For most of you, the word “Buick” doesn’t immediately conjure up images of performance-oriented neck-snapping power as the luxury brand has become far more synonymous with SUV safety and fuddy-duddy fashion sense than anything else.
But believe it or not, performance has long been a huge part of Buick’s DNA. Even since its earliest days, the tri-shield badge ushered forth insanely quick cars that were revolutionary for their time. From stripped-down convertible race cars to iconic muscle cars, Buick engines have long pushed the pioneers of motorsports that much faster toward victory.
Hell, it was Buick’s racing prowess and engineering that helped solidify the brand’s reputation for durability and unique craftsmanship back in the day. So now, over a century later, Buick’s legacy of performance still lives on, even though refinement is the name of game and has been for a while.
But thanks to the archivists over at GM, here are 10 incredible cars that have helped “establish and advance Buick’s performance heritage.”
1. 1909 Buick Race Car
Way back in 1909 – two years before the first Indianapolis 500, and just six after the Wright brothers’ first flight – a 2.5-mile-long oval at Indy was founded with the Prest-O-Lite Trophy as the ultimate prize. The 250-mile-long race was won by Bob Burman, who happened to be driving a Buick that averaged more than 53 miles per hour, a break-neck pace for back then. Interestingly enough, of the nine cars that finished the race, three of them were Buicks.
2. 1910 Buick 60 Special “Bug”
Ah, yes, the 60 Special “Bug.” Built by the Buick racing team, this steampunk spin on racing has a style all of its own, including that revolutionary nosecone, which coincidentally was later revealed to be a feature that was designed more for aesthetics than aerodynamics. Beneath its bonnet rested a monolithic, 10.2-liter (622 cubic inch) four-cylinder engine that propelled the Bug to 110 miles per hour, making it look and perform lightyears faster than the previous vehicle on today’s cheat sheet. Buick apparently built two 60 Special race cars that year, one for the aforementioned Prest-O-Lite Trophy winner Bob Burman, and a second for another driver of that era, whose last name you might recognize: Louis Chevrolet.
3. 1938 Buick Century
Tired of pussy-footing around, Buick introduced straight-eight engines in 1931 with an American “more is more” mentality. A grand cause at the time, it was not until years later when the 1938 Century model was released that a new performance benchmark was set for what real power looked like. Dubbed the “Dynaflash 8,” this 5.2-liter (320 cubic inch) inline monster featured redesigned domed pistons that gave the Century a whopping 11 horsepower bump over the outgoing engine. This may not sound like a lot by today’s standards, but back then it made it possible to pass the “century mark” at 103 miles per hour, thus making the Century one of the fastest cars of its day and a legend among auto enthusiasts.
4. 1954 Buick Wildcat II Concept
Though the prototype does appear pretty funky, what’s a concept car without a little edginess? Nicknamed the “Nailhead” for its V8 engine’s unique valve arrangement, this menacing motor was introduced in 1953 in order to power the Wildcat II concept vehicle the following year. By utilizing a quartet of “sidedraft carburetors,” engineers were able to squeeze out about 10% more power from the engine, giving the Wildcat II the power it deserved.
5. 1963 Buick Special
In 1961, Buick came out with an innovative, lightweight all-aluminum V8 that was designed to power its new midsize “Special” model line. Featuring a meager 3.5-liter engine, this undersized engine punched well above its weight class and to this day is still revered as one of the most potent engines of its time. Peak performance was found in the 1963 Special, which featured 200 horsepower that represented a horsepower-to-liter ratio of 0.57:1. Versions of this aluminum engine were used in Indy race cars as well, firmly establishing its pedigree.
6. 1970 Buick GSX
Sometime in the midst of the muscle car wars, something must have really pissed Buick off because the GSX ate Dodges and Fords like boxes of Raisinettes. Back then, torque was what made you a competitor in the muscle car race, so the automaker decided that 510 pound-feet of grunt should be enough to smack the other two automakers around. It did readily, with its 455 Stage I V8 engine. In a 1970 road test, Motor Trend went from zero to sixty miles per hour in just 5.5 seconds, and spanned the quarter-mile in a mere 13.4 seconds. This combination of raw power and signature luxury that was uniquely Buick caused many people to refer to the GSX as the “velvet hammer.”
7. 1976 Buick Century Indianapolis 500 Pace Car
Buick’s 1976 pace car is by no means a winner in the aesthetics department, but when it comes to engineering ingenuity, it was a pretty badass car for its time. Back then, turbocharging a car was still a relatively rare practice, but growing bored with what was already old news, Buick’s engineers took the recently revived and far more efficient 3.8-liter V6 engine that was usurping larger V8 engines and slapped a turbo on it. What they got in return was a mean-spirited pace car that ran on 22 PSI of boost pressure and featured a 306 horsepower.
8. 1984 Buick/March IndyCar
A few years after Buick first began fiddling around with turbochargers, driver Scott Brayton drove his Buick-powered turbo March race car to a 204 mile per hour one-lap speed and a 203 miles per hour four-lap average, setting new world records for a race car using a production-spec engine block. Years later, in the mid-1990s, a much more potent version of the Buick turbo V6 gave Eddie Cheever the chance to achieve the fastest race lap ever recorded at the Brickyard, with a 236.103 miles per hour speed landing him a top spot during the 1996 Indy 500. This is a record that still stands 20 years later.
9. 1987 Buick GNX
In the throws of the high-performance 1980s automotive resurgence, Buick said screw the V8 and stuck with a turbo V6 program that worked. This option was most prominently noted in the Buick Grand National, and when it was finally retired in 1987, a limited-edition GNX version was added to the fray. This was basically a Grand National on steroids and with its larger turbocharger, higher output 276 horsepower engine and all-black attire, it made for one menacing sight if you were unfortunate enough to find one in your rearview mirror. Only 547 GNX Buicks were built, and are now considered highly collectible.
10. 2012 Regal GS
The Regal GS has to be the most unassuming sleeper you will ever encounter, building upon decades of turbocharging heritage with one of the most sophisticated and power-dense engines in its segment. Featuring a 2.0-liter engine that churns out 259 horsepower and more torque than a Subaru WRX, this little sleeper is an amazing machine in almost every way. With actively adaptive dampers, an Interactive Drive Control system, and an all-wheel drive system that is absolutely fantastic, the Regal GS made collector car insurer Hagerty’s list of the 10 most collectible Buick models of all time and our list as one of the best cars we drove in 2015.