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"
the undeniable performance trend towards EFI, turbos
and superchargers in the past 25 years, I secretly wondered when that “silly little technology
end. In 1987 we bought a brand new Mustang 5.0
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
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??
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
the full collision damage waiver. Now we treated these same cars
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.
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
TurboBuick.com and GNTTYPE.org to be excellent sources of
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
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
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
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
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
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 used a standard bolt but a metric nut!
What exactly was GM
Finally I had the engine disassembled. Valve covers, turbo,
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.
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
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"
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 –
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:
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
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.
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