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An Old Dog Learns A New Trick

The driver of the 1970 SS454 Chevelle was having a really bad day.  On this warm summer afternoon, he was getting his butt spanked, and spanked hard, by a nice sensible Buick.  An old man’s car for heaven's sake. 

I’d spied him waiting at the traffic light and positioned the Buick in the empty lane alongside the red cowl inducted Chevelle.  He gave the subtle “red light creep” that signaled his intentions when the light changed.  Based on the amused-yet-dismissive look on his face, he obviously thought I had little chance against his mighty 454. 

On the green light, the SS quickly pulled a few fenders in first gear until the Buick hooked and whooshed by like he’d shifted into reverse.  From the 30 MPH crack, it was the same story – this time the Buick pulling him by 5-6 lengths all while smoking the tires well past 50MPH.  The Chevelle owner’s facial expression was every bit as befuddled as Mike Tyson’s when Buster Douglas knocked him out in 1990

A Buick Grand National provides its owner with many such moments and every one is just as hilarious as the first.  In fact, the Grand National, all 3,700 pounds and 231 cubic inches of it, will just annihilate every mythological belief about the supposed supremacy of 1960’s Detroit muscle cars.  All while riding in air conditioned comfort, with the radio on and quietly through the mufflers.  You’ve just got to experience it first hand to believe it.

But how did I arrive at this moment?  How did a self-avowed Ford big block fanatic end up owning, of all things, a V6 Buick?  At the risk of sounding like an Alcoholics Anonymous first timer,  I've got to confess:

"Hi, my name is Tom.  I’m 46 years old and for the past 40 years I've been under the influence of the Big Block"

Despite the undeniable performance trend towards EFI, turbos and superchargers in the past 25 years, I secretly wondered when that “silly little technology fad” would end.  In 1987 we bought a brand new Mustang 5.0 LX notchback.  It was a neat little car – but with alien concepts such as EFI, catalytic converters and TFI ignition, it never fully squared with our old school musclecar roots (despite some pretty impressive 13.98 bone stock passes at New England Dragway).  Our initial rides in Fred Mahoney's new 1987 Buick Grand National only half-heartedly impressed.  Yeah, it was quick, but where was the manual tranny, the exhaust noise and just where the hell was the V-8??

I remained convinced that a proper performance car meant a lumpy idling temperamental big block 1960’s icon. As the values of these icons rose so did our preoccupation with such pedantry as date coded alternator belts, assembly line paint codes and the correct gloss of satin black chassis paint.   I hung out with guys that spent six figures restoring Hemi MoPars that they waxed but never drove.  We talked confidently of impressive drag strip performance but few of us actually ventured onto the track anymore.   And we didn’t notice how basically silly the whole thing had become.  20 years ago we were screwing “Cal Custom” gauge clusters into these same dash pads and hanging the axles off 8-inch shackles.  We happily drove these iconic muscle cars (year round) like we’d rented them in Islamabad with the full collision damage waiver.  Now we treated these same cars like Picassos.

In the words of the J. Geils Band “I musta got lost -- somewhere down the line”

Your Basic 50 Footer, But Good Bones!

In 2005, everything changed.  My brother in law's 1987 Grand National - a daily driver since new – was for sale.  It was a rock solid South New Jersey car, completely stock aside from a Hooker cat back exhaust, chip and K&N filter.  Never tracked, mint no-smoking interior, (amazingly) never stolen and with a complete service history since day one. 

About a billion miles on the odometer and the circa-1987 GM factory paint job (looking like it had been painted by drunken Rhesus monkeys using a Q-tip)  The price was right, we had space in the garage – so we snapped it up.  My plan was to fix the worn out stuff, drive the car, learn about the "new" (actually 20 year old) technology and decide if this whole new-fangled techno scene was indeed for me.  I had no idea what was to come.

Step 1 was to begin the reading and studying phase.  The Buick turbo isn’t rocket science, but nor is it a car for the careless.  It’s a vehicle that demands attention to detail, adherence to protocol and basic knowledge BEFORE turning a wrench.  Treat this technology casually and you’ll be rewarded with a turbocharged pile of crap that barely runs – if at all.  I found and to be excellent sources of information.

What's impressive about the Grand National is how thoroughly Buick engineered the package.  In 1987, the entire G-body program was end of life.  Unlike the largely cosmetic modifications Chevrolet made to create the Monte Carlo SS, the GN was truly an engineering masterpiece.    The GN uses a unique engine block, rolled fillet nodular crank, “445” casting heads, unique pistons and rods.  The intake is a aluminum air-gap, single plane marvel – practically a tunnel ram design.  The car has stainless steel headers, die cast valve covers, intercooler, distributor-less ignition, sequential port injection, oil cooler and more.  The drive train consists of a GN specific "BRF" TH2004R 4 speed overdrive with bigger servo, unique valving, fluid cooler and high stall lockup converter.  The 10-bolt rear end is a beefy 3.42 8.5” ring gear unit used only in the GN and 86-87 Olds 442. Positraction was optional (but present on our car).  The suspension calibration is also GN specific, as is the exterior and interior trim.  It’s a truly comprehensive package and Buick’s commitment and engineering pride is evident everywhere you look.  In stock trim, a new GN was good for 5.5 seconds to sixty and 14.0 and 100 MPH in the quarter.   With a K&N filter, good tires and a 160-degree thermostat – 13.0 was attainable, and with about $500 of additional mods 12s were commonplace.  Considering the era in which it was built, the looks are fairly outstanding too.  The basic proportions are right, and there’s no added fluff. 

The typical GN owner is the essence of the classic hotrodder.  Creative, inquisitive do-it-yourselfers who are willing to modify, run the snot out of their cars, break them and come back for more.  That so many stock blocked GNs are running reliably under 11 seconds is testimony to the skill, knowledge and passion of this tight knit group.  It's hotrodding at its essence and at its best.  Sure, there are well heeled Buick GNX owners who store their priceless McLaren/ASC creations undriven and plastic wrapped in climate controlled garages.  And that probably makes sense. The GNX is exceedingly rare (547 built) and the values for an excellent, low mileage GNX is above six figures.

There were a few prerequisites to our Buick project.  First was cost.  I’m a working stiff and the soaring costs of healthcare coverage, business costs, mortgage, fuel and daily necessities mandated that the project be cheap.  I also wanted to maintain the car as a 50 footer/driver so all funding would go to improving performance and reliability.  I wanted it to look stock, and it had to be streetable and fast.

Cost to date: $2,000

Our GN was peppy, but there were obvious issues.    While the ECM showed no error codes or abnormal readings, the engine popped and spit under boost, and on pump premium there was audible detonation.  Both symptoms are typical of well-worn GN’s, and usually attributable to inadequate fuel delivery and weak spark.  Both problems are also lethal to the head gaskets and bottom end if left unchecked.   The transmission was also sloppy – with massive flare on the 1-2 shift and no perceptible converter lockup.

The GM G-bodies actually have a pretty decent front steer suspension setup, but like most 20 year-old cars, ours was tired.  The stock ball joints, tie rods and idler were visibly shot.  The passenger control arm bushing was completely trashed from the heat of the down pipe, causing a pretty nasty wander.  New Moog bushings, idler, center link, tie rods, shocks, links were the solution.  Moog parts aren't the cheapest – but it’s the best aftermarket brand going.  Rebuilding the front end is a strenuous, dirty job befitting the Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe.  You don't want to be doing this job again several years later owing to inferior grade parts!

While the front springs were out, we cut them down by approximately ½ coil.  This lowered the front ½ inch and also increased the spring rates slightly.  This is an easy mod that costs nothing.  It all went back together, and the alignment was still near perfect!

Cost to date: $2,400

Under hood, the engine looked like it was dipped in the cargo hold of the Exxon-Valdez.  Oil, grease and dirt covered absolutely everything - in places nearly 1” thick.  The valve cover gaskets were leaking oil onto the headers, the front cover leaked, the oil cooler lines leaked, the intake leaked and the car left a glossy oil puddle wherever it parked.  Again, very typical of high mileage GN’s.  That was completely embarrassing, so I embarked on a process to clean and re-seal the engine. 

The GN seems to be built in geologic “layers” To get at anything, you’ve got to remove everything else within a ten-foot radius.  By the time a job is done, you’ll have nearly every tool in the box laying on, around and under the car.  Metric, standard, Torx and Whitworths – you’ll need them all.  Some components use a bewildering mix of standard and metric fasteners.   Some fasteners used a standard bolt but a metric nut!  What exactly was GM thinking?

Finally I had the engine disassembled.  Valve covers, turbo, intercooler, waterpump, intake manifold, front cover, timing chain and oil pump.  The intake, front cover and valve covers were cleaned, glass beaded and then painted with a high-temperature “cast aluminum" paint.  All sensors, thermostat and thermostat housing were rreplaced with new and NOS GM parts. For piece of mind we installed a new GM coil pack (Delco D552), AC-Delco module (Delco D1996), cam sensor (Standard Motor PC-16 -- a reboxed Genuine GM part at 1/10th the GM price!), TPS sensor (Delco 213-918) IAC (Delco 213-437) waterpump, heater valve, hoses, and Delco radiator (20269) AC-Delco parts are more expensive initially, but they fit right, work right and last a long time.  The throttle body was carefully disassembled and totally cleaned.  The intercooler was cleaned and reinstalled along with a new serpentine belt and an NOS GM oil pump.   The entire engine harness was cleaned, inspected, re-taped and connected.

Homemade Cam Sensor Adjusting Tool – Cost $2

When setting the cam sensor, most people seem to like the Casper’s tool for about $30.  But being a cheap yankee bastard, I decided to make my own for about $2.  A Radio Shack LED, borrowed 9V battery and a few butt connectors did the job just fine.

At this point, the engine was really starting to look good.  Most of the crud was gone, and the newly painted components looked sharp!

Cost to date: $2,710

From the severely oiled up condition of the stock intercooler, it was evident that the turbo needed repair.  On the advice of some Mustang SVO enthusiasts we shipped our stock Garrett T03 to Evergreen Turbo in Ocala, Florida.   Charlie at Evergreen asked if we wanted to "upgrade" the compressor wheel and housing for faster spoolup and more boost.  Sounded good to me, but I totally neglected to ask the specs of the upgraded wheel and housing.  To this day, no one can recognize this turbo – which causes problems when tuning the combination or selecting related components.


Mystery Turbo – What Art Thou?

Evergreen’s workmanship and turnaround was excellent – but I think my hasty turbo decision was a mistake.  There are a number of well-proven turbos available for the GN at every budget and performance point.  Having a known quantity on this vital component would have been better.  My advice to anyone in this situation is to do LOTS of homework before spending a dime!

Cost to date: $3,300

We still needed to spend some real money.  Decisions regarding injectors, ECM chip, and desired boost levels were looming.

At this phase in the project, I was wrestling out of my weight class and needed some expert guidance.  Enter Russ Merritt of Carver, Mass.  If you own a Turbo Buick and don’t know Russ, you probably will before too long.  This is a guy who lives for Turbo Buicks, and his waste gate is set for 30 pounds of boost at all times.  Russ founded and operates Merritt Performance, and has built a solid reputation for excellent workmanship, fairness and incredible enthusiasm.  He was also one of the first to build a 9 second stock block, daily street driven GN.  At any moment, Russ will have 2-3 customer Buicks in house for complete engines, transmissions, tuning and consulting.   I met Russ quite by accident, when he called to order a few AC-Delco parts.  A few weeks later, we traveled down to meet him. Instantly it was clear that he would be our Buick mentor.  Russ knows the commandments of turbo Buick - and they are hithero to be known in the best Olde English as:

  1. Thou shalt not lean it out.
  2. Thou shalt not let it detonate.
  3. Thou shalt useth Razor's alky injection -- else be a dummy
  4. Thou shalt know thy engine parameters -- useth a scan tool
  5. Thou shalt not worship false dieties, only guys that "knoweth thy poop"
  6. Thou shalt cranketh up the boost.
  7. Thou shalt hook it up for low short times

Russ helped me make a plan.  We’d complete the engine, get the car dialed in and then spend the summer driving and having fun.  At Russ’ suggestion, we agreed to 50 Lb/hr Delphi injectors, a 93 octane/alcohol Turbo Tweak chip, a Razor alcohol injection system, Racetronix 340 hotwire fuel pump and cranking up the boost till the motor said “uncle”

To prime the oiling system, I took apart my old cam sensor, and installed the sensor housing in the front cover.  I removed the gear and shaft from a Buick 350 distributor, cut off the top of the shaft and inserted it into the cam sensor housing, letting the key engage the slot on the oil pump.  I chucked the shaft into an electric drill and let it rip.  The system was fully primed in minutes.

Homemade Oil Pump Priming Tool – Cost $ 3

With the Delphi 50s, Razor alcohol and the Turbo Tweak chip, the motor fired up on the first try.  No leaks, no funky noises, no stinky smoke, no trouble codes and the BLMs at 128.  This was incredibly gratifying for a Buick rookie!

"Hey Mister, Some Of Your Cylinders Are Missing!"

Cost to date: $4,920

Project Buick finally hit the road again, but a victory dance was premature.  The mystery turbo, stock D5 converter and wasted transmission were all pulling in different directions.  The tight converter wouldn’t let the turbo spool off the line. When the boost finally built, the tired 2004R would spoil the party with lazy, sloppy shifts.  There was some good news though.  The motor ran very well, and seemed very tight given the high mileage.  The high boost popping and surging was gone, and at full boost there was no audible knock or knock retard on the Scanmaster.  The Turbo Tweak chip idled and drove perfectly!  We had made solid progress – but there was much more work to do.  The broken transmission couldn’t be ignored any longer.

I trailered the car to Russ, and in three days the transmission was completed with a full complement of PTS Extreme and Alto inners.  To aid in spooling, the stock D5 converter was swapped in favor of a Pats 2800 stall lockup unit.  The stock valvesprings were swapped for a fresh set of Comp Cams 980s.  Hotwire pump installation and an NOS Bosch “237” fuel pressure regulator completed the fueling upgrades.  The mystery turbo was swapped for a 3255.  A little more tuning revealed that 27 PSI of boost was now possible on 93 octane pump gas with zero knock retard! 

Traction with the stock 215/65/15 tires was by now absolutely non-existent, so a set of Mickey Thompson ET Street drag radials were installed.

Cost to date: $6,420

We were starting to have some real fun.  The Turbo Buick is an incredibly balanced, versatile and comfortable car.  When driving around town, it’s smooth, quiet and docile.  No overheating, no loading up of the carb, and 25 MPG on the highway.  With 3.42 gears and a lockup converter, 80 MPH cruising is effortless and the car can be driven anywhere with complete confidence.  The Razor alcohol injection is nothing short of sheer brilliance.  Plumbed into the MAP sensor, it progressively turns on a 100 PSI pump when the motor's under boost.  This pump injects a finely atomized methanol shot into the intake tube, which serves to dramatically cool the intake charge and raise the fuel octane.  The really slick part is that you only use the expensive methanol when the motor needs it.  In other words no money wasted on $8.00 per gallon Cam 2 fuel when you're toodling to the drug store pulling 18 inches of vaccum. Absolute genius!

In the turns, the excellent G body chassis shines, with great steering feel and predictable response.  As with most American production cars, the chassis is biased towards understeer, but in normal driving the car handles neutrally.

Civilized road manners aside,  the true nature of the Grand National reveals itself when you stand on the throttle. When the boost comes on, the car hits the tires hard– and even with sticky drag radials the rear end steps out with alarming speed.  Hook it up though, and practically nothing can hang with a well-tuned Turbo Buick, particularly for the price.

Gratuitous Triple XXX Action Photo!

On our first pass at New England Dragway we experienced some unforseen knock at the top of third gear.  It's likely the result of a hotter than necessary sparkplug and the restrictive stock turbo outlet and downpipe which hurts evacuation of hot exhaust gasses.  Despite a total throttle lift at the 1000’ mark, the car coasted through the trap at 12.65 at 107 - nearly Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 Turbo territory.  Once we cure the knock, the car ought to easily dip into the 11s at 112 MPH.  For six grand?  Yeah - I’m pretty pleased.

Put all of this in perspective: What 3,600 Lb musclecar could run low 12s with a 3.42 gear? What original Musclecar could turn bottom 12s with 170,000 miles on a 2 bolt block with cast pistons, stock cam, stock heads, stock ignition and 93 octane?   What classic Musclecar could run bottom 12s yet still pass modern emissions with a fully functional EGR?  What 12-second Musclecar could you drive all day at 25 MPG and idle for 30 minutes (with the AC on) in summer toll booth traffic without overheating?  What 12-second car could you buy/build for under $6,500? What car could run 12s with a darned V-6??

Taking all of that into consideration, I’m petitioning the Vatican for a Papal decree to have this car declared a miracle. And then we're going to go looking for some more big blocks to hassle with our nice sensible Buick.

© Gyrhead & Sons Restoration Parts 2011.  If you liked this article, please share it with your friends. We worked hard on it so please remember to cite the source

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