When I was a kid, Darth Vader was a total badass: six-foot eight of Force-choking menace in a shiny black helmet. Come 1999’s Phantom Menace and suddenly he’s an adorable tow-headed tyke with an interest in robotics. Then he develops a crush on Natalie Portman (who hasn’t?), goes all emo and starts losing limbs like a rhododendron during pruning season.
In many ways, Buick’s the same thing – a one-time builder of heavy-hitter muscle cars, long turned to the Beige Side. I mean, which would you rather say you drove, a “Wildcat” or a “Century”? Thought so. Now though, there’s the Buick Regal GS, a turbo-charged, 270hp sports-sedan that you can buy with a 6-speed manual transmission. A return to form?
Perhaps, but if you were wondering why all the gearheads in your circle of friends started hyper-ventilating the moment the words “Buick” and “turbocharged” were mentioned in the same sentence, perhaps a little history lesson. Twenty-five years ago, what is now GM’s golfing division unleashed one of the most menacing cars of all time, and certainly the baddest Buick ever: the GNX.
The original Grand National was a decent sled, a NASCAR-inspired package for the comfy Buick Regal. Its turbocharged 3.8L V6 started out with 180 horses in 1982, and by the time U2 released The Joshua Tree, was cranking out 245 ponies.
For 547 special GNs though, it was not good enough. These high-option cars (without performance-sapping sunroofs) headed for ASC/McLaren, a specialty tuner who would crank up the boost with a larger turbo, ceramic-coated intake and high-flowing exhaust. The driveline was beefed up with a bigger, all-aluminum rear-differential, the auto-box was reprogrammed, extra cooling was added as well as a new torque converter.
To match the go, the GNX brought the show with iconic 16” lightweight alloys with polished rims and black mesh centres. There were also functional vents slashed into the fenders, and then everything was painted black. No chrome. No cheesy ’80s faux-wood panelling. No badges. The GNX was blacker than the wing of a bat at midnight on the dark side of the moon.
Performance? Official figures showed the uber-Buick capable of out-accelerating a contemporary Corvette and running within a half step of the ’80s-defining Testarossa. Horsepower was a claimed 276 hp, torque at 360 lb/ft and 0-100 km/h came in an even-now respectable 5.7 seconds. Just one problem: the numbers were nonsense.
General Motors couldn’t have some boxy Buick putting down quicker quarter-mile times than their pride-and-joy flagship sports car, so they underrated the GNX. How quick was it really? Try 4.5 seconds to 100, and a Ferrari-blitzing 13.3 seconds in the quarter.
There was plenty of performance on the table for those who wished to turn up the wick on the boost even further, or folks who wanted to build a GNX clone out of their regular Grand National or Regal T-type. Even standing still, the original GNX remains a paragon of curbside menace. As Car and Driver put it back in the day, “Darth Vader, your car is ready.”