Retrospective - 1987 Buick Grand National
I'd swear my brother Paul let out an involuntary gasp as the car came on the boost and the drag radials went up in smoke at 40 MPH. During another test drive, my friend Dave (who owns a passel of original Boss Mustangs and Cougars) remarked "THAT..was very surprising!"
Welcome to a typical day in the life of the 1987 Buick Grand National, where the uninitiated experience how a 3.8 litre V6 - dating back to 1962 - can accelerate a 3,700 pound car with almost supernatural force. The Nissan GT-R may be the V6 turbo performance champ today - but Buick showed the way nearly 25 years earlier.
Whether or not you're a fan of Buick's 1984-87 Grand National and Turbo Regal, these cars are becoming legendary for astonishing performance and finding homes in the garages of many astute collectors and hobbyists.
We're often asked what it's really like to drive a GN. Does the performance really match the reputation? Are these V6 cars the equal of the traditional big block muscle? Absolutely yes and yes.
Of the dozens of cars we've owned - few provided the excitement and driving enjoyment of the GN, a supercar in every sense of the word.
History - In 1987, the entire GM G-body program was end of life, but Buick still and improbably put a lot of engineering effort into the GN package. The GN "LC2" engine used a unique "109" engine block, rolled fillet nodular crank, “445” casting heads, unique pistons and rods. The intake was an aluminum air-gap, single plane – practically a tunnel ram design. The GN had stainless steel headers, die cast valve covers, front-mounted intercooler, distributor-less ignition, Bosch sequential port injection, external oil cooler and more.
The intercooled 1986-87 models are conservatively rated at 245 net horsepower and 355 lb/ft of torque. Modest by today's standards, but trust me - it feels like more, a LOT more!
The drive train consisted of a uniquely calibrated and strengthened TH2004R 4 speed overdrive transmission. The 10-bolt rear end was a beefy 3.42 ratio 8.5” ring gear unit used only in the GN and 86-87 Olds 442.
The suspension was also calibrated to the GN - the FE2 handling package provided a 1.25" front anti-roll bar, rear bar and unique spring rates.
The 1987 models were popular and brisk sellers, and unexpected demand led Buick to extend 1987 production. By the time the final model rolled off the assembly line, 20,193 GNs had been built.
Acceleration - To launch a GN properly, hold the footbrake and then bring up the revs and boost. Then release the brake and hold on! The stock 215/65/15 tires haven't got a prayer. They howl, spin and smoke, and the GN whistles off the line with the tail end slithering through first and second gear. The 200 R4 trans has a GN unique valve body, and bangs off shifts with conviction.
Stock GNs cover 0-60 in 4.9-5.5 seconds and the quarter mile in 13.5-14.0 depending on weather and traction. Our mildly modified 175,000 mile '87 clocked 0-60 in 3.8 seconds and the quarter mile in 12.1 @ 116 on 235/60/15 DOT legal Drag Radials and pump gas. Porsche 911 Turbo and Corvette Z06 territory.
Among the GN faithful, our 12.1 quarter mile performance is improbably regarded as ordinary - quite slow actually. There are many daily driven GNs in the 10's or better.
Only the hairiest of vintage big-blocks can hang with a good running GN, and none of them can touch the GN's Superman - Clark Kent versatility.
The GN is mellow around town, only a distinctive dual exhaust thrum and noticeably fat low-end torque curve clues in the driver to the potential waiting under the right foot. With overdrive and lockup converter the GN is extremely practical - capable of comfortably cruising all day at 80 MPH on the interstate, while knocking down a bit over 20 MPG.
Handling - The GN is surprisingly capable in the turns. Like all intermediate GM cars from 1964-88, the Grand National has a 4 link coil spring rear suspension which does an admirable job of putting down the power and controlling wheel hop over choppy pavement. Thanks to unique springs and big front/rear sway bars, the GN corners fairly flat.
The GN is a front steer chassis (steering linkage ahead of the front axle line) and equipped with an excellent quick ratio Saginaw steering box. This imparts the GN with surprisingly accurate, direct and stable steering feel. This sensation is enhanced by the thick-rimmed leather steering wheel which feels great in the hand.
The GN is biased towards understeer when pushed beyond 7/10ths - but the cornering attitude can easily (and unpredictably) swap to insane, elbow-slapping oversteer when you get on the gas.
The ride is firm-yet-plush, though body/chassis rigidity leaves a lot to be desired. Bumps and potholes are transmitted throughout the entire body structure, with lots of shudders and rattles. This is a far bigger problem on T-top cars that are inherently a lot more flimsy.
Brakes are standard issue GM disc/drum with Powermaster assist - and they are effective but ordinary. In panic stops rear lockup is a concern.
If you are accustomed to leaf-sprung sixties Muscle, the overall GN driving experience will be something of a pleasant revelation. It is a balanced performance car with no glaring dynamic deficiencies. You can drive it all day with no worries. You can idle in traffic without overheating.
Design/Styling - The Grand National interior is a mixed bag. The GN specific bucket seats are quite comfortable and supportive. And, the GN upholstery looks great - tasteful and distinctive.
The dash design is pure 1980's corporate GM - a bad thing. Instrumentation consists of a useless 85 MPH sweep speedometer, useless idiot lights and a preposterously useless LED tach/boost guage which is illegible and unhelpful.
The center console is very low, and provides no convenient place to rest your elbow
Interior quality control is classic 1987 GM indifference. Plenty of rattles, squeaks and ill-fitting trim. Deal with it.
The exterior of the GN is nicely done - particularly considering the over-embellished crap that GM was churning out in this era. The GN gets a nice looking bulge hood, deck spoiler, front chin spoiler, body keyed trim and chromed 15" wheels. The GN only emblems are subtle and expensive metal cloisonne - rarely seen on cars after 1965 or so. All in all, Buick did well with the GN's styling given the humble and blocky lines of the underlying Regal.
Ownership Experience - The GN is a very livable and practical classic. With conscientious maintenance and prudent treatment, the GN can be driven and enjoyed often. Due to the GN's technology, this isn't a good car for ham-fisted mechanics however. You need to do your homework before reaching for the tools. Careless, ill-informed modifications or repairs will end poorly.
At cruise nights, expect a shockingly positive response - particularly from the younger crowd where the GN is a rare cross-over hit. Old-guard Musclecar and Import Tuner guys both like it, which is a lot of fun.
Availability is good for chassis and basic engine parts - though many GN only brake, engine control, interior and body parts are now obsolete from GM and becoming expensive.
The GN shares many chassis, body, mechanical and interior trim parts with lesser Regals, Cutlasses and Malibus. This parts interchange is helpful and budget friendly when hunting the salvage yards.
When GN shopping, look for unmodified 1986-87 cars (that have the best performance and collectibility) Original GN's will have a "7" in the VIN, and will carry RPO "WE2" on the option tag.
Avoid those with salvage/theft recovery history. Many GN's got stolen in the day (a toddler could steal most 80's GM cars) and you just know that joyriding thieves beat the crap out of them.
Look for rust lurking in the floors, rear frame horns, door bottoms and A pillars (from leaky T-top seals). The rubber bumper fillers can deteriorate and crack - particularly in hot climates. Interior materials are also scarce, so beware of cars with badly damaged, worn interiors. T-tops are also on the avoid list - the GN's engine torque puts a lot of twist into the body, and the t-top cars often crack near the door and roof pillars.
Mechanically, be on the lookout for cars that pop, spit, ping or stumble badly under boost. This is often a sign of a weak fuel pump, bad coil or ignition module, and this can easily pop head gaskets or damage the bottom end.
GN prices are trending up, particularly for nice low-mileage cars, but you ought to be able to find a very nice car for well under $20,000. Given the performance potential and upside collectibility of the GN, this is a bargain.
Owner Support - GN owner support is positively epic. Turn to Turbobuick.com for information and also established GN specialty vendors like Dennis Kirban. You'll find the advice and parts you need to make the ownership experience rewarding and fun.
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