A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to drive a Buick Grand National. For those of you who hear “Buick” and instantly get bored, this is a special Buick: this one is a high-performance model based on the Regal of the 1980s, and it was a well-known “sleeper” — a car that was a lot faster than it looked.
Let’s go back to the start. The Grand National was conceived presumably out of a desire to add some excitement to the Buick product lineup, and to inform buyers that Buick had some success in a NASCAR series dubbed the Grand National Cup. The original Grand National models featured mostly cosmetic changes, but over time things got better and better, with a turbocharged V6 that was highly unusual for the day. For the final year, 1987, power and torque were 245 horses and 355 lb-ft, which was the peak.
Although Buick also made a higher performance model — the GNX, of which just 547 were sold with 276 horsepower and 355 lb-ft of torque — I wanted to drive a Grand National, as it was a famed model with a wider appeal. So I borrowed one from a viewer here in Southern California, and I spent the day with it. And I was impressed.
To be clear, I wasn’t impressed with the usual General Motors quality and interior design of the era. Materials weren’t excellent back then, and the interior and dashboard design is generally composed of a lot of right angles, all stuck together, with basically every important item sitting in a square or rectangle. Nothing is particularly handsome or stylish.
That’s not true on the outside, though. The Grand National is a gorgeous car, a true muscle car, with a sleeper look that only lets you tell apart the Grand National from the Regal based on its all-black paint scheme and a few badges that would be considered ultra subtle by modern standards. All Grand National models were black, and they wore special wheels, and their look has aged wonderfully.
Getting it out on the road was an especially surprising experience. I expected the Grand National to feel old and slow, and I expected to think most of the excitement would be wound up in its look, its image, its nostalgia. Not so. The acceleration was surprisingly quick, and I’m impressed with just how much go the Grand National had from all speeds, even allowing you to stomp on the throttle at 40 mph and feel like you were really taking off. I didn’t expect that at all from a 30-year-old car with a 4-speed automatic and 245 hp, and I could start to see why some Grand National owners suggest their cars are underrated in terms of power.
Where the Grand National acted like I expected was in the turns. It was a fun car for acceleration, but it doesn’t corner particularly well — not like any form of modern sports car, or even the best sports cars of the 1980s. It’s fine, secure enough, not dangerous, but nowhere near tight or zippy or tossable like a Mazda Miata or some other fun sports car. Again, I expected this, and given what the Grand National is, it’s hardly a problem — but I was hoping maybe I’d be pleasantly surprised here, too. Not so.
The best thing about the Grand National, though, is the look — when you catch yourself in a shop mirror as you’re driving along, and you see just how incredibly cool you look, piloting that all black muscle car that really does look like Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s insanely awesome, and I loved seeing this pristine Grand National more than some of the exotic cars I film. Given the way the market has been treating Grand Nationals lately, however, it may soon find itself in the realm of those cars. It’s certainly interesting and cool enough. Find a Buick Grand Regal for sale
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