Buick’s Turbocharged Skyhawk: America’s Forgotten Hot-Hatch

Source: GM
Source: GM

Though the Grand National is widely recognized as Buick’s iconic sleeper of the 1980s, very few remember its long-lost siblings — the Skyhawk T-Type and Sport Hatch. With a turbocharged powerplant of their own, the Skyhawk T-Type and Sport Hatch were ridiculously quick and undeniably built for the enthusiast. Their aggressive styling and underrated performance helped lay the groundwork for the hot hatch segment that is booming in popularity today.

Yet, nobody recalls perhaps the very cars that started it all.

The second generation Buick Skyhawk debuted in 1982 in both a two-door coupe and four-door sedan layout. It was built on the compact front-wheel drive J-Body platform shared with the Cadillac Cimarron, Chevrolet Cavalier, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Pontiac Sunbird.

Whether you settled for the standard 88-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine or sprung for the optional overhead cam 2.0-liter variant that managed to eek out an additional two horsepower, you weren’t going to win any drag races in your 1982 ‘Hawk. That much was for sure.

The Skyhawk, along with its corporate siblings, were created to be fuel-efficient and budget-friendly compact cars affordable for all families. As such, build quality was never a strong suit of any J-Body car, especially in the 1980s.

Wind and road noise were prevalent, body panels never lined up perfectly, and most interiors had a poor fit and finish. Worst of all, an echoing tinny sound reminded you and everyone else in the parking lot that you were the cheap bastard who bought a J-Body each time you closed the door.

With its aggressive name and unique logo portraying a bird of prey with talons fully extended, you’d imagine Buick originally designed the Skyhawk to be a stealth predator on the streets. Though the first two model years were anything but, Buick finally released a high-performance T-Type variant in 1984.

The new ‘Hawk featured blacked-out trim, special wheels, and a turbocharged 1.8 liter four-cylinder Brazilian engine with a whopping 150 horsepower. With an estimated curb weight below 2,500 pounds, the Skyhawk no longer felt hampered by a broken wing. Now it could fly!

In 1986, the Skyhawk T-Type underwent yet another transformation. A new two-door hatchback could now be ordered in T-Type trim with a Grand National-inspired turbo bulge hood, smoked tail lights, and an optional louvered rear window. Hidden headlamp assemblies also replaced the Skyhawk’s dated front fascia with four visible headlights. This gave the Skyhawk a far more aerodynamic and sporty appearance.

A leather wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, two-tone sport bucket seats, and an expanded gauge cluster featuring a tachometer and boost gauge spruced up the interior. Fourteen-inch Shelby aluminum wheels, wider 205/60/14 Eagle GT tires, and Buick’s Gran-Touring suspension dramatically improved the ‘Hawk’s handling to near-German levels of refinement.

Source: GM
Source: GM

In 1987, the Skyhawk T-Type was discontinued, but the turbocharged engine was still available on the new Sport Hatch. While it looked nearly identical to the 1986 T-type, the Sport Hatch was equipped with General Motor’s new turbocharged 2.0 liter overhead cam four-cylinder with 15 extra horses under the hood and a five-speed manual Getrag transmission. A 3.31 axle ratio improved acceleration performance.

With multi-point fuel injection and a larger water-cooled turbocharger, the 2.0-liter powerplant cranked out 165 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. For comparison, Dodge needed Carroll Shelby’s help to create the legendary 1986 Dodge Omni GLH-S hatchback which had only 10 more horsepower and an identical torque rating.

While the Omni GLH-S is held on a pedestal as the standard for other hot hatchbacks to live up to, the Buick T-Type and Sport Hatch remain relatively unknown by enthusiasts and collectors.

With the same seven-second zero-to-sixty time as a 2015 Ford Fiesta ST, a 1987 Skyhawk Sport Hatch would certainly be cheap fun. The majority of Skyhawks are long gone, but if you are lucky enough to stumble across one, I wouldn’t hesitate to get behind the wheel of Buick’s best kept secret. This hot rod hatch might be just the fun you’ve been searching for.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.