The Buick GNX: The Greatest American Car of the 1980s
Oh, the ’80s. A decade remembered for outrageous cars like the C4 Corvette, the Lamborghini Countach, and the Ferrari Testarossa. It was the era of plastic everything and wedge-shaped designs, digital dashboards and pop-up headlights. We remember the decade for its excesses, cocaine and hairspray, shoulder pads and mirror shades. But truth be told, the ’80s weren’t really as excessive as we remember. After all, there was the stock crash of ’87, the rise of conservatism, and the PMRC. In the automotive world, the most popular cars of the era are the ones we’d collectively like to forget; cars like Ford Tempos, Chevy Citations, and the Chrysler K-Cars. The quality of American cars continued to sink to new lows, and while imports from Europe and Japan convinced millions of Americans that they deserved better, manufacturers were still figuring out how to wring performance out of engines that were choked by the federally-mandated emissions equipment introduced in the previous decade.
And that’s why one of the most exciting cars of the era wasn’t a supercar at all, but a Buick. Out of this void came a stealthy and monochrome black contender that could embarrass the world’s best with little more than a turbocharged V6. It was the car that spawned the now tired cliché “Darth Vader, your car is ready,” and convinced Americans that while its V8 Mustangs and Camaros could muster little more than 225 horsepower, the muscle car was not, in fact, dead.
The GNX was the defiant last gasp of General Motors’s G-Body, the rear-drive platform that traced its roots back to the late ’60s, and had served the Chevy Monte Carlo, El Camino, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and Pontiac Grand-Prix since 1978. Once the personal coupe sales bubble burst, and the future seemed like it would be ruled by front-wheel drive cars, GM decided that front-wheel drive was the future, and planned to phase out the platform. As a result, brands were able to get away with a little more with their G-Body coupes than they could’ve with other models. While millions of Americans bought plain-jane G-Body models, Oldsmobile had the Hurst/Olds, and later the 442, Pontiac had the Grand Prix 2+2, and Chevy had the Monte Carlo SS to keep things interesting. But unlike the V8-powered cars of its sibling brands, Buick did things a little differently.
Unlike the other G-Body coupes, Buick bet the farm on its V6 engines, and to everyone’s amazement, it worked. At a time when “there’s no replacement for displacement” was still the rule, Buick took its Regal, and eschewed the standard big V8 for a turbocharged six – uncharted waters for an American car. When the second-generation Regal was introduced in 1978, it was available with a turbocharged 3.8 liter six, which was novel, but didn’t prove to be a strong seller. Thanks to GM’s strong presence in NASCAR with its G-Body cars, its brands won the Manufacturer’s Championship every year from 1978 to ’88 (part of a larger run that lasted from ’76 to ’91). The 1981 and ’82 seasons belonged to Buick, and to commemorate, it launched the Grand National, a two-tone gray paint job and a body kit that spruced up 100 1982 Regals. Unfortunately, the car’s naturally-aspirated 125 horsepower V6 didn’t exactly inspire too many people, and the GN was dropped for 1983.
By 1984 however, things had changed, and Buick had finally figured out how to put the 3.8 turbo to good use. The Grand National was back, this time it was all business. You could have it in any color you wanted, so long as it was monochrome black, with a two-tone gray/black interior. And with its turbocharged mill good for 200 horsepower, and 300 foot-pounds of torque, it was nearly as quick as Chevy’s all-new Corvette, for a whole lot cheaper. The GN was largely unchanged for ’85, but after the Corvette got a 25 horsepower power bump, Buick decided to one-up its corporate cousin once again for ’86.
An intercooler and boosted turbo brought power up to 235 horsepower and 330 foot-pounds of torque, besting the Corvette, and launching the GN into the upper echelon of American performance cars. With its upright, conservative styling, parts-bin interior, and $16,000 price tag (around $35,000 today), it was a no-nonsense performance car, and a true throwback to the muscle cars of the 1960s. For 1987, the GN gained an extra 10 horsepower and 15 pound-feet of torque, but it was the end of the line for the G-body. Looking to do something special, Buick sent the car out in a blaze of glory and transformed it into what could be the greatest American car of the decade.
It was hard to improve on the GN, so Buick looked outside the company – to ASC/McLaren. The company beefed up the car’s 3.8 mill, added a new turbo, and a revised intercooler, giving the GNX, or Grand National Experimental, 300 horsepower, and 420 pound-feet of torque. Production was initially planned just 500 cars, but 547 customers were willing to part with the $29,900 (over $62,000 today) to take one home. Like any great halo car should, the GNX was a lightning rod for Buick, and 20,193 customers snatched up more affordable ’87 “base” GNs – more than twice the amount of cars sold between 1984-’86 combined.
The GNX was hailed as a classic as soon as it hit the streets. It could go from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds, and run 13.5 second quarter-miles. It didn’t just embarrass the Corvette anymore, the five-seat Buick was now pulling numbers comparable to the Ferrari Testarossa – with half the cylinders and for about 25 percent the price. But after 1987, it was gone, nothing more than a burst of what could have been had the muscle car wars gone on uninterrupted. Instead of setting an example, the GNX was more of an anomaly, and despite a successful formula, no one picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Buick.
Nearly 30 years later, the GNX is considered a pioneer in automotive performance. It’s one of the strongest links we have between the muscle cars of the past, and the turbocharged performance cars of the today. And due to its rarity, people are willing to pay for it. The car pictured above was bought new by a collector and preserved for 28 years. Earlier this year it sold with only 362 miles on the clock for $165,000, making it the most expensive 1980s American car ever sold at auction.
Today, as every automaker from Ford to Ferrari offers small-displacement turbocharged engines to keep fuel economy high and horsepower higher, the GNX offers the blueprint for the modern muscle car, proof that displacement doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the power to back it up. And while period performance cars like the Testarossa and the C4 Corvette are today almost groan-inducing in how dated they look, the GNX still looks menacing, it still looks cool. Because unlike period exotics, where clichés and hyperboles informed their aesthetic, the GNX kept it all under the hood. It’s remote and menacing, violent and irresistible. In that sense, of course the GNX is the car for Darth Vader. Hell, it’s the car for Friedrich Nietzsche too, it could be the only American car that’s truly beyond good and evil.
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