In 1982 Buick unveiled what would arguably become the coolest car they’ve ever made. What started out as a Boy Scout engineering project ended up a certified supercar killer by the end of its production cycle. The Buick Grand National is an 80s icon in the car world. And thanks to my friend/reader Mike, I was lucky enough to take one for a spin.
Ten years before its introduction, a small team of Boy Scouts started an engineering project at Buick to turbocharge their recently developed V6 engine. Their end goal? Beat the Corvette. And when Car & Driver tested the Grand National in 1986 it did just that. Making 245 horsepower and 355 lb-ft of torque, it laid down a 0-60 time of 4.9 seconds, and a 1/4 mile time of 13.9 seconds. Not only was that quicker than the Corvette, but it was also faster than the Lamborghini Countach and some Ferraris of the time.
Getting behind the wheel you realize just how much of a stealth bomber this car really is. The idle is lumpy and reminds you of all that big V8 heritage from Buick at that time. However, the typical muscle car characteristics stop there. Dip into the throttle and things get eerily quiet as the turbo spools and hushes all the exhaust noise. The turbo comes on strong in the mid-range and never seems to stop pulling in the top-end. Turbo lag exists, but boost builds more linearly than most turbo four-cylinders I’ve driven recently. The extra displacement of the V6 helps spool things up faster. Unlike many modern turbo cars with “overboost” features, you don’t need to be full-throttle to feel the turbo work in the Grand National. Half-throttle is enough to light up the tires in first gear. After you’ve had all your fun and let off the throttle, the waste gate mimics the same childish laugh you will surely be making from behind the wheel.
The transmission is a 4-speed automatic dubbed the TH200-4R. First gear is long, which is to be expected for an old 4-speed auto. However, Mike’s car is equipped with a shift kit that fires off shifts quick enough to chirp second gear once it finally arrives. This gets a little violent around town, but this car is all about theatrics. And when 2nd hits hard enough to chirp the tires in a parking lot, you can’t help but laugh.
Adding to the theatrics is a fully digital dash with a big orange “Turbo Power” light that illuminates as boost starts to build. The old school digital green font mixed with all the noises of the turbo spooling brings you even more stealth bomber vibes. Oddly absent however is a tachometer. Earlier in the article I couldn’t actually tell you where in the RPM range the turbo started to spool because I didn’t have a tachometer in front of me to see! One can argue you don’t really need it with the automatic, but you’d expect a performance car to have one.
Handling was better than expected, but my expectations going in were probably lower than they should have been. On-center steering isn’t dead, but the ratio does not do it any favors in the corners. The steering wheel needs a good quarter-turn before the front end weights up and communicates what is happening. Braking on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. But I don’t think I’ve driven any American car from that time period and not said the same thing. The Grand National killed a lot of supercars in a straight line, but it was never meant to carve corners like one.
Overall, I struggle with what to call the Grand National. Is it a muscle car? Sort of. But in the same way the Mustang SVO was a muscle car. Its chassis is simply a home to the real star of the show, which is the spooly bit under the hood. And in the Grand National’s case, its looks are just as striking as its performance. In the end it doesn’t really matter what box it fits in. The fact that it doesn’t fit in just one is what make’s it such a unique car. And when you’re doing smokey launches to the sound of a turbo spooling, you don’t really have time to think about anything else.
Thank you to Michael for the seat time, and to Christian Celfo for the great photos. Click or tap on them to make ’em bigger.