe wasn’t a sales success, its innovative performance architecture helped pave the way for one of the greatest muscle cars in automotive history.