1987 Buick Regal Grand National Long Term Road Test - Performance
1987 Buick Grand National: Road Trip to Texas, Day 1
May 28, 2013
My road trip in our long-term 1987 Buick Grand National starts predictably. I don't even need to tell you I'm leaving late. ("You always leave late," our editor in chief advises me.) This time, though, I had the presence of mind to refuel the night before, mainly because the Grand National doesn't have quite the cruising range of our Porsche 911, which is of course 26 years newer. We've never gone farther than 282 miles on a tank in the GN.
Packing the Buick takes no time at all, because its trunk is huge for a midsize sedan of any era. Mark Takahashi has already loaded a backpack with tools and supplies for fixing the Buick on the fly, and my husband and I add a couple of rollaboard bags, a large messenger bag with my laptop, and an emergency roadside kit with jumper cables. Still, there's room to spare. No wonder GM's midsize cars were so popular with families in the 1980s. Mine had a 1980 Olds Cutlass Cruiser (different chassis code, yes, but same rear-drive, body-on-frame architecture), and I used to sleep in the cargo area, with the luggage, on road trips.
Honestly, I've barely driven our Grand National since we added it to the fleet, and my expectations aren't that high. I know this is one of the best cars to come out of the '80s, and ours has such low mileage. But it's also 26 years old. How good can it be?
For its age, our GN drives shockingly well. The turbocharged, 3.8-liter V6 is old-school in that you have to wait for it to spool (quite a contrast to modern turbocharged engines like BMW's N55, which is practically ready to go off idle), but once it's feeling its oats, it has plenty of punch for passing and it's still quick by today's standards. The biggest thing I have to get used to on the interstate is the four-speed automatic transmission. It's not quick by today's standards. Gear changes feel slow, and of course I'd like another forward ratio or two. Fourth gear is really tall, too: At 70 mph, the engine is hanging out at 2,750 rpm.
I figured I'd hate the steering in our Buick Grand National, but I don't. Effort levels are light, as I thought they'd be, but there's genuine steering feel and a definite sense of what's going on with the front end. Amazing. This atones for the abysmal steering in my mom's '87 Custom Cruiser. Brake pedal feel, on the other hand, is as lousy as I thought it would be.
We log 700 miles on the first day of the trip, and we could easily go a few hundred more. Actually, under the original plan, we would do exactly that and land in Roswell for the night. Instead, we only make it to Deming, New Mexico.
This certainly isn't the Buick's fault: For a body-on-frame car, it has excellent ride quality. I'd expected it to float and crash over various road imperfections, but it's actually quite composed and, most of the time, pretty compliant. The main thing that keeps the GN from being truly relaxing on the highway is the wind noise from the T-tops. I'm sure it's quieter now than it was before Mark's temporary fix, but really, T-tops don't seem like nearly as a good an idea in 2013 as they must have in 1987.
In keeping with the theme of oldness, we stop for dinner at Tucson's El Charro, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. If you stop here, make sure to order the carne seca chimichanga in the elegante style. As we're finishing our meal, the owner of the restaurant comes up to talk. He spotted the Grand National parked on the street and set about tracking down its owners. We learn that he used to race a heavily modified turbocharged Supra and that he regrets not buying a Grand National back when it was new. This is the first of many conversations we'll have with car guys this weekend. Of all the cars I've ever driven, the GN makes friends the fastest.
Sometime in the wee hours, we pull into the Days Inn in Deming and drop $50 on a room. (Nope, no Super 8 this time around, but rest assured that this Days Inn is not high-end. It is quite tidy, though, and it's located a mile off the interstate and is thus much quieter than the more expensive Hampton and Holiday Inns, which are right on top of Interstate 10.)
After a day on the road, all is well with the Buick, but we notice a faint smell of burning oil when driving at low speeds, especially when the A/C is running. We'll take a look under the hood when the sun comes up.
Erin Riches, Deputy Editor @ 10,830 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Mulholland Raceway and The Rock Store
April 18, 2013
I'm always thinking of places to take our 1987 Buick Grand National. I think of the GN as a destination car, not a grocery getter or a daily commuter. I want to take it where it will fit in, and The Rock Store in the Santa Monica Mountains is definitely on that list.
The Rock Store is a mecca for motorcycle enthusiasts located north of Malibu, CA that began life as a grocery store and gas station in the 1960s. Now a weekend watering-hole and restaurant, it's home to would-be road-racers and casual cruisers alike. Passion for motoring is what matters most here and that's what makes it a perfect place to take the Buick Grand National for a cruise.
The walls of The Rock Store are more like a museum than a burger joint, lined with photos of riders and regulars from the past. The history here is the reason the Grand National mixes so well with a bunch of motorcycles. The gearheads here know what they're looking at when they admire the GN. They know its history. One admirer even asked if I had seen Black Air.
After fielding a few questions about the Grand National, I headed up the infamous Mulholland Raceway. On the curvy two-mile stretch of mountain road known as The Snake, I expected endless body roll from the Grand National, but the 25-year-old Buick handled flatter than I expected and held its own.
While back roads aren't a perfect match for the Grand National, it doesn't feel like a complete slouch. Focusing on the spooling turbo and the view through the wide-open T-tops is how you enjoy this car. There's no doubt I'll be back here before our time with the GN is up.
Travis Langness, Associate Editor @ 9,357 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Fraternal Twin
April 15, 2013
From every angle, you can see the distinct styling similarities between our long-term 1987 Buick Grand National and this Chevy Monte Carlo SS. I spotted the SS on the way home from the office and stopped for a quick comparison. The body lines, windows and headlights are almost exactly the same.
A year ago, if someone asked me to pick the muscle car between these two, I'd have chosen the V8 Monte Carlo SS, thinking it packed a bigger punch than the turbocharged V6 in the Grand National. I would've been wrong.
Spending some time with our 1987 Buick Grand National has given me some great perspective on an era of cars that wasn't characterized by high-performance. The most output you could get from a Chevy Monte Carlo SS in 1987 was 180 horsepower and it was provided by a 5.0-liter V8.
When it was new, our 3.8-liter, turbocharged V6 Grand National was rated at 245 hp. This likely depressed SS owners as they watched the GN's taillights fade in the distance. These cars may look the same, but the execution is miles apart.
Travis Langness, Associate Editor @ 9,280 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: GNX Video from 1987
February 8, 2013
In 1987, the Buick Grand National was essentially the quickest car around. But there's always room for more. So Buick took it up a notch with the GNX. Only 547 were built, none with T-tops.
If you had the money to own one, you owned the street. Check out this 1987 local news video of the GNX construction process and what things were like in Detroit and the auto industry 26 years ago. Even Jim Wangers, the father of the Pontiac GTO, is interviewed and was surprisingly down on the GNX program.
Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief @ 9,005 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: The Impostor
February 5, 2013
All of you naysayers were right. We editors just couldn't keep our long-term 1987 Buick Grand National in good condition. Despite Takahashi's extensive detailing efforts, what you see above is how our car looks just after a few days in my care. "Care" being a term open to interpretation.
Okay, that's a lie. I found this car near our office, and was struck by the contrast to our GN. Who would let one get this bad? But a second glance revealed that it was not what it seemed. This car is a wannabe, a clone, an...impostor.
There are a number of cues proving this is not a true GN, but it was the seats that first tipped me off. No swirly logo in the headrests. That, and there's only one real-deal GN on Earth that's anywhere near this level of crummy condition, and it resides at a makeshift restaurant called Captain Bob's Chowder House on Redemption Rock Road in Princeton, Massachusetts. If you've been there at any point in the past twenty-five years, you've seen it.
Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor
1987 Buick Regal Grand National: Sounds Like
December 07, 2012
Here's the thing about our longterm 1987 Buick Grand National that nobody really talks about.
It sounds terrible. The 3.8-liter V6 just elicits a lethargic, indifferent moan that does nothing to quicken your pulse. It's a muscle car with zero muscle-car thump. About the only intriguing sound from this engine is the whistle from the turbo.
Its 90-degree vee angle is an easy scapegoat until you remember that the ear-caressing Acura NSX's V6 is similarly bent at a right angle.
Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor
1987 Buick Grand National: Singing in the Rain
December 04, 2012
Like skydiving, driving our 1987 Buick Grand National in the rain is either a grin-inducing thrill ride or a life threatening experience that should be avoided at all costs.
I loved it.
Around town the big, black coupe's front BFGoodrich Radial T/As don't even seem to notice the wetness, while its rear tires might as well be on black ice covered in Mobil 1. Stopping and turning aren't issues, but going requires deft throttle control and just the right amount of countersteer. It was fun for me. However, a non-enthusiast driver would no doubt find it to be terrifying, right up to the moment he or she spins the car and takes out a telephone poll.
Any boost from the Buick's turbo and the tires spin. Any boost at all. But the GN's precise throttle response allows the driver to control the wheelspin and keep the wheelspeed from getting out of hand and the car from getting out of control. Add in a bit of steering and you're rewarded with a beautiful, slow speed powerslide and a huge grin.
If that's just not your thing staying out of the boost is possible if you're extra careful. This does keep the GN's rear tires stuck to the asphalt, it's just not as fun.
Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief @ 7,604 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Access Granted
November 22, 2012
Look, an engine! Unlike many of today's cars that hide their engines under a seemingly Star Wars-inspired plastic shroud (usually for aesthetic and/or sound insulation reasons), our old Buick proudly shows off its force-fed V6. There are at least three aspects of this engine compartment that strongly appeal to the car enthusiast in me.
One is the grooved valve cover design that reminds me of the old M/T ones I had on my sadly long-gone '69 Chevelle SS396. Another is the quickly seen and accessed oil level dipstick that's easy to grab thanks to its T handle. Lastly, feeding the beast its vital fluid is made considerably easier by the large, angled filler tube that's mounted up high and which puts the opening on a flat plane.
John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
1987 Buick Regal Grand National: Track Tested
November 21, 2012
1987 Buick Grand National: Thoughts from the Mullet
November 07, 2012
Many keen eyes managed to correctly identify the person portraying the handsome, mulleted, 1980s New Jerseyite in our Buick Grand National photo shoot. It was of course yours truly. Yet, despite having plenty of seat team in the car that day and night, that's all it was -- seat time. I didn't actually drive the car until yesterday.
My overwhelming impression, from the keys to the power delivery, is that our Grand National is essentially a museum piece. And I say that not just because of its painfully low odometer reading. Every inch of this car feels like an education on automotive history; of how things used to be done. Or rather, how things used to be done at the good General.
Things like the turn signals that not only provide a little green arrow, but text underneath indicating "Rt. Turn" or "Lt. Turn." Things like the slider HVAC controls with words like "Bi-Level" and "Vent" in place of today's mode men diagrams. Things like the radio with four teeny tiny radio preset buttons that when pressed in tandem get you additional preset channels. I'm just old enough to remember GM cars of this era, but those younger or who grew up with other brands might be completely scratching their heads.
Then there's the driving experience. The steering actually exceeded expectations and wasn't as hilariously overboosted as I thought it would be. The wheel itself is either in my lap or pointed at the T-tops (which put sun in your eyes and make lots of noise, by the way). The brakes need that extra bit of effort I remember from my dad's Olds Aurora (and subsequently the Aurora remembers me plowing into a parking curb at Blockbuster). Those aforementioned HVAC and radio controls are a Dikembe Mutumbo arm away. The turn signals really don't like to move.
Oh, and the Grand National's really not that fast. Certainly quick by today's standards, but nothing a 2013 Honda Accord V6 can't do. By the stories you hear, you'd expect this to be some wild, crazy beast of a car; a terrifying ghost of automotive Christmas past designed to frighten a generation of drivers weaned on traction control, stability control and those nancy-boy, new-fangled qualities of steering feel and grip.
Except, it seems perfectly tame and livable to me. Perhaps it's the fact that you actually have to coax it into getting it under way. The throttle and turbo reactions are so that you're first reaction is inevitably, "wait, is that it?" No, there's more, and it definitely gets going. Sounds cool too. And I'm positive you could get into trouble with it, but as is so often the case, you'd have to be a moron or highly inattentive to do it.
This might all sound like I think our Buick Grand National is a meticulously kept old piece of crap. In a way, I do ... and it is. Yet, as a history buff, I love it. I won't be driving it this year because it's enjoyable to drive. I'll be driving it because it's fascinating. Because it represents the rare opportunity in life to literally relive history. Because those radio controls remind me of sitting in the front seat of my mom's '83 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. Because it smells like my grandpa's cottage.
So if you'll excuse me, I'm going to descend into my garage now, old-school double GM keys klinking together in hand, to the museum exhibit presently displayed in parking spot 14.
James Riswick, 1980s Recreationist Model @ 7,351 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Spindly Shifter
November 05, 2012
I usually like T-handle shifters, but the Grand National's looks rather spindly for a muscle car, don't ya think? Just seems like it should be beefier, and offer a manual-shiftable feature, given the car's personality. Of course, with this particular example being a virtual museum piece I'd keep it bone stock. But how cool would it have been if Buick had originally fitted one of these bad boys from its Pontiac and/or Oldsmobile cousins instead...
A Hurst Dual-Gate (dubbed the "His-and-Hers") shifter from an old GTO or 442 would be my first choice, as it allows banging off ratchet-style manual shifts via the separate gate on the right hand side. Yes, they had manually shiftable automatics as a factory option back in the '60s.
These "Lightning Rods" were also offered by Hurst (and came standard on the '83 Hurst Olds). The method to this madness was you pulled them all back when you were at a stop to select first gear, then as you accelerated bumped each one forward (working right to left) for the 1>2, 2>3, 3>4 shifts. Probably a bit much, but still kinda cool.
John DiPietro, Automotive Editor @ 7,334 miles
1987 Buick Regal Grand National: We must be 'skilled' drivers
October 31, 2012
When I went looking for the spec on coolant/antifreeze, I found this page in the Buick's manual. It's nice to see we handily beat the manufacturer's estimate for 60-0 stopping distance by 29 feet. We did not attempt braking in any of the other various conditions, but it is interesting to see nonetheless.
Chief Road Test Editor, Chris Walton
1987 Buick Grand National: This Aint No Choke
October 23, 2012
Not sure why I noticed this light when I got in the Grand National this morning. Don't worry, it wasn't actually on while I was driving, it was just lit temporarily after I cycled the key.
The whole idea of a choke is foreign to anybody below a certain age these days. And, of course, the idea of a choke in a fuel injected car is just as foreign (Then again, my fueled injected Honda RC51 motorcycle had a choke, so it's not out of the question).
I'm guessing the light is a leftover from other Buick models that weren't fuel injected at the time. They probably figured it was worth leaving around to function as an oil warning light and owners would just ignore the "choke" part. Anybody have a more accurate answer?
Ed Hellwig, Editor, Inside Line @ 6,956 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Meet Our New Guru
October 19, 2012
That's Lou Czarnota. Lou is our new Grand National Guru.
A few minutes with the internet and it's clear that Lou is the go to guy in southern California for turbo Regals. So we called. He was pleasant on the phone and obviously knowledgable. The next day we were at Lou's front door.
Lou's Auto Service is in Lake Forest, CA, which is about 60 miles south our our Santa Monica office, and has been since 1977. When we arrived there was no doubt we had the right place, three GN's sat in the shop.
We weren't really there for any fixes in particular. Our GN is running well, but we wanted to meet Lou and have him take a look at our car, just to make sure we weren't missing anything. If we were, Lou would know what it is. He has owned dozens of Grand Nationals and Turbo Regals including two GNXs and an NHRA SS/DX record setting twin turbo drag car. He specializes in these vehicles, performing everything from routine maintenance to engine rebuilds.
He wasted no time digging in. We were there just three minutes when he said, "Open the hood, lets take a look."
After an underhood inspection he pulled the ECU from the passenger's footwell and cracked it open to see if our car had an aftermarket chip. It does not. That chip in the photo above is the same chip it left the factory with 25 years go.
Then Lou hooked a boost gauge and diagnostic tool to our car and said, "Lets go for a ride." He jumped in the driver's seat and fired it up. Then he hesitated for a moment, looked over at me and said with very little irony, "Just so you know, the last car I did this with threw a rod through its block. Should I proceed?"
I swallowed hard and pretended to laugh a bit. "Sure, lets go."
After a few runs through the gears Lou confirmed that our car is running the proper stock boost levels and the computer is retarding the timing 4 degrees at full throttle (from 22 to 18) due to California's 91 octane fuel. This is certainly robbing us of some horsepower, but Lou said it was normal. He also confirmed that our car was equiped with the stock thermostat and its cooling fans were coming on at 195 degrees, which is factory correct.
He also noticed that our Throttle Position Sensor needed a bit of adjustment. He opened the hood and tweaked it, assuring full throttle is just that.
We left happy. The Buick's throttle reponse is improved a bit, and we now have much more confidence in the health of our Regal.
Still, I have little doubt we'll be back to see Lou soon.
Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief
1987 Buick Grand National: Zinc, Rats and Wipers
October 17, 2012
We're still tweaking on the Buick. Yesterday I bought this very smelly and very expensive zinc additive ($16.99) and poured it into the GN's engine to protect its flat tappet cam, something the zincless Valvoline synthetic blend we're using fails to do.
If you're going to do this, here's a tip: Don't get the zinc additive on your hands. They smell for hours no matter how many times you wash them.
While I was at Pep Boys I also bought new wiper blades for the Buick. $9.99 each. Then I found the rat's nest.
With just 5,000 miles on the odometer it didn't really seem necessary to check the Buick's air filter. However, while I was installing the wiper blades I figured it couldn't hurt. Good thing I did. I found a rat's nest. Literally, complete with acorns.
I blew out the filter with some compressed air and vacuumed out the air box. Good as new.
Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief @ 5,918 miles
1987 Buick Grand National: Right On
October 15, 2012
You get a lot of thumbs up and right ons when you drive the Grand National. Most people ignore it but the ones who know make sure to tell you.
I spent the entire 1990s living in New York with no need of a car. I went from this generation car to the 2000s. Driving it for the first time was like returning to my youth. It's so familiar. And it really is out of a time machine. Everything in it works just fine, even the radio and air conditioner, which seem to be the first things that go on older cars.
Driving it is easy. There is nothing old and twitchy about it. The only thing you need to do is give yourself a little more braking distance. It doesn't have all the modern safety features that we've gotten so used to. And unlike some older cars, if you get stuck in traffic, you don't have that little worry in the back of your mind that it might shut off. (I'm talking about you, Ferrari 308). Even the air conditioner doesn't tax it; it is just as confident and smooth. It will be a fun road trip car.
As I was driving along the ocean road on my morning commute, I was thinking about how nice and comfortable I felt. The car is roomy and the interior is pristine. It has a bit of an old car smell, nothing musty or gross, just perhaps a little dusty scent even though it's clean. Velour wasn't the greatest material ever invented.
It's nice to drive a car with so much visibility. There are no airbags to thicken the pillars (or to protect me). Nice big windows but little tiny side mirrors as you can see in my video tour.
I like the narrow steering wheel. I find it more comfortable in the hand than a modern one with all the bells and whistles. And I like the seat belts. They are the kind that you can lock into place so they don't keep rubbing at your neck. I know they're not as safe as the modern ones, but they were more pleasant.
My verdict: I give the Buick Grand National a big thumbs up and a right on.
Donna DeRosa, Managing Editor @ 5,822 miles