Buick Turbo 3.8 Liter V6 – the Perfect Substitute for Cubic Inches

July 31, 2011

83buickturbov6-s.jpg The 1980s in some respects were interesting times, everything from the music to the politics and even the culture was in some respects different than many back in the 1970s would have expected. It was the same way in the automotive world, everything in the 1980s had changed so quickly from what was the norm of the 1970s. Due to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards which first took affect by the late-1970s, cars shrunk at a feverish pace. So many cars had to make do with smaller motors. The V8 which was found in most cars in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; by the 1980s due to the C.A.F.E. standards was now performing a disappearing act. Only a few remaining large cars, some mid-sized cars, and some performance cars were available with V8s in the 1980s.

There were good performing V8s available during the 1980s, however they were generally much lower in displacement than previous V8s and therefore missing the massive torque of the large displacement V8s from the original muscle car era. The displacement may have been down and the engines may have been full of emissions controls however Detroit still managed to keep performance car fans satisfied most of the time with their performance offerings in the 1980s. Even with higher fuel costs in the 1980s, V8 powered American performance cars were encountering very strong sales – in fact so much so that it was in essence version 2.0 of the American muscle car era. It was a pleasant change form the downward performance spiral of the 1970s.

Though there were many respectable performance V8 engine offerings during the 1980s, they were all beaten by a V6. Yes you read correctly, a V6 in the 1980s had all the high-performance V8s beat. During the 1980s nothing could beat the performance of Buick’s turbo 3.8 liter SFI V6 (with intercooler).

Buick which had built a solid reputation back during the original muscle car era with the following V8s: 401 CID nailhead, 400 CID, 400 CID Stage 1, 455 CID, and 455 CID Stage 1 – by the late 1970s had decided to forge a different path. Where GM’s other divisions that sold performance cars were shifting to lower displacement 78buickturbov6-1.jpgV8s in anticipation of the 1980s, Buick decided to scrap the V8 entirely and march ahead with a V6. Only problem was that Buick’s V6 was a small displacement motor that had absolutely no tire scorching potential – power output was a dismal 110 horsepower for 1975 from Buick’s 231 CID (3.8 liter) V6. And looking at the Buick V6 in comparison to even a small-block V8, it was very puny, so small that it looked like it could easily be lifted from the engine bay with your bare hands.

Adding to all this, Buick had originally released its V6 in the early 1960s, after only a few production years Buick was tired of the slow selling V6 and sold it to Kaiser which used it in its Jeep lineup. By the time the federal regulations were putting the squeeze on big motors and gas prices had skyrocketed in the early 1970s, Buick had realized that it had made a big mistake selling its V6. Fortunately it was able to buy back its V6 from AMC (which by this time was Jeep’s new owner) in enough time to make it available for the 1975 model year which was not a moment too soon. Buick put the V6 to good use and it sold very well. As GM shrunk all its cars across its entire lineup the 3.8 liter V6 became even more popular since other GM divisions would use it, When GM would later move to mostly a front-wheel drive car lineup, the small, light, and very reliable pushrod 3.8 79buickturbov6-1.jpgliter V6 became GM’s version of gold. By the 1990s it was found in many of GM’s front-wheel drive cars and it was only retired a few short years ago making it one of GM’s most popular and longest production V6 engines ever.

Back in 1975 nobody could have predicted the 3.8 liter V6’s sales success and the same was true with the domination of the turbo version of this motor in the 1980s. Buick had its eyes on the prize and did not let a little thing like missing two cylinders and a lack of displacement stand in the way of making the ultimate American performance motor of the 1980s. Buick started off in 1978 with two turbo versions of the 3.8 liter V6 – one with a 2-bbl carburetor and the other with a 4-bbl carburetor, output was 150 horsepower and 165 horsepower respectably. Before you balk at these figures, the non-turbo version of the 3.8 liter V6 for 1978 was rated at only 105 horsepower. So it’s easy to see that Buick was on to something. Even Chevrolet which at the time put most of its performance eggs in its small-block V8, saw the merit of having a performance oriented V6, Chevrolet offered the Buick turbo 3.8 liter V6 as an option in its 1980 and 1981 Monte Carlo. Sales  of the turbo Monte Carlo were good the first year (13,839 produced), and the turbo (4-bbl) V6’s output of 170 horsepower was better than the V8 powered 1980-1981 Monte Carlo. However sales slipped to just 3,027 units for 1981 which is why Chevrolet did not offer a turbo Monte Carlo after 1981.

Though the turbo 3.8 liter V6 would be available in other Buick offerings – the LeSabre and Toronado during some model years, it would be forever marked as belonging to the Buick’s Regal and the  Regal’s top of the line performance model the Grand National. Ironically the Grand National which was also known as the "GN" would debut as a low production silver and charcoal gray two-tone sporty Regal model for 1982. The look of performance was there, but unfortunately for most of the 215 1982 Grand Nationals produced it was nothing more than an appearance package since Buick’s 125 horsepower 4.1 liter V6 (a larger displacement version of Buick’s 3.8 liter V6) was found under the hood. Only a handful of the first year Grand Nationals left the factory with Buick’s 175 horsepower turbo 3.8 liter (4-bbl) V6. Most buyers back in 1982 who wanted the turbo V6 went with the Regal T-Type instead.

For 1983, the Grand National did not return but the Regal T-Type did with a little more punch – a five horsepower bump from the previous year gave 180 ponies to the turbo (4-bbl) V6. For 1983 this was some serious horsepower. As a comparison the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Trans Am started off the 1983 model year 83buickturbov6-1.jpgwith their hottest motor being a 175 horsepower 5.0 liter Cross-Fire Injection V8. The Regal’s G-body brothers the (L69) 5.0 liter (305 CID) H.O. V8 powered Monte Carlo SS and the 5.0 liter (307 CID) H.O. powered Hurst/Olds had finally caught up to the turbo Regal’s horsepower – both produced 180 horsepower in 1983. And to add insult to injury before the end of the 1983 model year the Camaro Z28 and Trans Am were now available with the optional (L69) 5.0 liter H.O. V8 which produced 190 horsepower. The 175 horsepower 5.0 liter 4-bbl H.O. equipped 1983 Mustang GT was also nipping at the turbo Regal’s heels.

Buick was not sweating the heavy competition which all had two more cylinders and a lot more cubic inches of displacement, since Buick bumped up horsepower to 200 for 1984. The only American performance car with a higher horsepower rating for 1984 was the Chevrolet Corvette which came standard with a 205 horsepower 5.7 liter Cross-Fire Injection V8. Part of the horsepower bump was due to Buick ditching the carburetor and going with a new Sequential Fuel Injection (SFI) induction system. SFI was a sophisticated computer controlled port injection system which used one fuel injector per cylinder – two fuel rails (one on each side of the engine) delivered the fuel to the individual fuel injectors which sprayed fuel directly into each cylinder. The Chevrolet Corvette would not get a port fuel injection deliver system like this until 1985 – same was true for the  Trans Am and Camaro Z28 (and its Camaro Iroc-Z brother). Ford fans had to wait until 1986, for this type of system. Buick’s turbo V6 was not just a regular player it was a real contender and as the horsepower war was really heating up by 1984, its turbo V6 had the competition beginning to really sweat. And if that was not enough, Buick brought back the Grand National for 1984 but instead of being a low production special edition, it was now Buick’s top-of-the-line performance model. The Grand National was now only available in black which gave it a menacing look to back up the mandatory turbo V6 under the hood.

For 1985, the turbo V6 was  a 1984 model year carryover – horsepower stayed at 200. However some of the competition had caught up. For 1985 the Mustang GT had a serious infusion of horsepower in its top performance motor, the 5.0 liter 4-bbl H.O. – it now had 210 horsepower. The Camaro Z28, and (new offering for 85buickturbov6-1.jpg1985) Camaro Iroc-Z now had a new 5.0 liter Tuned-Port Injection V8 rated at 215 horsepower. The 1985 Grand National may have slipped a little behind this competition however it still had very respectable performance numbers with 0-60 mph taking 7.5 seconds and the 1/4 mile occurring in 15.7 seconds at 87 mph (Car and Driver magazine – July 85). As a comparison, the 5.0 liter 4-bbl H.O. powered 1985 Mustang GT which came standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, launched from 0-60 mph in 7.08 seconds and performed the 1/4 mile in 15.51 seconds (Motor Trend magazine – October 1985). This shows just how close performance wise the 1985 Grand National which was only available with an 4-speed automatic transmission was to the hottest performance Mustang for 1985. The Grand National’s performance is even more impressive when you consider the Mustang GT with a 3,013-lb curb weight had a tremendous weight advantage over the much heavier Grand National which had a curb weight of 3,460 lbs. Most surely had the Grand National been able to shave off almost 500 lbs to match the Mustang GT’s curb weight the Grand National would have at least matched if not beat the 1985 Mustang GT which had a 10 horsepower advantage.

However in 1986 Buick with the addition of an intercooler, turbo boost adjustments, revised upper and lower intake manifolds, and an improved free flow dual exhaust system gave the turbo 3.8 liter V6 (which by now was only available in the Grand National and T-Type) an enormous boast in power – horsepower was now up to 235. Ironically the Mustang GT went in the opposite direction in 1986 losing 10 horsepower with the introduction of a new port injection 5.0 liter EFI H.O. V8. To most observers a 35 horsepower boast seemed like a nice bump especially in the horsepower starved 1980s. However anyone test driving Grand Nationals or T-Types from both 1985 and 1986 could see Buick was fudging the power numbers.

There was more horsepower there than met the eye, or shall we say a lot more there to burn the rubber right off the tires. After-all the 1986 Corvette a car which was hailed as America’s performance car at the time was a few hundred pounds lighter than the Grand National, had a 5.7 liter TPI V8 that produced 230 horsepower 86buickturbov6-1.jpgwhich was only 5 horsepower less than the Grand National. The Corvette also had superior aerodynamics yet it was substantially slower in all the magazine tests back in the day. The Grand National and T-Type were not really touted by the automotive press in previous years. Both were forgotten among American performance cars since the auto magazines focused on the Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Camaro Z28/Iroc-Z, Ford Mustang GT, and Pontiac Trans Am. And then Car and Driver Magazine dropped a bombshell back in 1986 when it tested a new Grand National and obtained a 0-60 mph time of just 4.9 seconds and a 1/4 mile time of 13.9 seconds at 98 mph. No 1986 model year American performance car could touch the performance of the Grand National or Regal T-Type and most of the very expensive European sports cars of this era also could not beat the Grand National’s performance figures.

Just like every year the Buick Turbo V6 was offered, an automatic transmission was the mandatory companion. However by 1986, GM’s special performance TH-200-4R (4-speed) automatic transmission was computer controlled and calibrated in such a fashion that it could shift faster in full throttle acceleration than a manual transmission so most Grand National and T-Type buyers didn’t care that manual gears were not available. Another little added bonus of the 1986 turbo SFI V6 was that once the boast kicked in it produced a whopping 330 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm which gave the engine that kick in the pants feeling of a very powerful V8, the 1986 Corvette also produced 330 lb-ft of 87buickturbov6-1.jpgtorque at 2400 rpm which was only 400 rpm below the Buick turbo V6 proving how Buick engineers had done a fantastic job of making the little V6 perform like a much bigger high-performance V8.

Overnight the Grand National became the talk on the streets and in performance circles (the T-Type still remained forgotten due to it looking more like Grandpa’s reliable Regal making it the perfect sleeper). The only black eye the Grand National had was when the auto press discovered the Grand National’s top speed was limited via computer chip to 124 mph. However this was a moot point since most performance car drivers would never see over 100 mph on most of America’s roads.

For 1987 Buick bumped up horsepower to 245 and torque to 355 lb-ft. Acceleration times were nearly similar to the 1986’s numbers, so the Grand National and T-Type were still by far the fastest American cars available. However these figures were irrelevant, anyone familiar with these cars knows the true output was a lot more than Buick advertised – close to 300 horsepower is a reliable estimate. Some magazine tests reported slower 1/4 mile times in the 14 second range (which was still faster than the competition) however there were some Grand National auto press test cars that broke into the 13 second range. Many owners were seeing their stock Grand National and T-Types break consistently into the high-13 second 1/4 mile territory. It was just like 1970 all over again when Buick’s ultimate muscle car era engine the legendary Stage 1 455 CID V8 which was available in the GS and GSX was breaking into the 13 second 1/4 mile range (some magazine tests back in the day also obtained low-14 second range times for the Stage 1 455). And 1986 and 1987 Buick GN/T-Type owners were also with some modifications such as increasing the turbo boost PSI, encountering even faster 1/4 mile times.

And in case a buyer was looking for even more performance than what the Buick GN or T-Type had to offer, Buick offered a hopped-up version of the GN called the "GNX" – ASC McLaren was tasked by Buick with performing the modifications. The GNX was the ultimate performance car with beefier VR rated tires on larger diameter wheels and modifications to the turbo 3.8 liter V6, however it had a base price of $29,900 which was almost double the GN’s base price of $16,154. However the GNX did give a buyer exclusivity with only 547 produced versus the 20,193 Grand Nationals produced for the 1987 model year. But the real enticement for buying the GNX was the advertised 276 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque of the GNX’s warmed-over turbo 3.8 liter V6. And just like the 1986-1987 GN and T-Type both had very underrated horsepower figures, same was true with the GNX. The GNX was a screamer with a 1/4 mile time of 13.5 seconds at 102 mph and a 0-60 mph time of just 4.7 seconds. To this day the 1987 Buick GNX has the highest resale value of any ot the 1980s muscle cars. Expect to pay at least $60,000 for a decent conditioned example here in 2011, and extremely pristine low mileage examples can cost close to six figures.     

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By 1987 the hot turbo V6 was forcing people to change their opinions on Buick. And 1987 was also the only year that Buick offered the turbo 3.8 liter V6 in all its Regal models. Now that’s what you call giving the power to the people. During this time Buick also had a a hot sports car prototype – the Wildcat which was a favorite on the car show circuit – further proof that Buick was starting to move towards changing itself into a performance oriented division. Even though Buick bucked the odds and by 1987 made its turbo V6 the envy of the world, Buick could not stop the freight train that would kill all of its hard work. Word had leaked out by 1987 that GM would soon replace its rear-wheel drive G-body platform (which the Regal used) with a new front-wheel drive G-body platform. Unfortunately the turbo V6 made just too much horsepower and torque and there was no way GM’s new G-body front-wheel drive platform could handle the power. So the fun that began with Buick’s first turbo V6 in 1978 and soon grew to be the hottest 1980s American performance motor, was now over. For 1988, Buick would go back into its cocoon and forget about high-performance since the turbo V6 was laid to rest when the 1987 model year ended.

However fate stepped in and the Buick turbo V6 had one more big date with destiny in another GM car. This time it was Pontiac’s turn to stomp out the competition. Pontiac during the pre-production development of the third generation (1982-1992) Trans Am had looked at the possibility of dropping Buick’s turbo 3.8 liter V6 into the 1982 Trans Am since GM had killed the Pontiac 301 CID V8 at the end of the 1981 model year. However Pontiac decided instead to go with Chevrolet’s small-block V8. By the late 1980s when Pontiac was planning a 20th Anniversary edition of its 1989 Trans Am, with Buick’s help it resurrected the defunct turbo 3.8 liter SFI V6. Pontiac engineers had to make some modifications to the Buick turbo V6 to make it fit in the Trans Am’s engine bay which was smaller than the rear-wheel drive G-body Regal. The end result was a horsepower rating of 250 and 340 lb-ft of torque which Car and Driver magazine (June 1989) was able to obtain a 1/4 mile of 13.4 seconds at 101 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds. Which even today twenty two years later would put most of today’s performance cars to shame. And most Trans Am fans will tell you the fastest and baddest Trans Am was the 1973-1974 Super Duty 455 (CID) V8 equipped Trans Am. Hot Rod magazine back in the day obtained a 1/4 mile time of 13.54 seconds at 104.29 mph with a 1973 SD Trans Am which is the same performance as the 20th Anniversary Trans Am. In other words with the 20th Anniversary Trans Am it didn’t get any better for Trans Am fans. It was the ultimate warrior and due to its superior aerodynamics there was no top speed limiting chip – Motor Trend magazine hit just slightly over 160 mph with the turbo Trans Am on a test oval track. So it was no surprise that the turbo Trans Am produced more horsepower than Pontiac’s advertised figure. For 1989 no other American car could touch the performance of the turbo Trans Am, and most European sports cars costing a lot more were also put to shame by the turbo Trans Am. The only downside was the 20th Anniversary Trans Am which was available only in white had a production of only 1,555 units – not enough to meet the heavy demand so many Pontiac dealers had a steep price markup.

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Unfortunately as popular as the 20th Anniversary Trans Am was and all the kudos it received from the auto press, after 1989 Pontiac decided not to offer the Buick turbo 3.8 liter V6 again. And the Buick turbo V6 was the ultimate muscle car engine of the 1980s – it came out of nowhere and soon turned into a category 5 hurricane ripping to shreds all the previous conceptions of the performance/muscle car world. And like all storms once it inflicted its destruction on all the competition it disappeared and never returned again. However the remnants of this once mighty storm still remain, for Buick’s tiny 231 cubic inches of displacement turbo V6 was the first American performance motor that proved the old saying of "there’s no substitute for cubic inches" to be wrong. The best performance V8 of the 1980s was Buick’s tiny turbo V6 – there will probably never again be a more perfect Cinderella story in the automotive world than this one.

 

Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved 

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