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This 1987 Grand National is the second that Brian Harper has owned.
This 1987 Grand National is the second that Brian Harper has owned.

Car Enthusiasts

A Buick that could excite a young man's passion Add to ...

Buick, one of the original brands with which General Motors was launched more than a century ago, remains a key element in the recently restructured company's trimmed-down portfolio.

But the median age of Buick buyers last year was 68. What they bought was a couple of nice-enough, but rather less than enthusiasm-generating, sedans and a luxury-laden crossover.

But what the brand now needs to survive, by enticing a younger buyer group, is the modern equivalent of the 1987 turbocharged Grand National.

That model lured Brian Harper, then in his mid-20s, into buying a brand linked more closely at the time to American-style middle-class mediocrity than performance. And which has managed to keep his enthusiasm operating at a high boost level for more than a couple of decades now.

Buick is hoping its new 2010 Euro-flavoured Allure sedan - a version of which is equipped with a 280-hp V-6 - will do the trick.

"We're looking at something that's drastically different than what you think of as a Buick," Craig Bierley, Buick's product marketing director, was quoted as saying recently.

Whether it will be seen that way by today's younger car buyers (that term being relative, as any improvement on 68 would be welcome) remains to be seen. But its 1980s forebear, the Grand National, certainly was.

Not that the brand was completely without a performance heritage. Buicks had been raced successfully back in the earliest times, by the likes of Wild Bill Bergman and the Chevrolet brothers.

Its "Nailhead" engine of the early 1950s, so called because of its small valves, introduced a new level of performance before entry-level luxury once again became the dominant theme.

The 1960s, however, saw a performance revival with the arrival of the Wildcat, followed by the Gran Sports, the GS and the GSX, with 455- cubic-inch V-8s. But the last of these were built in 1972.

The Buick name was also familiar on NASCAR tracks starting in the 1950s, running in the Grand National Series, and with the arrival of the downsized Regal in 1978 became a force to be reckoned with in by the early 1980s.

The Regal Grand National arrived on the scene in 1982, available with either a 125-hp, 4.1-litre V-6 or a turbocharged version that pumped out 175 hp - a hot-hatch's output today, but a semi-serious number again after the performance drought in the late '70s.

Only 215 were made, and none at all in 1983, but it returned for 1984 wearing the sinister black paintjob that became its trademark and lasted until production ended in 1987.

That year, Harper had just received a promotion and the larger pay packet and his single status meant he could indulge in a new car, one of the 20,193 Grand Nationals built that year.

Harper, now living in Cobourg, Ont., grew up in the Port Perry area where he was influenced as a teen by the Oshawa-built iron of the day driven by neighbours, many of whom worked for GM.

"There were always a lot of nice cars around, and by the time I got my driver's licence, I was getting really interested," says the 48-year-old. Harper went on to study engineering at U of T and then got a job with what is now Ontario Power Generation at its Darlington operation, where he works as a control room operator keeping an eye on the reactor.

His love affair with muscular American metal began with his first car, a 1967 Beaumont Sport Deluxe purchased in 1979, and went on to include a '69 Camaro, '71 Chevelle and Nova SS, a '72 Chevelle and a '73 Camaro. "These weren't collector pieces, just daily drivers," he says.

Harper purchased his 1987 Grand National because it "typified the American muscle car style. A big car. A two-door, but with lots of room inside and in the trunk. And lots of power."

It was also unusual for its time. "It kind of came out of nowhere with its turbocharged V-6, and it could beat the Corvette at the drag strip."

He also saw it as a last chance to buy into the breed, as GM had announced it was discontinuing its rear-drive G-body range.

Harper paid $24,000 for his '87 Grand National and kept it for about four years before marriage and raising a family resulted in its sale.

"It was my down payment on our first house. But as it went down the street with its new owner happily driving away, I told my wife, 'Some day I'm going to own another one.'"

That opportunity presented itself in 1999 when he came across the 1987 example pictured here, whose owner was in a similar situation to that which Harper had been in years before. "We still keep in touch. He's always interested in how the car's doing," says Harper, who paid $18,000 this time around.

Harper explains that the Grand National is essentially an option package ordered on the base Regal and included appearance features such as the "menacing" all-black paint, blacked-out trim, unique interior pieces, wheels and tires, and, of course, the powertrain.

This is the car's really unique feature: a 4.1-litre V-6 equipped with a turbocharger and intercooler that created a factory-rated (but deemed conservative) 245 hp at 4,400 rpm and 355 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm, coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission.

"The engine is a bit of a freak of nature," he says. "For what it's rated at, it makes an incredible amount of power and torque."

Harper describes the Grand National as "a real sleeper. It can just eat up the quarter mile and it beat a lot of more expensive and supposedly racier cars."

His all-original example, with just over 100,000 km on the odometer, has proven reliable and isn't even too bad on gas "if you keep your foot out of it. Put your foot in and it's a different story."


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