10 of the Fastest and Most Powerful Buicks of Their Time
10 performance models that prove Tri-Shield badge isn’t all about refinement
Tri-Shield badge slots just below the top tier Cadillac and represents another conservative luxury division in GM’s diverse portfolio. It’s always been like that and things don’t look like they’re about to change anytime soon. Although they were always plushy, this doesn’t mean Buicks weren’t at all accustomed to stepping out of their comfort zone and delivering performance to match their refined nature. Such occasions were rare, that’s true. Still, I can think of a certain fastest Buick or two that were at the top of the performance game during their prime. And I believe we’re all thinking about the same cars. Certain gents called GSX and GNX.
To prove that these weren’t only accidental forays into performance wonderland on Buick’s part, we’re bringing you this list of 10 performance-oriented Buicks from Tri-Shield badge’s ancient beginnings to the modern era. Although Buick never represented to GM what Mopar has to Chrysler, these 10 were among the fastest and most powerful GM-built models during their time. They definitely were the most powerful Buicks among their velvety coevals.
1909 Buick Model 10 Racer
Model 10 was Buick’s answer to the Ford Model T – an affordable passenger car available to almost every average Joe back in the day. Model 10 Racer, on the other hand, was something far more sinister. Open-wheel racer used to dominate the American tracks more than a century ago when legendary Bob Burman assembled a company Buick Racing Team consisting of brothers Louis, Arthur and Gaston Chevrolet, Lewis Strang, George Dewitt, Charles Ewing Easter, Louis Nikerent, and Burman himself. Group of racing superstars from back in the day were so dominant that Buick Racing Team historian Terry Dunham once said:
“They absolutely thrashed the competition from one end of the country to the next. They were an incredibly aggressive group, extremely knowledgeable when it came to building a race car, and they were miles and miles ahead of their time.”
Buick Model 10 was driving force behind Buick Racing Team’s incredible 1909 season when they managed to win more than 90 percent of races they entered. Among them, the first ever race at Indianapolis – the Prest-O-Lite 250. Indy 500’s predecessor was simply dominated by Burman who finished with the average speed of 53 mph. Moreover, only 9 cars managed to finish the 250-mile oval track with 3 of them being Buicks. A feat which helped cementing Buick’s reputation as highly reliable manufacturer straight from the gates.
1910 Buick Bugs
Buick Model 60 or Special 60, or just Buick Bug was built by the Buick engineering department in just three short weeks. Only two examples came out of Buick engineering’s garage on such a short notice, however. One was designated to Bob Burman while the other ended up in Louis Chevrolet’s care. Bugs were rather revolutionary for their time and not just thanks to their imposing styling either. They had 622ci 4-cylinder below that futuristic (for the time) cowl, and featured two independent braking systems. Both systems were insufficient, however, making the Bug one extremely tough race car to handle. Moreover, drivers had to manually operate the pumps which delivered pressurized oil and gas to the engine. Imagine how difficult that must have been when Bugs were clocking 110 mph, and Burman and Chevrolet had to pay close attention both top the track and indicating gauges.
See those four exhaust stacks protruding out of the left side of the engine cowl? Yes, they blew smoke right into driver’s faces. That’s what you get when you hasten things up and fail to test your race cars prior to actual race. But despite all their shortcomings, Buick Bugs were extremely potent race cars. Although the team would never achieve major success with them due to their extremely difficult handling and driving, Burman did manage to record a handful of speeding records in straightaway competition.
1936 Buick Century
Century (née Series 60) ran as Buick’s mid-range model for no less than three times. It was the first generation, however, during which the car had earned its nickname. Thanks to then new “Dynaflash 8” 320ci inline-eight engine rated at 120 horsepower, Century became the first ever Buick passenger car to have surpassed the 100 mph mark. Hence the name Century. It did share its powertrain with more upscale Roadmaster (Series 80) and Limited (Series 90) models, but they lacked Century’s ability of hitting more than 100 mph.
When Century replaced the outgoing Series 60 in 1936, it also received the new stylish Art deco design. That, coupled with already described performance, gave Century “the banker’s hot rod” moniker. These numbers don’t look like much today, but they certainly were imposing during the post-prohibition era. After all, Century was the fastest Buick of the time, and one of the fastest cars overall as well.
1963 Buick Special Skylark
Buick Special might not have been the fastest of Buicks overall, but it was right there among those performance Buick models of old which had, for a moment shifted the brand’s focus from luxury to power. After skipping three years, Buick Special reappeared in 1961 with entirely new styling. Moreover, it switched from full-size to then new unibody compact GM Y platform. This also meant smaller engines, but the Special still had an ace up its sleeve. It was the Skylark option which would later become a line of its own.
Unlike the regular Buick Special with commendable 150-horsepower 198ci Fireball V6, Skylark came with 215ci all-aluminum V8 mill in two set of tunes. 2-barrel carburetor produced 155 horsepower, while 4-barrel option delivered 190 ponies. Peak of Special Skylark’s power came in 1963 when 4-barrel option generated upward to 200 horsepower. Although still underpowered compared to its larger coevals, Buick Special Skylark packed more power than most of its compact competitors. Even better, it was available in as many body styles as there were back then. Special came in 2-door coupe, convertible, 4-door sedan and wagon form, while the Skylark featured 2-door pillarless coupe and 2-door convertible bodies. 3-speed manual and 2-speed Turbine Drive automatics were standard choices across the board, while Skylarks and Special wagon also included 4-speed manual as an additional option.
Special Skylark’s all-aluminum engine was so popular that it spawned the first ever turbocharged V8 offered in a passenger car (’62-’63 Oldsmobile Cutlass). Moreover, its extremely high power to weight ratio made it a perfect choice for racing. In 1962, Mickey Thompson entered the Indianapolis 500 with a stock-block Buick 215-powered car. The only non-Offenhauser-powered car among 33 entrants qualified eighth and finished 92 laps before transmission issues forced it to retire from the race.
1966 Buick Wildcat GS
Gran Sport package on a Wildcat was a one year only option obtainable by checking either the Y48 or more elusive W14 code. And it converted already powerful plushy Buick full-size car into even faster and more powerful coupe or convertible. Instead of 325-horsepower 401ci V8, Wildcat GS came with 425ci V8 making at least 340 horsepower. In single carburetor Y48 setup, that is. W14 option Super Wildcat Dual-carb setup, on the other hand, yielded additional 20 ponies for the grand total of 360 hp. Not only was the ’66 Buick Wildcat GS extremely potent, but it was equally rare. If not more so. Only 21 W14 Super Wildcat GS Buicks were believed to have been ordered in total. At the same time, Y48 option was ordered 1,224 times.
Apart from the obvious bump in performance, Y48 and W14 options added numerous chassis and visual upgrades. Heavy-duty suspension, positraction rear end, variable rate suspension springs, and heavy sway bars were part of the former set of upgrades. GS identification plates, and special white or red stripe tires were part of the visual side of the story. With muscle car momentum swinging in intermediate and pony car’s favor, Wildcat reverted to its less potent form for 1967.
1970 Buick GSX Stage 1
It’s safe to assume someone in Buick was mightily pissed off by poor sales of their performance models and constant thrash talk reminding them of their primary luxury automaker’s nature. So they decided to shut everyone’s mouth by introducing the GSX Stage 1 option package for struggling Gran Sport. And, boy, did they ruffle some feathers with that one?! GSX Stage 1 became, arguably the most powerful muscle car ever produced – at least as far as golden age of muscle car era goes. GSX’s biggest downside was its late arrival. Introduced for mid-1970 model year, it lacked any real marketing since that year’s brochures were already printed prior to its arrival. Moreover, GSX Stage 1 entered the market in muscle car scene’s pinnacle year. All subsequent iterations were doomed from the get-go as the scene would soon become extinguished by oil embargo and new, strict EPA regulations.
But, at the time, GSX had it all. Powered by the 455ci V8 engine, it delivered 350 horsepower in basic and 360 ponies in top Stage 1 package form. At the time, GSX alone was a $1,195 upgrade over already expensive Buick Gran Sport. Stage 1 added $115 more to the price tag. Not only did it have the largest capacity big-block engine coupled with either Hurst 4-speed or Hydra-Matic 3-speed transmissions, GSX also featured the largest amount of torque at that time. Its 510 lb-ft output would remain the largest amount offered in American car until Dodge Viper finally surpassed it in 2003. It took 33 years to break that record which says more than words can justify.
Initially, Buick GSX was limited to Saturn Yellow and Apollo White colorways. Only 678 of them were ordered with the package (491 yellow and 187 white), and 400 of them were Stage 1 powered. One of the fastest Buicks of all time additionally came with unique features like special stripes, hood tachometer (originally Pontiac feature), heavy-duty cooling, power front disc brakes, rallye chrome-plated wheels, positraction rear end, heavy duty suspension, heavy duty rear anti-roll bar, etc. Package carried over into 1971 and 1972, but by then, GSX could have been ordered with 350ci 4-barrel V8 as well. Needless to say, this had a negative impact on its performance pedigree. Number of GSX orders dwindled despite five available color schemes. Only 124 cars were ordered for 1971 and measly 44 units for 1972. Although much rarer than 1970 models, these GSX’s don’t exhibit the same collector’s value as the originals.
1973 Buick Century GS Stage 1
Century name returned to Buick’s portfolio in 1973 when intermediate Skylark got replaced by it. Given Century’s strong performance roots almost four decades prior to its second revival, Buick decided to spice things up a bit. Despite the year being 1973, they still had the GS line as their performance card. Plus, they now lacked the Skylark which served as GS’s usual host. So, they naturally combined the Century and GS badges into what would become the last fast Buick for at least another decade and a half.
Conventional Buick Century Came with 350ci V8 making 150 hp in basic 2-barrel form or 175 hp in more advanced 4-barrel setup. Century GS, on the other hand, developed 195 hp thanks to 4-barrel setup with dual exhausts. But top of the line was yet again reserved for Stage 1 performance package. Century GS with Stage 1 package boasted still available 455ci V8 big-block. However, output was now cut to 270 horsepower. Non-Stage 1 455ci V8 Century GS packed “only” 225 ponies in total, but both came with dual exhausts. Despite being attractive given its new Colonnade styling, refined interior and still more than respectable performance, only 728 people ordered the 1973 Buick Century GS with Stage 1 package. Those that did, enjoyed 0 to 60 time of 6.7 seconds (with the Hydra-Matic auto) and quarter-mile time of 15.1 seconds.
1984 Buick/March Indy Car
Using March chassis and Buick engine, 1984 Buick/March Indy car managed to set the record for a production-spec engine block. Scott Brayton of Brayton Racing pushed it to the top speed of 204.638 mph and 203.637 mph four-lap average. The same turbocharged Buick engine, although slightly altered by then, helped Eddie Cheever set the still reigning Indy 500 fastest lap record in 1996. He managed to top 236.103 mph in Team Menard’s Lola chassis car. Incidentally, that year saw him in the same team as the aforementioned Scott Brayton. Sadly, Scott Brayton died on May 17, 1996 in a crash during Indy 500 practice session when his Menard blew the right rear tire and made an impact with the wall at more than 230 mph. Poetic souls would say it was Brayton’s spirit that’s guided Cheever’s hand while accomplishing that ultimate lap in his Buick-powered car.
1987 Buick GNX
Upon its introduction, Buick GNX became an instant future collectible. Why? Because it marked the revival of American performance car scene. Serving as Buick Regal’s top tier performance model, GNX became a vanguard of this revival. Sadly, it only came out in 1987 which was second gen Regal’s last year, hence its potential spread across the nation’s car aficionados was rather limited. Still, that didn’t stop 547 lucky ones from parting with $29,900 (around $65,000 in 2017) and taking home the fastest Buick car of the eighties.
After years of fiddling with turbochargers, Buick finally figured out the formula sometime in mid-eighties. This helped making Buick Regal Grand National one of the most potent cars in the market back then. But there was still room for improvement. However, the company would require some help on the side in order to achieve that. So they employed the ASC/McLaren Performance Technologies in order to squeeze even more out of Grand National’s 245-horsepower 3.8L turbocharged V6 mill. The result was GNX (Grand National Experimental) capable of making 300 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. McLaren/ASC achieved all this thanks to improved Garrett turbocharger, much larger intercooler, low-restriction exhaust with dual mufflers, and reprogrammed 4-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission. Still, Buick underrated the GNX by stating it developed 276 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. Hmm, where have I seen that before?
Buick GNX wasn’t only one of the fastest Buicks of all time, it was also one of the fastest cars in 1987 – period. It easily beat the likes of Ferrari F40 and Porsche 930 with 0 to 60 time of 4.6 seconds (0.3 and 0.4 seconds quicker, respectively). To complete the package, every single GNX came in pitch black paint job for maxed out menacing demeanor. 16-inch black mesh, vents upon front fenders, and analog Stewart-Warner gauges inside only added GNX’s tremendous appeal.
2012 Buick Regal GS
After the famous GNX, Buick Regal continued doing things the old fashioned way. It did that until it got axed in 2004, but as luck would have it, Regal returned in 2011. And, in order to remind the people of its performance-rich history, Buick introduced GS model the very next year. It’s still available today, but 2012 Buick Regal GS had something that current models lack. 11 additional horsepower. It doesn’t sound like much. Heck, it isn’t all that much. But nicely rounded 270 horsepower from 2012 look much nicer than 259 horsepower Regal GS now has.
In proper Buick fashion, Regal GS is powered by 2.0L turbocharged engine – 4-cylinder this time. Apart from 270 ponies, it boasted (and still boasts) 295 lb-ft of torque. Good enough figures for 0 to 60 in 6.1 seconds. As one of performance Buicks, Regal GS differed from conventional models thanks to the wider tires, larger wheels, lower stance, and large air vents upon frontal fascia. All that, however, still didn’t make it much different than Opel Insignia available across the Atlantic. In fact, Buick Regal is Opel Insignia with Tri-Shield badge up front and plushier interior. And Europeans can order Australian-made 325-horsepower turbocharged V6 with their Insignia OPC’s. Still, one of the ultimate sleeper cars of this decade earns its spot among the fastest and most powerful Buicks of their time.