Most performance car buffs, and even casual collector car fans, know the story of the fabulous Buick Grand Nationals of the mid-1980s. The beautiful black Buicks were instant hits almost from the moment they arrived, with their high-performance — for the time — turbo-charged V-6s and menacing black paint schemes that looked like something out of a Batman movie.
Not nearly as many folks know the story of the first Grand Nationals. Judy Aschenbrenner can tell you all about them. The Marshfield, Wis., native ran across one two years ago and happily scooped it up; not necessarily because it was unique and collectible, but because it was a beautiful car in fantastic condition. The fact that it was one of just 216 ever built, and one of the first 100 that were originally rolled out by GM, proved to be a bonus.
You never know what you’ll wind up with when you have an open mind and head for a field full of cars for sale at a big car show.
“I had a 1966 Chevy Impala Super Sport, which I had for about seven years and I enjoyed it,” says Aschenbrenner. “But then I thought it was maybe time to get something different. I wasn’t really looking for anything when I went to the Iola Car Show in 2019, and I went to the car corral and we were looking up and down the rows and it was a very hot day. So we were looking and I said, ‘I’m going to look down one more row, then I’m going to go back to the car and get something to drink and sit in my car for a while! [laughs]."
“So at the end of this row was this Buick Grand National and I thought, ‘Boy, that is a nice-looking car. So I talked to the man that owned it and got some of the details on it, and we knew someone that worked in a body shop and I asked him if he’d come over and look at it. He said it, ‘It looks like a nice clean car to me,’ so I offered the guy a price, a little less than what he wanted, and he agreed to it.”
The only hitch in the transaction, however, was some road construction going on in the road leading to her house. “The road was all torn up and they had these rocks on the road, and I didn’t want to drive it on that!” she says. Luckily, the seller didn’t mind hanging onto the car for a couple more weeks until the road got repaved. It’s been smooth sailing ever since for Aschenbrenner.
The rare Buick had originally been sold to a school teacher a couple of hours away at a dealership in Green Bay, Wis. When he died, the car was sold to a second owner. When Aschenbrenner found it, the Grand National still had only 12,000 miles on it and, aside from tires that needed to be replaced, still looked like a new car.
“The guy who had it sells cars, and he stored it for a year and a half, something like that, and he decided to take it to Iola to sell,” she recalled. “I guess he didn’t have it there very long before I bought it.”
A GRAND DEBUT
The first Buick Regal Grand National was introduced at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 1982. This car marked a revival of the high-performance image that the Skylark Gran Sport models had fostered in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The GN was the first in a new series of real muscle cars from Buick.
The Grand National name came from stock car racing. Buicks took the NASCAR manufacturer’s trophy, in Grand National stock car racing, in 1981 and 1982.
“The New Grand National Regal is a luxurious commemorative version of the winning Grand National Vehicle,” said a dealer bulletin issued two days before the car’s debut at Daytona. “Buick designed this magnificent Regal to be a one-of-a-kind car. With its special GN styling treatment and appointments, it is a distinctive vehicle inside and out. Our objective in producing these Grand National Regals is to offer an attraction that will stimulate sales of all the 1982 Buicks. We also want to capitalize on the momentum being generated by the Grand National racing competition and take advantage of enthusiast’s magazine coverage to increase Buick’s penetration of the enthusiast market!”
Grand Nationals were built on an off-line basis by Cars & Concepts of Auburn Hills, Michigan. The prototype car that appeared at Daytona was produced in December 1981. It was then shipped to Daytona in February 1982 for the press introduction. Initially, a run of 100 units was planned, but actual production was only 216 cars, including the prototype. The Grand National package sold for $3,278, making it one of Buick’s highest-priced options ever at that time.
Buick sent factory-spec Regals to Cars & Concepts for conversion into GNs. Factory-produced parts used on the cars included the black-out style grille and headlight covers, the wheel center caps that say “GN,” the horn button, body moldings and the trim for the instrument panel and console. Cars & Concepts added the front spoiler, Lear Siegler bucket seats (the press kit said they were gray Branson cloth, but the color was actually silver), the rear airfoil, special seat covers, silver paint, GN decals, pinstriping and door-pull appliqués. The regular clock was usually replaced with GN instrument panel inserts.
The press kit made it sound like all 1982 Grand Nationals were identical, but they were not. Regal coupes, Regal sport coupes and Regal Limited coupes were all used as the basis for the conversions. A small number of cars were made without the GN emblem in the dash and carried analog clocks in addition to the clock built into the ETR stereo.
Most of the 1982 Grand Nationals were powered by a normally aspirated 4.1-liter V-6 that made 125 hp at 4000 rpm and 205 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm. This engine had a 3.965 x 3.400 bore and stroke and displaced 252 cid. It used a four-barrel carburetor and had an 8.0:1 compression ratio.
About 10 to 15 of the first Grand Nationals had the 3.8-liter turbocharged V-6 that was used in the 1982 Regal sport coupe. This motor was not on the regular options sheet, but savvy buyers could get a Turbo Grand National by ordering a Regal Sport Coupe plus the Grand National package. The turbocharged 231-cid V-6 had a 3.80 x 3.40-inch bore and stroke. With a four-barrel carburetor and 8.0:1 compression ratio it developed 175 hp at 4000 rpm and 275 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2600 rpm.
The ’82 is the only Regal Grand National that didn’t have all-black finish. Two-tone paint was featured, with Silver Mist on the upper body and Charcoal Gray on the lower body. Red pinstriping set off the two-tone finish. A sunroof was also included. While the ’82 did not have the performance of later Grand Nationals, it is rare and unique. In addition, it set the theme for the return of Buick muscle cars. The turbocharged versions are extremely rare.
A REGAL RETIREMENT
It’s obvious Aschenbrenner’s Buick never served as a daily driver. With only 14,000-plus miles on the clock now, the car remains in showroom condition. Aschenbrenner admits that she’s a bit torn these days over how much she wants to drive it.
“I do think about that,” she says. “When I get it up to 20,000 miles, that’s not a lot, but yeah, I think about that. Once a week we usually go to a car cruise … If it rains, we don’t go. I do drive it, but I do think about the miles.”
“I did not [know the rarity]. I talked to my brother and told him this one doesn’t have the turbo, and he said it’s probably better that you don’t … I guess they had a lot of trouble with those sometimes.”
She jokes that she’s not going to win any races with her lovely Grand National, but she’s happy to be enjoying it for what it is — a graceful, smooth-driving coupe with loads of good looks and personality.
“I just like the style, the color…. I like to step on it, but there’s not a lot there [laughs}. It’s got a good ride, and everything in the interior is excellent. I just love the car. I’m very happy with it.”
And if Aschenbrenner ever decides to part with the Buick, she probably won’t have to look far for a buyer. She says it might not even leave the family.
“Our son already said, ‘If you ever want to get rid of that car, think of me, that was more my era than yours [laughs]. I said, ‘I will keep you in mind.’”
If you like stories like these and other classic car features, check out Old Cars magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
Want a taste of Old Cars magazine first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter and get a FREE complimentary digital issue download of our print magazine.
*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.