COAL: 1987 Buick Regal Grand National – Rock and Roll All Night, Broken Every Day


Great music and great cars go together.  And the type of car I’m driving, or just thinking about, dictates what I’m listening to.  A pimptasticly cool Cadillac or Lincoln from the sixties or seventies needs to have classic Motown like Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross on the speakers; a splendiferously sexy personal luxury coupe like a Cutlass or Monte Carlo invokes images of cruising to the disco in highly flammable clothes with The Trammps or Donna Summer on the radio; a late model muscle like a Challenger queues up some late model metal like Ghost or Five Finger Death Punch; and what else could go with a great classic pickup truck but great classic country from Waylon Jennings or George Strait.   In musclecars, like April Wine said, I Like To Rock, and I like it hard and I like it loud.  And I like the hard stuff from the ’70s and ’80s; for those familiar with SiriusXM satellite radio, Ozzy’s Boneyard is the soundtrack of my life.   For Those About To Rock, We Salute You.

How many other Gen Xers remember this July, 1985 Car and Driver issue?  Changed my life, man.  Then, as now, in a motoring world surrounded by FWD piles of crap,  C&D reminded us cavemen that V8s and RWD, much like rock and roll, will not die.

I remember this commercial when watching a NASCAR race back in 1985.   George Thorogood promoting a Buick Grand National; that was all the hook I needed.  Remember, this was long before “Bad To The Bone” was used to promote Disney movies and George had a air of danger to him.  I didn’t need anymore convincing, this was a car I needed to have.

Wouldn’t you really rather have a B-B-B-Buick?  My Dad did…

(internet photo; this wasn’t his car but its an exact copy)

My Dad retired from being a cop in 1983 and treated himself to a new 1983 Riviera after putting his reliable-as-an-anvil 1971 Plymouth Satellite out to pasture (AKA the scrapyard.)  It wasn’t the Buick at the top of my dream sheet, but since I was 10, Dad didn’t care, he was making the payments and he wanted a Riviera since the 1979 restyle.  In 1983, there was no Regal Grand National yet for me to lust over, even though there was a limited edition 1982 Grand National, the ‘real’ Darth-Vader-your-car-is-ready black turbo’d monsters wouldn’t come out until the 1984 model year, but I would have settled for any Regal coupe just because Richard Petty and Daryl Waltrip drove them in NASCAR.

But his Riviera was a pretty car, charcoal grey with a light grey landau top and matching light grey interior with the ‘big’ 4.1L six but really, it was a steaming pile.  By the time he sold the car in 1990 with less than 80K on it, it was on its third transmission, plus it had a ton of other problems so it was in the shop a lot.  Thankfully my Mom’s ’82 Delta 88 was rock solid and water proof so we had a good backup car.  While it frustrated my Dad, since the car he worked so hard for turned out to be a lemon, for me, I didn’t mind, because I would always ride with him to the dealer every time it had to be fixed under warranty.

Schroeder Buick always had a shiny new black Regal Grand National sitting on the showroom floor as a draw for showroom traffic that I could ogle.  I’m sure the salesmen got tired of wiping my drool off the hoods.  I would sit in them, looking out over the hood bulge, which proudly displayed the now legendary “3.8 SFI TURBO” emblems, studying the turbo plumbing, and planning for the day I could play my Rush and Van Halen tapes on the stereo.  But, since Grand Nationals were hot and desirable cars from the beginning, they always had a pretty high entry fee, and that someday wouldn’t come for me until 30 years later.  Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.

“Nobody gonna take my car, I’m gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car, It’s gonna break the speed of sound
Oooh it’s a killing machine, It’s got everything
Like a driving power, big fat tires and everything” Deep Purple “Highway Star”

In the spring of 2017, I brought my ’69 Charger in to my favorite bodyshop  for some paint and bodywork.  In July, when I stopped in one day to check on the progress on the Dodge, I noticed a Grand National sitting outside, off in a corner and covered in dust.  I wandered over to take a look and sho’nuff, it was a legit 1987 Buick Grand National with T-tops, which is exactly what I wanted-it had to be an ’87, the last and best year for the GN package and I had to have one with T-tops.

Grand National fans know to look for the magic WE2 option code on the trunk RPO decal and there it was.  I asked what the story was on the car and it goes that the current owner brought it in not running.  After the shop mechanic looked at it, the owner decided he didn’t want to (or couldn’t) pay to get it running again, so he essentially abandoned it at the shop and the shop owner, who is a good friend of mine, was about to put a mechanics lien on it.  At the time, Grand Nationals were (and still are) rising very quickly on the collector market but the shop owner told me the owner would probably let it go pretty cheap.  He gave me his number and we struck a deal, and while he didn’t sell it to me for peanuts, the price was more than reasonable given what the market is for these cars.

(The GN the day I found it in 2017)

After I got the title and keys, I found that it was a car that appeared to have been well-loved at one time but then neglected in recent years.  It was a local car, spending its entire life here in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where it doesn’t snow very often so cars here are generally spared from road salt rust but the salt air from the ocean and Chesapeake Bay can take its toll if cars aren’t washed regularly.   The body and paint looked pretty good, there was no rust on the car, and especially on T-top cars, the floorboards are prone to rust from roof leaks that these cars are notorious for.

The interior was pretty ate up as there were some tears on the seats, the drivers door panel was pretty well-worn and the speaker grilles on the dash were broken from when someone tried to shoehorn in speakers that wouldn’t fit, but luckily, those parts are all reproduced by restoration companies.  It came with a set of Trans Am GTA wheels but it also had the original chrome GM wheels.

Then there was the engine.  There was about 140K on the odometer and the engine was torn half apart by the previous owner and all of the parts were in the trunk.  I asked the mechanic what he thought was wrong with it, he said it had some kind of oiling problem, which I do remember as a common problem from having been around and working on lots of cars with pre-3800 Buick 231 V6s; in fact I had a 1980 Firebird in high school with a 231 dying from low oil pressure.

I had never worked on any of the turbo cars before so I bought a factory service manual and did some online reading before I got my tools out.  I brought the car home, dove in and the first obstacle I ran into was a busted oil pump; I ordered a new one from Napa and got back to work.   Then I found it had a broken intercooler fan.  These cars have 2 fans; a large electric one mounted to the radiator for engine cooling like all of today’s cars, and a second smaller one mounted directly to the crankshaft pulley for the intercooler.

While the restoration companies are making a lot of parts for these cars now, that fan is one of the Turbo Regal parts that are not reproduced and used ones are very hard to find; since these cars were collectible from the day they left the factory and very few were scrapped and parted out so parts that are specific to Turbo Regals can be hard to find, plus they didn’t build very many of  them to begin with.  I called around to several resto shops and old car-friendly junkyards and either no one had one or wasn’t willing to sell me one.  I first thought I would just skip it and not run an intercooler fan until I found one, but doing that makes the engine prone to detonation.  Then, just as I was about to order an aftermarket electric intercooler fan like some of the racers use, I  found a shop that was willing to sell me a factory fan after I turned on my charms.  A few days later, I bolted it to the crank and I finished putting the engine back together.  I got it fired up and found out why it was torn apart; the oil pressure was 2 psi at idle.

So it looked like I was heading for an engine rebuild, and with almost 150K on it, a Buick 231 is on borrowed time.  When it comes to cars, I budget myself for one big project a year.  The Charger paintjob was the big ticket item I planned for in 2017, and I had just bought the GN, which was an added cost that required approval from my wife, plus I had to unexpectedly replace the engine in my Chevy that I wrote about in my last COAL, so I figured if I could just drive the GN sparingly and go easy on it. I just needed it to last about 6 months or so and then I could rebuild the 231 for my 2018 project.  I also thought I could work on some of the smaller projects on it in the meantime like detailing and doing some of the interior repairs.

Besides the oil pressure problem, the car misfired terribly and I traced the problem back to the ignition module.  I must have left the key on or something when I was swapping it out because when I replaced the module, I blew the ignition fuse.  Now, at the time, I didn’t know these cars had their own fuse for the ignition,  I’m used to working on non-computer controlled, carbureted cars.  It took me about a month of troubleshooting before I figured out it was a blown ignition fuse, and that was only after I talked to a couple of professional mechanics and a guy that specializes in Turbo Regals.  So that was about a month of cranking and cranking and cranking and cranking the engine, and with all that cranking with no spark, the fuel pump was continuing to pour fuel into the cylinders with nowhere for it to go.  So guess what happened when I finally replaced the fuse, and now there was power from the new ignition module to fire the spark plugs.

When I turned the key, I thought I had been shot.

BOOM!!!!  It was such a loud and violent backfire that it literally blew the muffler apart and the shielding shot across my garage, broke the teeth on the timing chain, broke the timing module AND cracked the starter.  That’s so metal.

If it wasn’t my car, I would have thought that was the coolest thing in the world.

“Jump back, what’s that sound
Here she comes, full blast and top down
Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue
Model citizen zero discipline”  Van Halen “Panama”

Whether I budgeted for it or not, the engine now needed a rebuild.  Normally I like to do my own mechanical work and building engines makes me happy but my wife was 8 months pregnant at the time, and it was a high-risk pregnancy so there was no garage time.  If left to my own druthers, who knows when I might have had the time to pull and build the engine myself.  I have a neighborhood shop that I trust to do things like brake jobs and minor repairs when I can’t or don’t want to do them myself, and I,ve gotten to be pretty good friends with the shop owner.

One day early in 2018, I stopped in to BS for awhile and told him what happened to my Buick.  He loves these cars and quoted me a price for a build that also included pulling and replacing the engine for me that other shops would have charged just for just doing the engine work.   He was a circle track racer from back in the ’80s and ’90s and built a lot of GM G-and F-body cars so he knew his way around these cars pretty well.   Early in the spring,  I got the car back, running better than new with 60 psi of oil pressure, just in time for the summer driving season, with the T-tops off and the stereo cranked up.  LOUD.

“Well weathered leather, hot metal and oil, the scented country air.  Sunlight on chrome, the blur of the landscape, every nerve aware” Rush “Red Barchetta”

After a 1500 mile break-in period, I put about about 4000 miles on the car since getting it back on the road, mostly with the T-tops off and always with the stereo on.  It gets lots of looks and accusations of being a Monte Carlo.  I came out from work on 2 separate occasions to find notes under the windshield wipers asking if it was for sale.   After it was broken in, I  made a few proven Turbo Regal improvements including an alcohol kit and bigger injectors.  There’s a dragstrip close to where I work and I stopped by on the way home from work on a cool night in September on one of the test-and-tune nights and the car went a lot faster than I expected; it’s on a level playing field with a new Mustang GT or a Scat Pack Challenger.

“Then we race together, we can ride forever
Wrapped in horsepower, driving into fury
Changing gears I pull you tighter to me, I’m your Turbo Lover” Judas Priest “Turbo Lover”

(At a trip to Copart, the 31-year-old Buick was laughing at the dead late models)

I’m a volunteer fireman, and back in October, I stopped by the firehouse to check in on our contract mechanic, who was working on one of our fire trucks.  He knows me and my cars pretty well but he said he hadn’t seen my Grand National before and “wanted to see what it could do.”  Well, you know what that means…

“Grooving on the freeway, Gauges all are red
Gun down on my gasoline, Believe I’m gonna crack your head
Talking ’bout love” Led Zeppelin  “Trampled Under Foot”

I power braked it up and just did a simple burnout to give him a little smoke show and a chance to hear the turbo spool up and then BOOM!!!

Unfortunately with this car, that’s a sound I got used to hearing.

I wasn’t sure what had happened.  There was smoke everywhere and steam was pouring out the exhaust.  Did I blow a rod through the block?  No, the engine was still running but it was making a lot of valvetrain noise.  Did the driveshaft shoot out?  Nope, the car was still moving.  I was afraid to shut the engine off at first because I thought it might lock up or may not start again so I limped it home, which was only 3 miles away.  I had to go through one intersection that crosses a major highway between the fire station and my house and I crossed my fingers that the light would be green when I approached it; of course it had just turned red as I got to it so I had to wait for the light to completely cycle through before I could go.

So, as it was about 4:30 in the afternoon and rush hour, traffic was fairly heavy and I had to sit there and keep my foot on the gas and the brake so it wouldn’t stall as it lost compression and was misfiring terribly, and the car was quickly enveloped in smoke and steam.  It must have been pretty funny to see, but again, it was my car and I wasn’t laughing.  When I got it home, I found that the passenger side head gasket literally blew out; pouring oil and antifreeze everywhere.  The next day, I poured antifreeze into the radiator and watched it pour out from between the cylinder head and block; no compression test needed.

Am I angry?  No, breaking stuff is the cost of playing with old cars.  I parked the car in a dark corner and I will revisit it after the holidays when life settles back down again, but all last summer, me and my Grand National were Rockin’ Down the Highway.  Hopefully we will be again by next summer.

“On I Burn, Fuel is pumping engines,
Churning in my direction, quench my thirst with gasoline,
Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire.”  Metallica  “Fuel”