1982 Buick Grand National Regal (top); 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo SS (bottom); images by the author.
Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.
Featured in this edition of This or That are two midsize cars from the downsized era: a 1982 Buick Grand National (that model year is not a typo) versus a 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS (the car pictured above was modified; for factory-stock specs click here). Snicker if you wish; however, both the Buick and the Chevy are considered performance cars for various reasons, not least of which is the fact that – aside from their names suggesting as much – stock car legends such as Petty, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Yarborough, Allison, Gant and Pearson all had a turn behind one or the other, or in some cases, both makes in race trim. For that reason alone, the two GM models have intertwined backstories, as we’ll discuss here. If you want to read more than we provide here, both cars were former subject material in our Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine.
If you thought Buick first released the Grand National in 1984, guess again. To understand how the “GN” came into fruition, we need to quickly look back at Detroit in the Seventies and its effect on NASCAR. The Big Three, already pressured to adhere to changing CAFE standards knew that, regardless of the fuel crisis, it was time to make a real effort to stem the rising import tide by removing girth from their fleet, particularly (pertinent to this feature) the midsize cars. GM struck first in 1978; Ford and Chrysler followed by 1980. Just how much reduction occurred? The wheelbases were shrunk from a general range of 112 – 115 inches to roughly 108 to 112 inches. Coupled with smaller bodies, several hundred pounds of mass, in some instances, had been shaved, thus helping increase efficiency.
The downsized cars, in turn, posed a challenge for NASCAR and its teams, which, since the top-touring series’ inception, required the use of the latest body styles (no more than three years old most seasons). Although NASCAR knew of the move towards smaller cars as early as 1976, the ’77 rules mandated the continued use of the old 115-inch wheelbase chassis. The reason, according to NASCAR president Bill France, Jr., was simple. “In order to curb expenses, the teams will be permitted to use equipment they already have instead of letting new equipment become obsolete in a short time.” This, it seems, was a direct reference to the inconsistency between manufactures making reduction changes, in addition to the disparity between corporate sponsored teams versus those that didn’t, the latter of which were still a very intricate part of NASCAR’s weekly success. By the time the 1980 season concluded, many teams were using body designs that were as many as five years old.
NASCAR’s expected change to the downsized designs was finally written into the 1981 rule book, with one exception: the season-opening race at California’s (now defunct) Riverside International Raceway would be the last appearance for the 115-inch wheelbase cars, although new 110-inch cars would be permitted to compete. By the time everyone arrived in Florida for the Daytona 500 (the ’81 season’s second points race) teams were required to run the new cars. Earlier, NASCAR had approved 12 models from eight manufactures. They were: Buick Regal; Chevy Monte Carlo and Malibu; Chrysler LeBaron; Dodge Mirada; Ford Thunderbird and Granada; Mercury Cougar XR-7 and Monarch; Olds Cutlass Supreme; and Pontiac Grand Prix and Le Mans (this list changed in the years that followed, notably with the addition of Chrysler’s Imperial). Before one asks, NASCAR permitted body lengths to be stretched or shortened to conform to the new 110-inch wheelbase rule.
The entry list for the Daytona 500 was vast: 60 teams were to vie for 42 starting positions. By manufacture, Buick led the way with 17 teams, followed by Pontiac with 16 (only one of which entered a Le Mans); Oldsmobile with 15; Ford had 6 teams; Chevy – with its full-width flat grilled Monte Carlo – had 4 teams; and Dodge was represented by 2 teams (Editor’s note, Richard Petty had prepared a Dodge Mirada and, during winter testing, found it to be 8 mph off the pace of the GM cars; he returned for a second test two weeks later in a Buick). After pole qualifying, and the Twin 125 qualifying races, 14 Buicks and 11 Pontiacs were seen on the 42-car starting grid; Buick alone claimed a full third of the field. With the exception of Bobby Allison’s lone fast-back rear window Pontiac Le Mans, the redesigned Regal, with its narrow swept-back “shovel” nose and low drag coefficient, had an edge over the competition. Allison nearly won, had it not been for the last round of pit stops. The Alabama driver took four-tires and fuel, while Petty, a handful of laps later, took only fuel, putting him ahead of Allison. The strategy gave Petty his seventh Daytona 500 win. The victory was also the first time Buick had won a NASCAR Grand National race (now called Nextel Cup) since Herb Thomas drove to victory on August 20, 1955, behind the wheel of a ’55 Century.
As the 1981 season unfolded, the Flint’s brass had much to brag about. Aside from dominating the starting grid each week, five Buick drivers–Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Ron Bouchard–won 22 of the season’s 31 events. Waltrip beat Allison for the driver’s championship, and the on-track results easily propelled Buick to the manufacturer’s title. The press the season generated bolstered Buick’s new sporty image, which the division was ready to capitalize on in December of 1981 with a new prototype.
For the first time since 1951, Daytona would kick off the new season, on February 14, 1982. In the original article, we penned that between February 8 – 10 – after a winter collaboration between Buick and Cars and Concepts – a series of letters were distributed to dealers from then-general sales manager J.D. Duffy. They read, in part,
“Regal wins it all! The numerous victories of the Buick Regal in the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series brought Buick the Manufacture’s Trophy to make this the ‘Year of the Regal.’ ” In paraphrasing the rest of the two-page document, Duffy states that, “Buick is offering a special limited edition Regal” to help dealers capitalize on Buick’s strong new performance image. “The new ‘Grand National’ Regal is a luxurious commemorative version of the winning Grand National vehicles. Buick designed this magnificent Regal to be a one-of-a-kind car.” Additionally, “We created an image vehicle for stock car enthusiasts, and we avoided compromising package content by using off-the-shelf Buick components.” Duffy continues, outlining in the letter ways in which dealers can utilize the new car in the showroom. He even goes so far as to list several suggestions to increase attendance and sales. The letter closes with the following: “The ‘Grand National’ Regal is scheduled to be introduced February 10 at the Daytona 500 and will be available for dealer delivery in May.”
Initially, Flint was going to limit Grand National production to just 100 units, but that number swelled to 215, not including the prototype. Each Grand National was to be furnished with normally aspirated 125-hp 4.1-liter V-6, but as the model entered production, a few savvy dealers/buyers recognized that it could have been optioned with the Turbo 3.8-liter engine (as seen in our feature GN). Engine aside, Buick then shipped Regals, as well as Limited and Sport Coupe Regals, to Cars and Concepts, painted in Charcoal Gray. Hand-laid fiberglass spoilers were unceremoniously secured to the rear decklids. The firm then tactfully applied Silver-Gray Firemist over the base Charcoal, divided by bright red accent striping. Other standard GN features include the F41 Gran Touring suspension, a front air dam, Tungsten halogen headlamps, heavy-duty engine and transmission cooling and a 3.23:1 rear axle ratio in 4.1-liter GNs, or a 3.03:1 rear in 3.8-liter GNs. Only an automatic transmission was offered. Steel-belted 205/70R14 radial wide oval tires were mounted on styled aluminum wheels. Also included were a blacked-out grille, headlamp door, rocker panel and wheel opening moldings. Large “Buick” graphics by 3M grace the rear quarters, and a smaller decal resides on the rear deck lid lip. The prototype had “Grand National” graphics positioned on each front fender above the now-familiar basic V-6 emblem. Interiors were fitted with a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, Lear Seigler seats finished in silver Brandon cloth with black vinyl inserts (buckets up front), electrically tuned AM/FM cassette stereo, and a Grand National instrument cluster. The entire GN package cost $3,278, which, when added to the base Coupe price of $8,702 and other included options, came to a whopping $15,480. That’s not including the 3.8 option, which would have bumped the sticker to $16,578. It should be noted that, at the time the original article had been written, just 20 of the 215 mid-year Grand Nationals were known to feature a factory-installed Turbo V-6 that, when new, touted nine pounds of boost; a healthy dose of engine adrenalin for the era.
Although Buick may have promised the prototype’s unveiling prior to the Daytona 500, nobody ever recalls seeing or photographing the car. That aside, and with the exception of a lawsuit immediately initiated by NASCAR – which held the copyright on “Grand National,” forcing the emblem change now seen on every 1984-’87 GN – the race weekend could not have gone any better for Buick. A full 25 of the 42 starters were fielding Regals, and Buick drivers held seven of the top 10 finishing positions, led by Bobby Allison. Cale Yarborough, Joe Ruttman and Terry Labonte all followed in Regals. As the 1982 season unfolded, Buick stole the season, winning 25 of the 30 races (Ford won two; Chevy the remaining three), as well as the manufacture’s championship, while Waltrip took home the driver’s title in a Buick. Flint’s back-to-back dominance lead to Chevy, and Ford, seeking sleeker solutions.
Chevrolet’s answer to the Regal problem was the reintroduction of the Monte Carlo SS after a 12-year hiatus. Released as a mid-1983 model, the most notable exterior feature was its substantially more aerodynamic “droop-snoot” nose with integrated blacked-out grille, air dam, and recessed quad lamps. A spoiler was fixed also to the decklid lip a la NASCAR, though much lower in height. Designated RPO Z65, the SS package provided not only a new front end design but a high-output version of the 305-cu.in. V-8, then rated for 175 hp. It was a high revving engine, which made use of a Camaro-derived aluminum intake and the camshaft from the L-81 Corvette. It was backed by a three-speed automatic transmission, which sent torque to an open diff containing a 3.42:1 gearset; Positraction was optional. Offered in just two colors, white or dark blue (with hard-to-miss ‘Monte Carlo SS’ graphics on each door) the chassis was supported by the F41 sport suspension, which was comprised of heavy-duty front and rear shocks, higher-rated front and rear springs, stiffer rear suspension bushings, a stiffer front anti-sway bar and the addition of a rear stabilizer bar. A set of 15×7-inch Rally wheels shod with Goodyear white-letter tires were standard. It could be said that their interiors were fairly basic; a blue bench seat trimmed in white.
Production constraints held output to 4,714 units for civilian use, but in race trim, the new nose greatly reduced the Chevy’s drag coefficient, from .445 to .375, making the model – in wind tunnel testing – a viable corporate competitor on the track. These numbers were hard to miss, and when the entry list of the Daytona 500 was announced, 21 Chevys were on the list. The rest of the pre-Speedweeks list was comprised of 31 Buicks, 12 Pontiacs, 9 Fords, 6 Oldsmobiles, 2 Chryslers and a lone Dodge. During pole day, Chevy’s new-found prowess put the rest of the field on high alert when Cale Yarborough posted a 200.503 mph speed on the first lap – the first driver to break that the barrier at Daytona in a downsized car – however, as he rounded the fourth turn on his second lap, Yarborough’s Chevy broke loose and flipped, negating the pole attempt and forcing the team to fetch their backup car: a Pontiac Le Mans that had been prepared for the short tracks. (Editor’s note: In early May 1982, Benny Parsons qualified his Pontiac Le Mans at 200.176 mph at Talladega International Motor Speedway, becoming the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier in the new downsized cars.) Yarborough would go on to win the 500 in his Pontiac, besting a field of 15 Chevys, 12 Buicks, 7 other Pontiacs, 5 Fords, 1 Dodge and 1 Chrysler. Chevy would have the upper hand as the season progressed, snatching 14 wins; seven more than Buick. Although Chevy would win the manufacture’s title, Bobby Allison, still driving a Buick, won the driver’s title.
As to our highlighted year of 1984, the production version of the Monte Carlo SS welcomed several noteworthy changes, including bucket seats and console to the option chart, while the 305-cu.in. engine received 5 more horses. Although the base price was now $10,700, a full year of production bumped output to 24,050 units. On the track, the Monte Carlo won 21 of the season’s 30 point races (Ford with four, Pontiac with three, and Buick with two, won the other events) and claimed the manufacture’s title.
In the end, the 1981-’85 NASCAR seasons proved to be just the beginning of a new aero-war era in circle track racing, which in turn provided the Regal Grand National and Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS viable reasons to exist in street trim. Armed with knowledge, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?