The 1936 Buick Century was a sleek, good looking performer, especially in the convertible and coupe versions. That long sleek hood wasn’t for looks.
It was necessary for the long, large 322 CID I-8.

The Buick Performance Tradition – 80 Years Strong

For many of us, when we think of Buick and performance, our minds take us back to the mid-60s, when the Buick Gran Sport (“GS”) series debuted. We tend to think it died in the “malaise years” only to re-emerge in 1984 with the T Type and Grand National.

But this is a misunderstanding. Buick’s performance drive started long before all of us were born – well if you are 87 or older you might qualify. Buick was involved in racing and high performance right at the outset of the brand’s birth in 1899, but many automotive brands were back then. Buick settled into selling high quality luxury automobiles under the General Motors banner starting in 1908 and continued to do so into the 1930s. But the twinkling of performance began to emerge when Buick debuted two major achievements for 1931, the OHV Buick Straight-8 engine and a synchromesh transmission. The engine came in three flavors: a 220 CID unit with a 2 7/8″ bore x 4.25″ stroke – it was available in the Series 50 (entry-level) with 77 HP, the Series 60 engine was a 272 CID unit with a 3 1/16″ bore x 5″ stroke giving 90 HP, and the Series 80-90 engine was 340 CID with a 3 5/16″ bore x 5″ stroke for 104 HP.

Once the OHV I-8 was established, Buick realized that it had performance potential, and decided to capitalize on it. The older 344 CID eight used in the Series 80-90, now called Roadmaster and Limited, was replaced with a larger bore, shorter stroke version (3.4375″ × 4.3125″) and now displacing 320 CID. The Series 60, with its shorter wheelbase and lighter weight was fitted with that Roadmaster 320 CID I-8 then called “Century”. See the 1936 Buick Brochure HERE.

Between 1936 and 1942 Centurys powered by the OHV 320 CID straight-8 was produced 141 HP just before WW II. This combo made Series 60 Centurys the fastest Buicks of the era and capable of sustained speeds of 100 mph, and why the name “Century”. That top speed an sprightly acceleration also earned the Century the nickname “the banker’s hot rod”. Not to be outdone, in 1941 Buick released a dual carburetor version for the Century and Roadmaster 320 CID I-8!

Perhaps Buick’s first muscle car ad. The twin carburetor setup was available on the Century too!

Unfortunately, after WW II, the Century did not return. Most reasoned that Buick was selling plenty of Specials, Supers and Roadmasters to reduce the need for a performance model. But when the new Buick “Nailhead” V-8 bowed, Buick was quick to realize that it was time to apply their old formula for performance. In 1954, once again, they mated the Roadmaster’s new 322 CID V-8 to the Special’s shorter, lighter body, and the Century appeared again.

Buick Century ads of 1954 spoke of the 322 CID V-8 from the Roadmaster installed in the Century and it ease of passing and capable high speed.

Here’s the dual 4-barrel setup offered on all 425 CID V-8s in 1963-65. This would fit the 401 Nailhead offered in the 1965-66 GS, but was not an option.

Also know that that new Nailhead was a large bore, short stroke V-8, capable of sustained high RPM. It made great HP for its time and soon Centurys found their way into stock car racing. The enclosed file is a series of letters to a customer detailing the “export” camshaft that could be fitted to the V-8 to increase HP. See the 1959 Letter from Buick Engineering on the “export” Camshaft and other high-speed goodies.

Starting in 1963, Buick increased the CID of the Nailhead to 425 CID and at the same time offered twin four-barrel carburetors as an option. This raised the HP to 360 and though now fitted to the full size Wildcat, that replaced the Century as the Buick performance offering. People should remember that the Wildcat, introduced in 1962, was the Buick equivalent of the Pontiac Grand Prix, and was a true performance car.

When the mid-size Grand Sport debuted in 1965, surprisingly Buick did not make the popular dual 4 barrel manifold available on the 401 CID V-8 that was the engine in this car (it would have fit and many added it. The 401 benefited from the new Quadra-jet 4-barrel carburetor in 1966 and though the rated HP did not increase, the car made more power. In 1967, the new Buick big block debuted. It made appreciably more HP and torque. Unknown to many, Buick was preparing to get hefty for 1968.

Few know that the 1968 car could be had with what is now known as the Stage 1 setup, and we have a test of that 1968 rig HERE. Stage 1 was a popular option in 1969 and the infamous Stage 2 dealer installed option made 1969 drag race cars a terror even though they only displaced 400 CID. Of course, the Stage 1 became even more powerful in 1970, perhaps making Stage 1 cars whether a GSX or regular GS one of the fastest muscle cars of that era. What few people know is that the Stage 1 engine remained in production through 1974.

While Buick offered little in the way of performance from 1975-1977, the engineers dedicated themselves during that time to turbocharging as a method of increased performance and better fuel mileage. In fact, Buick Centuries were used in the 1975 and 1976 Indianapolis Motor Speedway as pace cars – ostensibly because Buick was developing a “stock block” turbocharged V-6 for the open wheel CART series. While the Buick race version hung around with dubious success for quite a few years, the lessons learned resulted in the new for 1978 downsized Centurys and Regals being equipped with the Turbo V-6.

This poster on the 1983 Buick Riviera Indy Pace Car showcased exotic turbo V-6 potential and lead the way to the advanced 1984-87 GNs and GNXs

The 1978 Regal could be equipped with a 3.8 L/231 CID) Turbocharged V-6 engine and was known as the Regal Sport Coupe. Turbo versions were offered with either a two- or a four-barrel carburetor and horsepower varied. 1979-80 Century Turbo Coupe was also powered by the turbocharged version of the 3.8 L V-6. The Turbo Coupe was not nearly as popular as the similar Regal Turbo Sport Coupe of the time, and total production of the Century version is estimated to be less than 2,500.

In 1982, the Century name went to the new front drive platform, and Regal became a 2- and 4-door car. But in that same year, Buick decided to capitalize on their NASCAR wins and the Grand National model of the Regal coupe was born. More about the growth of the turbo V-6 can be found in our Regal Fact Sheets for 1984-87 but know that that same turbo V-6 was found in the Riviera and others during that era, and Buick’s dedication to performance was shown in turbo versions of their I-4 and hot rodded versions of the 2.8 L V-6 used by the brand.

For the 1997 model year, the Century and Regal rode upon the revised GM “W” platform, and the Regal coupe was discontinued. This period held the fastest Buick since the days of the 1987 GNX – the 4-door Buick Regal GS. Buick engineers still believed that forced induction on a smaller-sized V-6 was the way to go, so they installed a supercharger rather than a turbocharger. The new engine produced 240 HP and 280 lb⋅ft of torque. Buick also released the GSE model with the same 240 HP supercharged engine. In 2000, Buick released a concept GSX that had an intercooled 3.8 L V-6, still supercharged rather than turbocharged. It made 295 HP.

In the 2003 and 2004 model years, Buick, in collaboration with SLP Performance, released the Buick Regal GSX. They offered dealer-installed options and dealer-supplied accessories for both LS and GS models. Like the GS Buicks that came before it, the SLP GSX came in three power train packages, referred to as stages. The Stage 1 package added 10 horsepower with the addition of a dual stainless-steel cat-back exhaust system and free-flowing cold air induction system. On the Stage 2 package, a Hypertech Power Programmer with an SLP custom calibration tune was included with the Stage 1 components — adding an extra 20 horsepower. The Stage 3 package added a 3.5-inch smaller diameter supercharger pulley to crank up the boost to an advertised 30 more horsepower than stock, the Stage 3 GSX was conservatively rated at 270 HP and 312 lb⋅ft of torque.

Here’s the cover of the 2003 Buick SLP Brochure

Since the parts were available from SLP over the counter for many years, there have been quite a few Regal GS sedans that have been cloned into a GSX for both appearance and performance purposes. Though the model didn’t officially debut until 2003, a licensed SLP dealer could perform the transformation on any Regal GS from 1997 to 2004. View/Download the 2003 Brochure HERE.

Starting in 2005, GM made some massive changes to their line, discontinuing Oldsmobile and relegating the remaining lines to very strict market share. Platforms were and are shared across both US and foreign lines resulting in cars that are not truly engineered by a home-based performance freaks.

While there are some lively Buicks remaining, frankly, performance is now an afterthought at Buick. It’s a sad result of too much international cross pollination and not enough home-grown personalization. It is doubtful we will see performance-oriented Buicks any more, and that is a sad documentary on GM and Buick.

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