Buick’s turbo-performance future died when this GNX-powered Electra wagon broke GM’s cardinal rule – Brett Berk @Hemmings

Buick’s turbo-performance future died when this GNX-powered Electra wagon broke GM’s cardinal rule – Brett Berk @Hemmings


In the 80s, Buick was attempting to shift its brand perception. “It had this old guy image,” said Mike Thodoroff, who worked with the brand for six years during this time. “It was trying to change.”

One of the key ways this was attempted (and accomplished) was through the creation of a halo performance car: the GNX. This rear-wheel-drive G-body coupe, with its formidable turbocharged and intercooled V-6 power and go-fast accessories, placed Buick in a sinister position as the doom lord of unexpected performance.

The performance of the GNX was unmatched in its day but was not followed by more Buick muscle cars. Not that Mike Doble didn’t try. Photo by Barry Kluczyk.

The GNX was the brainchild of Mike Doble, the heralded head of the skunkworks Buick Advanced Concepts division. But Mr. Doble didn’t stop with the GNX. Working with a pair of local prototype fabricators, ASC and SVI, and the engine builders at McLaren, he attempted to bolt Buick’s go-fast technologies onto nearly any car he could get his hands on.

An otherwise stock-looking Riviera.
But under the hood, turbo power.

According to interviews with Mr. Doble and Mr. Thodoroff, these projects included the downsized mid-80s front-wheel-drive Buick Riviera and the front-wheel-drive Reatta. Because of the crudeness of the era’s turbochargers, torque steer was a huge issue. “If you nailed it, it made an immediate right turn,” Mr. Doble said.

To counteract this, these cars became test beds for emergent technologies. “We worked with Saginaw Steering Gear. And they came up with a couple innovative features,” said Mr. Thodoroff, whose team was responsible for shaking down the prototypes.

Similarly, this looks like a stock Reatta from the outside but has a surprise in the engine bay.

The first was the primary implementation of electronic steering on a GM car. “There were magnets built into the system, and when it sensed a rapid increase in the input of the steering wheel, the magnets would activate and it would dull it, and actually pull on the steering wheel in the opposite direction,” Mr. Thodoroff said. (This system eventually became Magnasteer, first introduced on the Oldsmobile Aurora before spreading across the GM lineup.) The other was conical-shaped unequal-length half-shafts. The group even built an experimental rear-wheel-drive Reatta, to take full advantage of all that V-6 turbo power.

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