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Buick's turbo-performance future died when this GNX-powered Electra wagon broke GM's cardinal rule

Hemmings logo Hemmings 6/9/2022 Brett Berk

In the 80s, Buick was attempting to shift its brand perception. “It had this old guy image,” said Mike Todoroff, who worked with the brand for six years during this time. “It was trying to change.”

One of the key ways this was attempted (and accomplished) was through the creation of a halo performance car: the GNX. This rear-wheel-drive G-body coupe, with its formidable turbocharged and intercooled V-6 power and go-fast accessories, placed Buick in a sinister position as the doom lord of unexpected performance.

The performance of the GNX was unmatched in its day but was not followed by more Buick performance cars. Not that Mike Doble didn't try. Photo by Barry Kluczyk. © Provided by Hemmings The performance of the GNX was unmatched in its day but was not followed by more Buick performance cars. Not that Mike Doble didn't try. Photo by Barry Kluczyk.

The GNX was the brainchild of Mike Doble, the heralded head of the skunkworks Buick Advanced Concepts division. But Mr. Doble didn’t stop with the GNX. Working with a pair of local prototype fabricators, ASC and SVI, and the engine builders at McLaren, he attempted to bolt Buick’s go-fast technologies onto nearly any car he could get his hands on.

An otherwise stock-looking Riviera. © Provided by Hemmings An otherwise stock-looking Riviera. But under the hood, turbo power. © Provided by Hemmings But under the hood, turbo power.

According to interviews with Mr. Doble and Mr. Todoroff, these projects included the downsized mid-80s front-wheel-drive Buick Riviera and the front-wheel-drive Reatta. Because of the crudeness of the era’s turbochargers, torque steer was a huge issue. “If you nailed it, it made an immediate right turn,” Mr. Doble said.

To counteract this, these cars became test beds for emergent technologies. “We worked with Saginaw Steering Gear. And they came up with a couple innovative features,” said Mr. Todoroff, whose team was responsible for shaking down the prototypes.

Similarly, this looks like a stock Reatta from the outside but has a surprise in the engine bay. © Provided by Hemmings Similarly, this looks like a stock Reatta from the outside but has a surprise in the engine bay. © Provided by Hemmings

The first was the primary implementation of electronic steering on a GM car. “There were magnets built into the system, and when it sensed a rapid increase in the input of the steering wheel, the magnets would activate and it would dull it, and actually pull on the steering wheel in the opposite direction,” Mr. Todoroff said. (This system eventually became Magnasteer, first introduced on the Oldsmobile Aurora before spreading across the GM lineup.) The other was conical-shaped unequal-length half-shafts. The group even built an experimental rear-wheel-drive Reatta, to take full advantage of all that V-6 turbo power.

The rear-wheel-drive Buick Reatta concept with its unmistakable hood bulge. © Provided by Hemmings The rear-wheel-drive Buick Reatta concept with its unmistakable hood bulge.

But the pièce de resistance of this back-channel operation was a station wagon.

“That’s the one we put a 3.8-liter Regal engine in. It was basically the GNX engine. Intercooled, huge intercooler, and much larger spool on the turbo than was in production at that time,” Mr. Doble said. “It developed a tremendous amount of horsepower. I think it was 370.”

There are few photos of the GNX-powered Electra wagon, but GM did have this interior shot featuring Reatta seats in its archives. © Provided by Hemmings There are few photos of the GNX-powered Electra wagon, but GM did have this interior shot featuring Reatta seats in its archives.

The family hauler was built using an existing B-body Electra wagon as the donor. According to Mr. Doble, it featured a custom interior with Reatta bucket seats and center consoles front and rear, and an upgraded suspension. “It had real wire wheels,” Mr. Todoroff said. “And we used to say, it had a suspension by Louisville Slugger, because the stabilizer bars were as big as a baseball bat.” Still, it maintained its traditional woodgrain vinyl siding. “It looked like the family truckster,” Mr. Doble said. “It was a sleeper.”

Converting a Reatta to rear-wheel-drive also required switching to a longitudinal engine orientation. © Provided by Hemmings Converting a Reatta to rear-wheel-drive also required switching to a longitudinal engine orientation.

According to Mr. Doble, the team entered this superwagon in One Lap of America, the road-trip and time-attack event Brock Yates founded as the successor to the Cannonball. “It went all around the country. We led every bit of it in this huge wagon. All the other imports, whether they were Maseratis or Ferraris, were behind us because of all the torque and horsepower we had in the straightaways,” Mr. Doble said. But, coming into Miami for the last leg of the race, the sponsors were so irritated that a wagon was going to win, they changed the final event to a Gymkhana, with cones and everything. “We ended up coming in second to a Toyota All-Trac,” Mr. Doble lamented.

Eventually, his team made the mistake of challenging a competitor closer to home. “We had the GNX prototype, and all the other turbo prototypes, at Milan Raceway near Detroit, and we were telling everyone, this is the fastest car GM ever produced,” Mr. Doble said. “Chevy showed up with twin-turbo Callaway Corvettes, and we put them on the drag strip, and we beat them with four straight runs. And one of them was the wagon.”

© Provided by Hemmings

Mr. Doble’s team harbored a glimmer of hope that one or more of these vehicles might one day see production, bolstered by positive coverage in the media at the time. But these antics broke GM’s cardinal rule—nothing can be faster than Corvette—and the brass was not amused. “The Chevy guys snuck away like spies, and that’s when they told GM management,” Mr. Doble said. “GM did not like it. Chevrolet hated it.”

Doble’s experiments were given a corporate death sentence, but most of them managed to expire before it could be carried out. “The Riviera Turbo, it caught on fire—the hose from the power steering leaked, right near the turbo,” Mr. Todoroff said. “The Reatta Turbo, it ended up at the wall at Phoenix Firebird Raceway.” Not surprising, given its propensity for hanging a Ricky under hard acceleration.

© Provided by Hemmings

As for the superwagon? It lived a quiet retirement, of sorts. “We used it at the plants,” Mr. Doble said. “They put it all together there, so we gave it to them as a parts car. They would just drive it around, and eventually they ran it into the ground.” He paused. “We couldn’t let it live, because it wasn’t street legal, and GM had already expensed it and written it off to the IRS. So, it had to be crushed.”

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