Hell on wheels, but not for sale
The sinister-looking black coupe sits in a corner of the showroom floor, oozing macho and muscle. Square headlights. Evil sneer for a grille. Six cylinders of turbocharged fury.
If Darth Vader drove a car, this is what you might find in his garage.
This new car is 23 years old. It’s a Buick Regal GNX, and in 1987 car enthusiasts including celebrity collectors Reggie Jackson, Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone snapped them up.
This menacing Buick — one of only about 500 — still sports its original $29,389 sticker on the window. Experts say it could sell at auction for north of $120,000, especially since most of its surviving siblings have many more miles of rough roads under their fenders.
Why this GNX still sits there in Signal Hill amounts to a miscalculation by the dealership, Boulevard Buick, which tried unsuccessfully to boost its profit by auctioning it to the highest bidder.
“This was a car that was meant to go fast and driven hard,” said Steve Davis, president of Barrett-Jackson, the Scottsdale, Ariz., rare and classic auto auction house. “So when you find one in virgin condition sitting unsold at a dealer, that is bulletproof provenance. There is no question this car was born the way you are seeing it.”
The GNX was the last and greatest in the Grand National series Buick launched in 1982 and named after the NASCAR racing series. Essentially a souped-up version of the Buick Regal, Grand Nationals had a unique appeal: They could blow the doors off many cars on the road, yet pass for family sedans. From 1982 to 1987, Buick sold nearly 30,000 of them.
“They are so misconceiving,” said Lee Westrope, a GNX owner and car collector from Nuevo, Calif. “They don’t look like a hot rod. After all, they are a Buick and the majority of the people take a look at the car and think it is just a Chevy Monte Carlo or an Olds Cutlass.”
With the passage of time, the GNX has become the most sought after of the Grand Nationals, and the car in Signal Hill may be the most coveted of all.
“People talk about that car. It is a legend,” Westrope said.
Westrope, 61, remembers driving his GNX to an auto show in Burbank two years ago and pulling up next to a “kid in a Camaro” at a stoplight.
“I took off gently but he really got into it, so I stepped on the gas,” he said. “When the turbo kicks in it accelerates like a rocket and I just walked away from him.”
Buicks in the Grand National series, including the GNX, all look pretty much the same — and almost all came out of the factory painted black. For the final year of the car’s production in 1987, Buick pulled out all the stops, commissioning Automobile Specialty Co. and McLaren Engines, known for its work on race cars, to make the GNX the baddest of the bad.
The results were impressive for the era. With 276 horsepower and tons of torque jetting to the wheels, the GNX could go from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds. It was as quick as a contemporary Porsche 911 Turbo, for about half the price.
The similarities ended there, however. In its review, Car and Driver magazine complained that the GNX “rattles and bounces like bolts in a blender.”
But it had nothing but praise for the engine modifications, which it called “straightforward hot-rod stuff: ported and polished heads, a larger turbocharger with a ceramic turbine wheel, dual exhaust” and modifications to the engine-control computer chip.
GM made only 547 of the cars. Boulevard Buick has No. 308, which is thought to be the only new one in existence, although there may be a few in private collections that rival its mint condition.
The odometer shows 164 miles, mostly racked up when the car is driven to the service bay for oil changes. Regardless, General Motors has warned the dealer that it won’t honor the new car warranty.
When the GNX came on the market in 1987 the first ones went to East Coast dealers and commanded huge premiums.
“It was just crazy numbers,” said Brad Willingham, owner of Boulevard Buick. “Double the sticker.”
Jim Willingham, Brad’s father and the boss at the time, didn’t like charging buyers more than the sticker price. But an easy profit proved hard to resist. So when the dealership was given a GNX to sell, it put the car up for an auction in hopes of juicing the sales price.
Buick Boulevard took out an ad in The Times and hired accounting firm Arthur Andersen to take silent bids. Not a single buyer stepped up.
“It was a real lesson in free-market economics,” Brad Willingham said. “All the collectors must have purchased theirs already by the time we got ours.”
The car sat there, attracting only tepid interest. The dealership almost sold the car in 1987, but the buyer turned out to have bad credit. Another offered $5,000 below the sticker, or about $24,000.
The Willinghams, who paid GM $26,856 for car, decided not to take a loss on what they thought would be their most profitable car ever.
“That’s when I stepped in and said, ‘We aren’t selling it. We will just keep it,’” Brad Willingham said.
Most shoppers today barely glance at the GNX, passing it over for Buick’s sporty new Regal, a four-cylinder, front-wheel drive sedan, or the bigger LaCrosse.
Now and then an enthusiast who recognizes the GNX for the rarity it is comes by to ogle it, and once in a while someone asks about buying the car.
Willingham has always balked. His office window looks out on the GNX, and he likes seeing it there in the showroom every day.
“We had visions of making big money,” he said. “Now it’s part of our heritage.”