Kevin Hart the car guy (and international superstar) visited the SEMA Show in Las Vegas to see his brand new project for the first time; an ’87 Buick Grand National T-Top. It featured in the Magnaflow booth and was stationed across the aisle from Hart’s 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner, which starred in the Meguiar’s booth. Both cars were built by Salvaggio Design and designed by Sean Smith, ensuring the highest quality and a ridiculous attention to detail.
Wisconsin-based Dave Salvaggio has worked on numerous projects with Kevin, so they sat down with Smith to devise his beautiful Buick. And straight away, the direction was set by its name; Dark Knight.
All Hart’s cars have a name. The Roadrunner was Mike Myers, for example. It inspired Smith to devise a black and orange Halloween paint scheme with a blood-splatter effect on the leather seats, a knife handle shifter, and hockey mask-wearing Roadrunner badges.
Avoiding any Batmobile styling cues for the Grand National, the theme for Dark Knight is subtle. It’s recognizable by its sinister appearance, featuring a black exterior with a blue and grey interior that echoes the superhero’s suit and cape. Bronze details were inspired by the famous utility belt.
Aside from its theme, Hart wanted to create a Grand National resto-mod that would redefine its key elements with modern technology. However, he insisted Salvaggio and Smith retain the car’s character, including its stock fenders, to create a wolf in sheep’s clothing; something nobody would suspect.
Already the proud owner of a Grand National GNX with its factory flares, Hart didn’t want the new car to overwhelm it. He also stipulated it must have the famous T-Top roof, which triggered the search for a very specific car.
Once a suitable donor was found, Smith worked with the Salvaggio Design team to execute the vision with restraint. It wouldn’t be extroverted or widebody; instead they focused on details such as restyling the front bumper. Using 3D CAD technology, the front bumper was scanned and a new design was 3D-printed, incorporating functional air ducts to improve the cooling and aerodynamic properties; something they deemed necessary given the chosen powerplant. The printed bumper was then used to mold the final piece in carbon fiber.
Carbon fiber from Brothers Composites was used sparingly, limited to the hood, chin spoiler, rear spoiler and mirrors. It can also be found inside the car and under the hood, as we’ll explore later.
The next task was to “tighten” the body lines, giving them a crisper profile with a premium fit and finish. This involved reprofiling the shut lines on the doors to allow everything to flow better with the primary surfaces.
The metalwork was fabricated by Randy Russell, Telly Violetto and Craig Ness who expertly created the engine bay, floors, rear seat delete and trunk interior.
Smith designed new door handles that subtly update the original parts. Machined from billet, they have carbon fiber inlays to echo the carbon mirrors, which were molded from the stock parts.
With all the custom parts, the Buick’s lighting and front grille are stock, but Smith couldn’t resist reimagining the Grand National badge, creating a modern interpretation.
With the bodywork complete, the car was painted in straight BASF black – no tints or effects. It’s offset by the nickel-plate finish on the 19” HRE 501 wheels, which were chosen for their resemblance to the original equipment but with a modern twist.
Sitting on a laser-cut and TIG-welded custom Salvaggio chassis frame, the team added a Detroit Speed & Engineering X-Gen 595 front suspension package. The bolt-in subframe increased rigidity for superior handling from the Ultimate Performance coilovers. The rear-end has a DSE four-link set up with Panhard bar.
With its powerful engine, Salvaggio returned to Brembo for the ultimate stopping power. Brembo GT six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers provided supercar braking. They also ensured massive mechanical grip thanks to the 265/30 R19 front and chunky 325/30 R19 rear Toyo Proxes R888R tires mounted on the 19x9” front and 19x11” rear HRE 501 wheels.
When it came to the heart of Dark Knight, the team sat down with Mario Abascal from Gearhead Fabrications to discuss the options. Inevitably, the Chevrolet LS V8 was a topic of heated conversation but Mario suggested the LF4 3.6L V6 Twin-turbo engine from the Cadillac ATS-V. “It was the obvious choice for what Buick might have installed if the Grand National GNX were around today!” he told us.
Having made the suggestion, it was Mario’s mission to see it through; no easy task given the complexity of the direct injection engine and eight-speed automatic transmission.
Undeterred, Gearhead sourced a running ATS-V drivetrain assembly. Strapped to a pallet, it included the V6 engine, trans, full wiring harness, control modules, dashboard and steering system. The team then invested 45 hours to isolate each individual wire and module to learn what could be disposed without affecting the functionality. As it turns out, they were able to discard about 60% of its bulk, filling numerous trash bags.
Installing the drivetrain required not only new mounts but the oil coolers, oil filters, turbo coolant system and more had to be relocated to clear the Salvaggio frame rails. The team also had to painstakingly extend 300 wiring connections to relocate the power control module (PCM) under the newly created carbon fiber engine covers.
As a homage to the factory GNX, Mario removed the twin-turbo setup, building a single-turbo kit around a 67mm Boost Labs BL67R ball-bearing turbo with billet wheel. It was mounted to a custom header once Salvaggio Design fabricated flanges to fit to the Cadillac’s integral manifold.
Abascal built a custom exhaust from Magnaflow sections for the unique engine swap. He also fabricated the plumbing, including pipes for the factory air-to-water intercooler, which mounted in its stock position on top of the engine.
The Cadillac engine's fuel supply is governed by a lobe on the factory cam. And by fitting a Comp Cams “fuel cam,” Abascal increased the fuel flow to feed the turbo. He then controlled engine boost, fuel, ignition and even the transmission shift points via an HP Tuners module.
Running at about 20psi boost pressure, the single-turbo Cadillac V6 was dyno-tested at 650hp on 103-octance fuel. The intention is to fit performance camshafts and reach a projected 700hp on race gas. This is a considerable increase over both the Grand National GNX at 276hp and even the ATS-V at 464hp.
“We’re so happy that everything functions as it should,” Mario told us. “The transmission shifts perfectly and even the proximity sensor in the car can detect the key fob, only allowing the engine to start if the key is nearby. It has full factory functionality and could even operate remote locking if required. We’re delighted with the engine choice,” he concluded.
To accommodate the new drivetrain and tidy the engine bay, the Salvaggio team fabricated a core support and radiator cover before creating a new firewall and installing carbon fiber inner fender wells. Carbon fiber engine covers completed the transformation once the plumbing was finished in Cerakote bronze to match the accents throughout the car.
The Dark Knight theme takes center stage inside thanks to the extraordinary work of Salvaggio Design, Sean Smith, and the talented family at Gabe’s Custom Interiors.
Picking up on the Caped Crusader’s costume, the seats and door panels were wrapped in a combination of dark blue and grey leather. The utility belt bronze tones are introduced through contrast stitching and pinstripe details. There are also bronze accents on the cooling vents and custom billet steering wheel. The one-off wheel was heavily influenced by the original part but has been beautifully updated.
The same can be said of the door trims, which were originally plastic but have been replaced by bronze billet pieces with carbon fiber inlays. A billet shift knob and shift boot bezel were also machined from solid, while the instrument panel was 3D printed and fitted with Holley gauges. Like everything else, it feels comfortably familiar with a modern twist.
Kevin Hart’s “Dark Knight” 1987 Buick Grand National T-Top by Salvaggio Design
LF4 3.6L V6 Twin-turbo from Cadillac ATS-V built and installed by Gearhead Fabrications, custom single-turbo kit with 67mm Boost Labs BL67R ball-bearing turbo with billet wheel mounted on custom manifold, custom Magnaflow exhaust and engine mounts, Cadillac air-to-water intercooler with custom plumbing, Comp Cams fuel camshaft, programmed HP Tuners software calibration, remote-mounted oil coolers, oil filters and turbo coolant system, relocated PCM, full Cadillac electronic integration to transmission, ignition system, etc. Custom engine bay with fabricated core support and radiator cover, smoothed and reshaped firewall, carbon fiber inner fender wells, carbon fiber engine covers and bronze Cerakote plumbing
650hp on 103-octance fuel
Cadillac eight-speed automatic, custom mount, 9” Tru Track 3.7:1 rear-end
Laser-cut and TIG-welded custom Salvaggio chassis frame, Detroit Speed & Engineering X-Gen 595 front suspension package, four-link rear suspension with Panhard bar, Ultimate Performance coilovers
Brembo GT six-piston calipers and 14” cross-drilled rotors front, four-piston and 13” rear
Wheels / Tires:
19x9” front, 19x11” rear HRE 501 wheels finished in nickel-plate, 265/30 R19 front and 325/30 R19 rear Toyo Proxes R888R tires
Salvaggio Design carbon fiber front bumper with functional air ducts, carbon fiber hood, chin spoiler, rear spoiler and mirrors by Brothers Composites, reprofiled body lines and door shut lines, custom engine bay, floors, rear seat delete and trunk, billet door handles with carbon fiber inlays, Sean Smith Grand National badges, car painted in BASF black
blue and grey leather upholstery by Gabe’s Custom Interiors with bronze stitching and pinstripes, bronze accents on cooling vents and Salvaggio billet steering wheel, 3D-printed dash with Holley gauge pack, Vintage Air system, bronze billet door trim with carbon fiber inlays, billet shift knob and shift boot bezel
Thanks / Sponsors:
The Plastic Cup Boys, Sean Smith Design, Brembo, Brothers Composites, Detroit Speed & Engineering, Gabe’s Custom Interiors, Gearhead Fabrications, HRE Wheels, Holley Performance, Magnaflow, Toyo Tires, Vintage Air