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 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.
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.
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.
The year: 1986. The place: America. The problem: Bad guys drove fast cars, faster than anything the Federal Bureau of Investigation had in its motor pools, and they were getting away with murder. The solution: …call Buick?
The notion of FBI-ordered Buick Grand Nationals (especially when reading the above in a Don LaFontaine/Redd Pepper voice) certainly sounds like an Eighties action flick come to life. Throw in an agent who bristles at authority and doesn’t play by the rules, a straight-laced family man partner, and plenty of explosions and you’re halfway to a Hollywood script. But it may actually have some basis in the truth, even though the details are hard to confirm and sketchy at best.
We jumped down this rabbit hole after a recent Regal T Turbo Hemmings Find of the Day elicited a couple of comments on the topic of federal turbocharged Eighties Buicks, starting with one from Joe MM with a rather elaborate backstory to the mythical beasts
he U.S. government ordered Regal T-Types with V rated tires and the PROM chip that raised the top speed limit on the cars. T-Types and GN’s came with H rated tires so GM governed them. All GM law enforcement vehicles had top speed limiters unless you ordered the optional V rated tires. Then the respective agency could order the PROM that would raise the limit. This was a popular upgrade if you could find a dealer that was able to order the chip. GM used these chips in the 1994-96 Impala SS since they had 17″ rims; since most tires that would fit had a V rating. They were afraid that they would be accountable if owners installed inferior tires and have accidents as a result. The full size trucks today are governed to the same top speed whether they have the base V6 or the 420 hp V8’s for this reason.
For a little dealership in a town hard against the Louisiana-Arkansas border, Springhill Motors sold more than its fair share of Buick Grand Nationals during the 1980s: 30 or 40, by owner Bob Colvin’s estimate. “We got most of them from other Buick dealers,” he says. “They weren’t performance oriented, so they didn’t know what to do with them.” Colvin even got in one of the few GNXs, the instant collectibles that everybody wanted to buy and then immediately put in storage, though he sold it soon after. Instead, he set his sights on another Buick, one that he felt would become far more important in the annals of collecting: the last Buick Grand National.I
t’s not unheard of for dealers to angle to get the last of any particular car. Multiple dealers, for instance, tried to get their hands on the last Chevrolet Corvair. It’s also not unusual for carmakers to hold on to those last cars, as we saw when GM liquidated a swath of its Heritage Collection roughly a dozen years ago. But when it came to the last Buick Grand National, it seemed only one dealer showed any interest in the black-clad G-body that had terrorized V-8 muscle cars for years.
Colvin didn’t find that it was as simple as calling up his contacts in Detroit, though. “I made several phone calls to Buick’s Darwin Clark and Bob Henderson, director of distribution,” Colvin says. When he didn’t get a response, he rang the office of GM CEO Roger Smith. “The Buick executives called me back and said, ‘Don’t you ever call him for anything else.'”
He assured his contacts at Buick that he wouldn’t advertise it as the last Grand National or put it up for sale. Even so, the best Colvin could get out of Clark was one of the last two Grand Nationals, as GM may decide to keep the ultimate example. A letter to Colvin from Larry Shields, a representative at Buick’s dealer assistance network, noted that it would be impossible to guarantee him the last Grand National due to scheduling and assembly complication.
But then Springhill Motors received an order for a Grand National, invoiced to the dealership. “That in itself was very unusual because dealers order their own cars with whatever equipment they desire,” Colvin says.
It was, as Colvin learned, a tacit acknowledgement that he’d be getting the car he wanted. Chuck Maitland, the manager at the Pontiac Final Assembly plant, scheduled the build of the Grand National for December 9, 1987, which would be not only the last day of production for the Grand National but for all 1987 G-body cars (i.e., the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme). Colvin, his wife, Charlotte, and their four-year-old son, Matt, traveled to Pontiac, Michigan, where they got a tour of the plant and the production line, which dates back to the factory’s opening in 1927. (A second line had been added for the Pontiac Fiero. When Fiero production ended in 1988, GM permanently closed the plant.)
People born the year that GM pulled the plug on Oldsmobile will turn 18 in 2022. That means they grew to legal voting age having never seen a new car from Lansing. They might vaguely remember seeing a new Pontiac, as that brand’s demise came about after GM’s bankruptcy, bailout, and subsequent restructuring around 2009. Perhaps these hypothetical 18-year-olds might aspire to buy the new Buick Electra electric vehicle that Flint unveiled in September—if it ever progresses from a bold-looking concept car into production. Also, as long as they grew up in China, where the concept was shown and where this new Buick EV is slated to be built and sold.
Times have most definitely changed for Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac but one thing hasn’t—the popularity of the cars those storied marques produced from the prewar era through the 21st century. The B-O-P issue of HMN is one of our most popular, both with readers and with sponsors. It’s for good reason: GM’s middle three divisions produced some of the most innovative, exciting, reliable, luxurious, sporty, etc. vehicles in history and they remain popular with old-car buffs today.
Recently we polled the HMN staff to find out what B-O-P vehicles intrigue them the most and why. Some of the results were surprising and clearly there was a dearth of 1950s- and 1980s-era vehicles that we’ll need to address in a future issue. Here for your perusal are the results.
1922 OLDSMOBILE 43A
Oldsmobile already had decades of production on the road when the 1920s dawned, and the division continued to innovate. Three model lines were available for 1922: the Model M43A “Four,” which relied upon a 224-cu.in. inline-four; the Model 47 “Smaller Eight” that used a 233-cu.in. V-8; and the Model 46 “Larger Eight,” which sported a 246-cu.in. V-8. The M43A sold best, representing 14,839 of the 22,758 Oldsmobiles built that year. Sending its 40 hp to the wheels via a torque tube, the four-cylinder was an advanced design that included three main bearings, a two-stage carburetor, and overhead valves, the latter disappearing after 1923 and not returning until Olds debuted the 1949 Rocket V-8. The entry-level model came as a Roadster, Coupe, Sedan, or Tourer; it was much pricier than the contemporary mass-produced Ford Model T, the range of $1,195 to $1,795 being roughly equivalent to $19,510-$29,310 in today’s dollars. Marque enthusiasts covet surviving examples.— Mark J. McCourt
1926 BUICK STANDARD
Buick was a star of the middle-price market in the 1920s. In fact, it held third place overall in the industry four times in the 1919-’29 period, an era in which Ford was virtually unchallenged and where Chevrolet never wavered from the number-two spot. Model year 1926 was the peak of this period: Flint cranked out 266,753 units, of which 40,113 were $1,195 Standard two-door sedans like the car illustrated, making it the third-most-popular iteration of the third-most-popular car of 1926. Even a Standard was demonstrably better than a $645 Chevrolet Superior or a $580 Ford Model T, while the $1,395 Master was better yet. The Standard chassis had a 114.5-inch wheelbase, while the Master was 5.5 to 13.5 inches longer. Both cars used six-cylinders, with the Standard receiving a 60-hp, 207-cu.in. engine and the Master boasting 75 hp from 274 cu.in.— David Conwill
1932 PONTIAC MODEL 302
Established as a part of GM’s “companion makes” program in the 1920s, Pontiac proved so popular that not only did it long outlive the other companions (La Salle, Marquette, and Viking), but when its own parent faltered in the early years of the Great Depression, Pontiac absorbed it into its operations. The Model 302 was the former Oakland chassis, wearing an enlarged version of the Pontiac Six bodywork. The Model 302 also bore the 1930-vintage Oakland V-8, an 85-hp, 251-cu.in. flathead with a flat-plane crank—which caused considerable vibration but was easier to manufacture with the industrial tech of the time. The next year, the V-8, with its complicated mounts and vibration compensator, would be replaced by the first example of the long-running Pontiac straight-eight family, a 77-hp, 223-cu.in. unit, in a chassis derived from Chevrolet designs—a longstanding part of Pontiac’s formula.— David Conwill
1941 PONTIAC CUSTOM TORPEDO
In the immediate prewar era, Pontiac went upmarket, stepping further from Chevrolet and blurring the division lines between it and Oldsmobile—the next rung in the GM hierarchy—by introducing the full-sized Custom Torpedo line. These glamorous long-wheelbase cars shared their premium Fisher Body “C” bodyshells with the Oldsmobile 90 series Custom Cruiser, Buick Roadmaster, and Cadillac Series 62, with the Pontiac version offered in sedan coupe, sedan, and wood-trimmed station wagon forms. Under their long hoods sat a division-traditional 90-hp, 239.2-cu.in. L-head straight-six or optional 103-hp, 248.9-cu.in. L-head straight-eight. Total production of the 1941 Custom Torpedo Six and Custom Torpedo Eight amounted to just 25,448, with 8,257 and 17,191 units built, respectively. Arguably the most attractive, the two-door Model 29 Custom Torpedo Eight Sedan Coupe is thought to be the rarest variant remaining, making it a prize for collectors.— Mark J. McCourt
1962 PONTIAC GRAND PRIX
When its new car lineup was announced for 1962, Pontiac pitched the freshly minted Grand Prix as, “The personally styled car with the power personality!” It was a fine way of suggesting that the two-door hardtop was a new personal-luxury car, or gentleman’s grand tourer, before outlining just what it came equipped with. It turned out to be quite a list: recessed grille and tail panel design unique to the GP, a lower roofline to enhance its sleek profile, a standard 303-hp 389-cu.in. V-8 engine with a true dual-exhaust system, three-speed manual transmission (although a four-speed and Hydra-Matic were optional), aluminum wheels, an acceleration-friendly axle ratio, Morrokide bucket seats, center console, and full instrumentation that included a tachometer. In short, all the performance of a GTO, combined with the rich appointments of a Bonneville, tucked into a package the size of a Catalina. Starting at $3,490 (or $30,302 today), it found 30,195 buyers; this number quickly increased in the ensuing years.— Matthew Litwin
In 1926, the Buick Standard had been around for a year already. It replaced the Buick Four series for 1925 and was priced below the larger and more powerful Master series. The Standard used a 207-cu.in., 60-hp six-cylinder and rode a 114 3⁄8-inch wheelbase, while the Master had a 274-cu.in., 75-hp six and a 120-inch (or longer) wheelbase. As a two-door sedan, the Standard offered much of the style and build quality of the Master, at a $200 discount (equivalent to nearly $3,000 today).
Those early days of this car’s existence are a bit murky. Bill says the oral history passed down to him, along with the physical evidence uncovered during his efforts to revive the Buick, suggest it was just a few years old when sidelined with a cracked engine block. A fine line is still visible from the resulting repair.
“Most of the miles were put on before 1928. After it was fixed, the original owners placed her in storage. Then came the Depression. She hibernated through World War II, Korea….”
A used Standard Six sedan was a good car in 1928, but nothing ground shaking. Betty must have been in particularly nice condition to get repaired and then stored for what amounts to about three and a half decades. What had once been a common and unremarkable entry-level Buick was, by the early ’60s, an unusual sight.
A farmer in Richmond, Massachusetts, just southwest of Pittsfield, purchased the car around that time.“Other than touch-up paint and typical mechanical maintenance, she was all original,” Bill says. “The intention was to restore her to new condition since she was in such great shape. He started the motor and drove her around the farm to make sure she ran.
“All the parts were there and in perfect condition, but the project was sidetracked by his 1919 Buick roadster project. Betty was sold to a family in Pittsfield in 1968 for $50. I have the bill of sale from that purchase.
“They were able to free her engine, fill the tires, and drove her home from Richmond under her own power. They changed the oil, replaced the horn, and added a brake light switch so they could get an inspection sticker. She still has the Massachusetts inspection sticker from 1970.
“They coated the hood with clear coat, touched up a few places where the paint had chipped, and painted the grille bezel to protect her bare steel. They replaced a couple inner tubes and used the same tires. I presume the tires are ’40s or ’50s vintage. They left the rest of the car as a survivor.
”After some fun in the summers of 1969 and ’70, however, the family wasn’t satisfied with how Betty was running.
Another great Buick Grand National revival, this time from Classic B Body Garage
This 1987 Buick Grand National was sold for scrap and rescued! I will be going through this car to bring it back to life and get it back on the road. Project Scrap National begins
Learn the proper steps to get an old car running again that has been sitting for years. I teach you how to perform a complete compression test and determine the condition of the engine. This 1987 Buick Grand National was sold for scrap and rescued and I am continuing the work to get it running and back on the road again.
Rescued 87 Buick Grand National is finally getting a bunch of new parts and it’s closer to running once again! This 1987 Buick Grand National was sold for scrap and rescued and I am continuing the work to get it running and back on the road again.
Learn how to replace a gas tank, fuel pump and sending unit! This 1987 Buick Grand National was sold for scrap and rescued and I am continuing the work to get it running and back on the road again.
As with music and other cultural touchstones, it’s a good bet that your automotive interests are rooted in the trends and experiences of your youth. They’re the cars on the street you started noticing before you could drive, the ones you and your buddies had in high school or shortly thereafter. Or perhaps you simply lusted after the ones that were out of reach. For most baby boomers, it was the golden age of the original muscle car movement, but for the Generation Xers who came up behind them, it was the cars of the Eighties and early Nineties. IROCs, 5-liter Mustangs, and Grand Nationals. Those were the cars that left the indelible impressions on their collective psyche.
The older Gen Xers are now solidly in their 50s and they’re collecting the cars of the MTV era. They’d rather add a 1993 Mustang Cobra to their garage than a ’69 Boss 302, while the Buick “Twisted 6” logo evokes as much awe as a Stage 1 emblem. Count Matt Murphy among them. He’s an unabashed fan of just about all Eighties’ cars, but it’s those GM Turbo V-6 models that burned into him like a cattle rancher’s branding iron — or perhaps a weekend-long Miami Vice marathon.
He has five turbocharged vehicles: a 1987 Buick Grand National, a pair of 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am models, a 1987 Buick GNX, and a 1991 GMC Syclone. It’s a collection any performance enthusiast can appreciate, regardless of his or her generational proclivities.
It all started with Matt’s father, a GM employee tasked with the otherwise innocuous job of window moldings. It doesn’t sound as sexy as developing a Super Duty engine, but all of those snap-on windshield and rear-window moldings had some serious engineering behind them, with an entire department for their design and manufacturing. They were produced at a dedicated plant in downtown Detroit.
“In the early Eighties, he got a call about an upcoming production model that would require blacked out window trim,” says Matt. “The twist was they didn’t want the trim simply painted, because it would flake off pretty easily. They needed something else.
”Cutting to the chase, Matt’s father delivered the durable black trim for what would be the 1984 Grand National. A little while after the car went into production, the senior Murphy received a surprise at his Troy, Michigan, office. It was a GM car hauler with a Grand National on it. The development team was so appreciative of his efforts on the project, they dropped off the car for him to enjoy for the weekend
It has a 7.0-liter V-8, hideaway headlamps, and exclusive, swoopy styling. If we’re talking late-1960s General Motors products, that sounds a lot like a third-generation Corvette. Not everyone can daily drive a two-seater, and if you were going to drop $4,600 on personal transportation back in 1968, there was another option. It came not from Chevrolet, however, but from GM’s founding division: Buick.
“The automobile you drive must be more than a machine that takes you from one place to another,” Buick said in Riviera promotional materials. “It must be as exciting to drive as it is to look at and as exciting to look at as is reliable to drive. Obviously, Riviera is your automobile
.”That may have been obvious five decades ago, but the second-generation Riviera is often overlooked these days. That’s a mistake. You see, if you wanted a big-block, A/C-equipped vintage ’Vette with an automatic transmission now, you’d best be prepared to spend around $60,000. A similarly optioned Riv, meanwhile, can be had in like condition for about a quarter of that.
We drove this example not long ago and can tell you: Unless you want to attend track days on the regular, you’ll have just as much fun in the Buick. Maybe more if you have some friends you’d like to bring along, or just prefer some extra room to stretch out
The Ivy Gold Mist example on these pages belongs to John Scheib (no relation to Earl, in case you were wondering) of West Hartford, Connecticut. Just to look at his car, you immediately realize a Riviera of this era was more than mere transportation. Take that curvaceous styling, for instance. It’s a clear departure from the sharper, more vertically oriented, Ferrari-meets-Rolls Royce looks of the 1963-’65 first-generation Riviera. At first glance, you could be forgiven if you mistook the Buick for an Oldsmobile Toronado, but look closer and it’s a more conservatively styled car.
That conservatism extends to the chassis. While the Toronado and the Riviera, along with the Cadillac Eldorado, shared GM’s E-body platform, only the Riviera adheres to the traditional American approach of a front engine and rear-wheel drive. The decision to retain what was tried and proven good not only means it’s a more straightforward car for the modern owner to service and find parts for, but its driving manners are familiar and predictable.
In the Buick’s cruciform X-frame chassis are nestled such well-respected parts as a division-specific differential, Super Turbine 400 transmission (that’s a TH-400 with a Switch Pitch torque convertor, in case you don’t speak Buick), and 430-cu.in. V-8.
The 430 was only in its second year in 1968, having recently replaced the 425-cu.in. “nailhead” engine found in earlier Rivieras. It shares its stroke with the later 455-cu.in. V-8, but uses a slightly smaller bore. The engine in John’s base-model Riviera was rated for 360 hp at 5,000 rpm and 475 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm, thanks to 10.25:1 compression and a Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor
.Standard rear gearing was a long-legged 3.07:1, perfect for road tripping like John’s visit to the GM centennial in Flint, Michigan, back in 2008. Along on that trip was his wife, Bea, with whom he was celebrating 40 years of marriage—a perfect coincidence with the age of the Riviera. Back in ’68, leadfoots also had the option of more aggressive 3.42:1 gears with a limited-slip differential as a part of the Riviera GS package.
Gassers, if you aren’t familiar, are those drag racers that ran in the NHRA Gas classes from 1955 to 1971 and the similar classes of other sanctioning bodies. As distilled down by SEGA, the hallmarks of a ’67-style gasser are a solid front axle (straight or dropped) suspended from leaf springs, an elevated stance (12 inches at the rocker behind the front wheels, 11 inches at the rocker ahead of the rear wheels), a vintage (i.e. a design that existed in 1967) V-8 engine, and a manual transmission
.The SEGA rules also make it clear that every car has to be invited and that day-of-race entries aren’t permitted—you should check with the organizers before assuming anything is within the spirit of the rules. Still, the general guidance on selecting a vehicle for racing is “Closed full body styled production cars 1967 or earlier. No open or altered body styles. All cars must have a top/roof” with further prohibitions on 1967 Mustangs, all Camaros (we’re guessing Firebirds too), V-8 Corvairs, Opels, and Cougars.
Catching even a glimpse of certain vintage vehicles instantly turns my head and makes me stop what I’m doing. While most are muscle cars, Buick’s personal/luxury 1963-’65 Rivieras have held that power over me as well. Though I still have yet to own one, my desire for doing so actually dates back to when I was a teenager living in northern New Jersey in the 1980s.
I guess you could say that the Riviera has been my dream car of the personal/luxury genre. My order of favorites within the first generation of the E-body Buick is the inverse of their production years—I prefer the ’65, then the ’64, followed by the ’63. I’ve long imagined piloting a Riviera on extended highway trips to exciting vacation destinations and arriving at large family gatherings in style, given the Buick’s stately appearance, smooth operation, and polished demeanor, as compared to some of the muscle cars I’ve owned, which are generally louder and targeted more towards performance than luxury.
From the fertile mind of GM styling chief Bill Mitchell and through the talents of designer Ned Nickles, this exquisitely rendered reaction to the four-seat Ford Thunderbird was initially developed as the XP-715 for Cadillac (and was referred to as the LaSalle II), but the division passed on it. It was then was awarded to Buick following a competition between the other divisions. Ever since the first time I saw a Riviera up close, I’ve admired its “knife-edged” exterior appearance.
Forward-jutting fenders implied motion, a formal roof instilled elegance, and large wheel openings showed off a generously sized 15-inch wheel/tire package with effective 12-inch brake drums (aluminum in front) behind it. The body’s proportions are just about perfect to my layman’s eye, and with a 117-inch wheelbase cruciform (X-type) frame and an overall length of about 208 inches, the Riviera was sized right to offer a more nimble driving experience than Buick’s larger and heavier luxury liners.