What makes a muscle car? Traditionally, American automakers decided it was a more powerful engine in their family sedans and coupes. They mostly perfected the practice throughout the 1960s.
The 1980s, however, were a very different time.
Fuel economy and emissions standards choked performance cars for most of the 1970s and 1980s. The fourth-generation Chevrolet Corvette made just 250 horsepower from its small-block V-8 engine until 1992.
A 1986 Buick Regal Grand National – image courtesy of Ilan Rubier
In 1981 and 1982, Buick notched back-to-back wins in NASCAR’s Grand National series. The brand raced its pedestrian Buick Regal, and that made it a perfect canvas for the muscle-car treatment. There was an appetite to celebrate its motorsport victory—an appetite to build a muscle car for the 1980s.
Buick unveiled the Regal Grand National in 1982 for a brief run, and brought the car back after a year-long hiatus in 1983. In 1984, the Buick Grand National was revealed with a standard turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6, good enough to provide drivers with 200 horsepower. Subsequent model years would see Buick engineers go back to the drawing board to find more ways to squeeze power out of its homage to NASCAR.
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1987 Buick Grand National
Come 1986, the engine made 235 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, thanks to a new two-piece aluminum intake manifold and a new intercooler. By 1987, the darling year for the Buick Grand National, the engine made 245 hp and 355 lb-ft of torque.
Car and Driver mashed the accelerator in a 1986 review of the muscle car and clocked a 0-60 mph sprint in 4.9 seconds. The Grand National’s dash was quicker than anything Chevrolet had dreamt up for the Camaro or Corvette—it was even quicker than nearly every U.S.-spec Ferrari on sale. Rumors of ringer test cars may or may not be true.
Although separate from the Grand National’s lineage, Buick decided to send the modern muscle car out with a bang in the form of the GNX. It sent 547 Grand Nationals to ASC/McLaren for upgrades as to not disrupt the engineering and production process already put in place.
An internal document from Buick perhaps summed up the GNX’s mission best: create a Grand National “that car collectors will want to own and that automotive writers will never forget.”
Along with a suspension redesign, a stiffer chassis, and new wheels and tires, the turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6 pushed an astounding 276 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. The Corvette wouldn’t match that performance for five more years when the C4-generation car reached 300 hp in 1992.
Enthusiasts look back on the 1960s with twinkled eyes and nostalgia. Indeed, we’ll never see an era like it again. Yet, it’s hard to overlook how Buick overcame regulations and challenges to make a muscle car for a new, restricted era. The Buick Grand National was a true muscle car.
Note to readers: Motor Authority has compiled 100 cars that have forever changed enthusiasts. From supercars and sedans to SUVs and muscle cars, these are the cars that have sparked our love for cars. Think we’ve missed something? Leave a comment below or contact us here.