Happy Birthday, Carth Vader – 30 Years of the Buick GNX
Thirty years is enough time for things to change beyond the point of recognition. On a technological level, cars nowadays are lightyears ahead of where they were 30 years ago; and in another 30 years, we can presume the advances in sustainability tech will've resulted in more dizzying changes. The only things you can guarantee will stay the same are Politicians, for they will always be their typical bastard selves.
Looking beyond technology however, if there's one thing that's changed most of all about the automotive world of today, it's people's attitude. Back in the late 80's, turbos were worshipped; whereas now, they are abhorred for invading every last vestige of normal aspiration out there.
Right now, American Muscle Cars are still growling around with their wonderful atmospheric and supercharged V8s. But one day - a day that I fear may come frightfully soon - they will have to sacrifice their most treasured and intrinsic mechanical facet and succumb to being powered by turbocharged V6s. And yes, I feel like throwing up, too.
Back in the 80's however, a turbocharged V6 wasn't looked at with quite the same distain. In fact, it helped a car stand out and have a very unique selling point in an sea of V8s. If anything, it was the element that helped craft something of a small legend: the Buick Grand National Experimental – otherwise known as the GNX.
Surrounded by naturally aspirated V8s, this Buick utilised the potential of a 3.8L V6 that was blown by a single turbocharger. The stats Buick gave at the time were 276bhp, and 360lb-ft of torque: figures that were later proved to be underrated, as the actual output was 300bhp and 420lb-ft.
The 80's was an incredibly bleak era in the saga of the American Muscle Car. The Mustang had less visual appeal than a war-wound; the Camaro used large engines with lower specific outputs than my Grandmother; and Dodge's Challenger and Charger changed identity completely into the most tragic looking contraptions imaginable. Within this cesspit of awfulness sat Buick's turbocharged offering, and it brought with it a startling level of performance.
Apparently, the GNX was capable of hitting 60mph from a standstill in just 4.7 seconds, and could crack the quarter mile in under 13. No matter what kind of a lunatic you are, there's no denying that the GNX was, and is, a pretty quick car.
Its performance and internals however weren't what helped the GNX gain attention, for its main and most memorable feature was its looks. It was the aesthetics that resulted in it acquiring a nickname that is easy to understand: it was called "Carth Vader".
Many motoring magazines at the time gave strong reference to the car's resemblance to the Star Wars lord. The fact that they were painted black, and used merely 6 cylinders, also resulted in the car being referred to as "the dark side". I guess you could even say the sound of the turbo gaining boost resembled the sound of Vader breathing.
I hold it as one of life's great automotive adventures to drive a Buick GNX whilst dressed as Darth Vader. It's not a daring task akin to driving a Lamborghini through Maranello – but it's one of those occasions that only happens when all the planets in a galaxy far, far away align.
It's quite astonishing how we fear cars like the GNX today – yet, for using a recipe back then that makes us feel nauseous now, it became something of an icon. And that perspective is enough for me to want to wish it a very happy 30th birthday!!
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Written by: Angelo Uccello
Tribe: Speed Machines
Facebook: Speed Machines - DriveTribe
Photo credits: mecum