Buick Motor Division claims one of the most
important and dramatic chapters in the history of the
The division's founder, David Dunbar Buick, was
building gasoline engines by 1899, and his engineer,
Walter L. Marr, apparently built the first automobile
to be called a Buick in 1900. But Buick traditionally
dates its beginnings to 1903. That was the year the
company was incorporated, refinanced and moved from
Detroit to Flint, Mich. The first production Buicks
were built in Flint in 1904.
The division's history has been exciting from the
beginning. Buick recovered from near-bankruptcy in
1904 to stake a claim as the No. 1 producer of
automobiles in 1908 -- by some accounts surpassing the
combined production of Ford and Cadillac, its closest
Buick was the financial pillar on which General
Motors -- today the world's largest automaker -- was
Buick was where a number of major contributors to
U.S. auto history first headed an auto-building
company -- such as William C. Durant, GM's founder;
Charles W. Nash, a founder of what later became
American Motors; Walter P. Chrysler, founder of
Chrysler Corp.; and Harlow H. Curtice, a GM president
and chief executive in the postwar era. Louis
Chevrolet, co-founder with Durant of the Chevrolet
automobile, had earlier achieved fame as a Buick race
In 1940, Chris Sinsabaugh, who as a newspaperman
had covered the automobile industry from its
inception, reflected that "Buick was the first
real success of the automobile industry and did more
to promote the industry's well-being in terms of
public education, engineering advancement, and
manufacturing progress than perhaps any other
Yet in 1903, the Buick Motor Co., then
headquartered in Detroit, was one of the least
promising of the hundreds of tiny automobile companies
across the country.
Its founder had produced only two cars in three
years of trying. David Buick, though an inventor of
merit, generally was considered a dreamer. The company
was in debt, its engineer had just left, and the
firm's financial backer wanted to bail out.
David Buick, born in Arbroath, Scotland, Sept. 17,
1854, and brought to the United States at age 2, had
been a successful plumbing inventor and manufacturer
in Detroit when he turned his attention to gasoline
engines in the late 1890s. He started a succession of
companies: Buick Auto-Vim and Power Co. (1899), Buick
Manufacturing Co. (1901 or 1902) and Buick Motor Co.
(incorporated May 19, 1903), all in Detroit.
These companies produced some engines for power
boats and stationary farm use. And by 1901 a horseless
carriage, referred to in letters as "the Buick
Automobile," was in existence. David Buick tried
to sell it that year to his former engineer, Walter
Marr, for $300. Marr held out and got it for $225.
Marr had probably built the car for Buick.
Buick and his engineers argued often. Marr said he
worked for David Buick three times, and each time the
company had a different name. But between Buick, Marr
and another engineer, Eugene Richard, the Buick
company developed its sensational overhead valve
(later called "valve-in-head") engine. It
was light, powerful and reliable, and eventually the
entire industry would make use of the principle. But
in 1903, David Buick had neither the manpower nor
money to fully develop it.
That year, Buick's financial backer, Benjamin
Briscoe Jr., sold his interest in Buick to a group of
wagon makers in Flint, 60 miles north of Detroit.
Eighteen years later, Briscoe observed that Buick's
success story was "so fraught with romance that
it made Arabian Nights tales look commonplace."
On Sept. 11, 1903, James H. Whiting, manager of the
Flint Wagon Works, announced that the wagon works
directors had bought the Buick company and planned to
move it -- bag, baggage and David Buick -- from
Detroit to Flint. By December, a one-story brick
factory on W. Kearsley Street in Flint was building
engines. On Jan. 22, 1904, Buick Motor Co. of Detroit
was dissolved and on Jan. 30, 1904, Buick Motor Co. of
Flint was incorporated.
Flint, an old lumbering center, was already known
as "The Vehicle City" -- but not for
automobiles. It had been a center of horse-drawn
carriage production for several decades.
In June of 1904, the company built the first Flint
Buick. Walter Marr, back again as chief engineer, and
Thomas Buick, David's son, took it on a test run to
Detroit and back July 9-12. The test was so successful
that Whiting's group ordered production to start.
Buick began producing the Model B that summer and
built 37 cars by the end of 1904. When the company ran
into financial problems that fall, Whiting turned to
one of Flint's other carriage builders for help.
The man was William C. "Billy" Durant,
Flint's carriage "king." Grandson of a
Michigan governor, Durant had gotten into the vehicle
business almost on a whim. One evening in 1886, the
energetic young businessman saw an attractive
horse-drawn road cart on the streets of Flint. The
next night, he took a train to Coldwater, Mich., where
the cart was manufactured, and bought the rights to
build it. That year he started the Flint Road Cart Co.
By 1900, the firm, renamed the Durant-Dort Carriage
Co., was the largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles
in the country -- largely thanks to Durant's
Durant didn't particularly like automobiles -- he
was no different from most carriage men in that
opinion. But he was a strong supporter of Flint, and
he knew a "self-seller" when he saw one. The
Buick, he observed, drew plenty of attention because
it could climb hills and run through mud like no other
car he had ever seen.
If automobiles could be this good, he thought, then
maybe it was time to switch from the horse-and-buggy
business to automobiles.
Once Durant made that decision, Buick's success was
assured. No one could raise money, sell products and
plan big organizations like Billy Durant. He went to
the 1905 New York Auto Show and took orders for 1,000
Buicks before the company had built 40.
He moved Buick assembly briefly to Jackson, Mich.,
in 1905 (building more than 700 Model Cs there that
year) while he gathered money from Flint banks and
businessmen to erect what he called the largest
assembly facility in the country on Flint's north
side. He persuaded Charles Stewart Mott (later a GM
director for 60 years) to move his axle business from
Utica, N.Y., to Flint to build axles for Buick. He
promoted Buicks across the country, using Durant-Dort
carriage outlets and salespeople as the nucleus of a
giant distribution system.
He created a racing team -- with stars such as
Louis Chevrolet and Wild Bob Burman -- that won 500
trophies from 1908 to 1910.
The success of Buick engines was evident on the
race tracks (including 1909 successes at Indianapolis
Motor Speedway in its inaugural year -- two years
before the Indy 500 started), and in endurance tests
across the country and around the world. Buick was the
only car to complete a 1,000-mile Chicago-to-New York
relay race in 1906; a Buick was the first car to
travel across South America, driven from Buenos Aires,
Argentina, over the Andes to Santiago, Chile, in 1914.
Buicks won hill-climbs across the country -- including
one in 1904 with one of the first 40 Buicks ever
In 1908, Buick claimed to lead the country in
automobile production, with more than 8,000 cars
produced. Durant had made the transition from the
biggest producer of buggies to the biggest producer of
automobiles. And, on Buick's success, Durant created a
holding company that year. He called it General
Durant first engaged in merger talks with other
producers in the low-price field, including Henry Ford
and Ransom Olds (Olds had started Oldsmobile but at
that time headed REO).
Then, when those talks failed, Durant created GM as
a holding company Sept. 16, 1908, and quickly pulled
first Buick, then Oldsmobile, into the organization.
Then he added Cadillac and Oakland (forerunner of
Pontiac) and dozens of truck and supplier businesses
-- including AC Spark Plug, which he helped create
with Albert Champion (whose initials formed the
Durant became financially overextended as he pulled
more than 30 companies under the GM umbrella in
1908-10. He lost control of GM to a financial group in
1910. He and Louis Chevrolet developed the Chevrolet
company the following year, and Durant used Chevrolet
to regain control of GM in 1915-16. Ironically he
succeeded, as GM president, Charles W. Nash -- whom
Durant had hired into his carriage business and later
helped make president of Buick.
Nash had brought Walter Chrysler to Buick as works
manager. Durant retained Chrysler and made him Buick
president, though Chrysler later resigned in a dispute
with Durant. In 1920, Durant resigned as GM president
in a short depression during which he was again
overextended in the stock market.
According to Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who in 1923
became GM president, Buick's strong reputation and
financial position were major factors in pulling the
corporation through that period.
Buick's star climbed steadily during the roaring
twenties, with production reaching more than 260,000
units in 1926. The car's reliability was world famous.
In 1923, the famous writer-traveler Lowell Thomas used
a Buick in the first automotive expedition into
Afghanistan. Two years later, Buicks won trophies in a
series of Leningrad-to-Moscow endurance and
reliability runs -- beating more than 40 cars from
throughout the world.
Also in 1925, a Buick was taken around the world
without a driver -- to show the reliability of Buick's
and GM Export's service operations worldwide. The car,
driven by dealer representatives in the various
countries, went to England, the Netherlands, Belgium,
France, Egypt, by trans-desert convoy to Damascus,
Baghdad and Basra, through India and Ceylon, across
Australia and New Zealand, and then from San Francisco
to New York.
A Buick magazine of the '20s routinely reported
such events as a hill-climb victory in Africa, winning
a tug-of-war with an elephant, a trek through New
Zealand, and the Sultan of Johore with his Buick in
the Far East. In addition to U.S. production, Buicks
were built in Canada (a result of an early agreement
with the McLaughlin Carriage Co. family). And, in
those decades before World War II, Buick components
were shipped to such countries as Spain, Belgium,
England, Australia -- even Java -- where assembly was
completed. In 1929, Buick opened a sales office in
Being a maker of premium automobiles, Buick was
harder hit by the Great Depression than most of its
competitors. In 1933, production plummeted to a little
more than 40,000 units. But late that year, Harlow H.
Curtice, the 39-year-old president of AC Spark Plug,
was tapped by GM to bring Buick back to its former
A super salesman in the Durant mold, Curtice
brought power and speed back to Buick. In 1934, the
small Series 40 was launched. It gave exceptional
performance for its price of $865. Production that
year topped 78,000.
Next he issued a simple challenge to Harley Earl,
GM's design chief, who always drove Cadillacs.
Curtice's challenge: "Design me a Buick you would
like to own." The result was the 1936 line which
added Roadmaster and other successful names to the
Buick stable: Special, Super, Century, Limited. That
year production was close to 200,000. Buick, said a GM
executive, was "off relief."
In the late 1930s, GM's first "dream" car
was a Buick -- the famous Y-Job, developed by Earl. In
the years to follow, there would be other legendary
Buick concept cars with names such as LeSabre, XP-300,
Centurion, Wildcat, Lucerne, Bolero, Essence, Sceptre
Buick continued to break ground in styling and
engineering until it turned to World War II military
production in February, 1942. During World War I,
Buick had built Liberty aircraft engines and Red Cross
ambulances (the division today displays a letter of
thanks from Great Britain's then minister of
munitions, Winston Churchill, to Durant for war
production). In World War II Buick helped make Flint
an "arsenal of Democracy" by building
aircraft engines, Hellcat tank destroyers and other
Buick was awarded more than 30 separate military
contracts and Buick-built material could be found at
virtually every fighting front.
After the war, Buick expanded its facilities under
Curtice, who in late 1948 became a GM executive vice
president, a job that led to the GM presidency a few
years later. But despite the fact his responsibilities
now included all the car and truck divisions, he never
really left Buick or Flint. He maintained his home in
that city and never owned any other make of car but a
Curtice was succeeded by Ivan L. Wiles, his
comptroller at Buick. The postwar period was a great
era for Buick in styling, engineering and sales. Sales
rose rapidly, to 550,000 in 1950, to 745,000 in 1955.
The torque converter automatic transmission, Dynaflow,
was introduced on the 1948 Roadmaster; a
high-compression V-8 was introduced in 1953. Buick's
famous vertical-pillar "toothy" grille,
introduced in 1942, became more massive in the postwar
era. "Hardtop convertible" styling was
introduced on the 1949 Roadmaster, along with Buick's
These styling innovations are attributed to Buick
designer Ned Nickles. However, Edward T. Ragsdale,
Buick manufacturing manager and later general manager,
helped inspire the hardtop convertible styling.
Ragsdale noticed that his wife Sarah always ordered
convertibles, but never put the top down. She said she
liked the styling but didn't want to muss her hair.
The basic styling innovation was to eliminate the
center side pillar. Buick built 4,000 hardtop
convertibles in 1949, the first of hundreds of
thousands it would produce over the next few years.
But in the late 1950s, Buick went into another
tailspin because of a combination of unpopular
styling, product problems, and an economic recession
that helped make small cars popular. From a high of
nearly three-quarters of a million cars in 1955, sales
plunged to fewer than a quarter of a million units in
In '59, Buick changed the names of its entire
product line, discarding Special, Century, Limited and
Roadmaster in favor of LeSabre, Invicta and Electra.
Under a new general manager, Edward D. Rollert, who
emphasized quality, the Special name returned on a
compact car with an aluminum V-8 engine in 1961. The
following year, Buick offered the first U.S.
mass-produced V-6 in the Special, which was named
Motor Trend magazine's "Car of the Year."
Its upper-series cars were also new that year and
sales climbed to more than 450,000. In 1963, the
Riviera, today considered a modern classic, was
Buick sales continued to rise through the 1960s and
hit a record 821,165 in the 1973 model year. But the
bottom fell out again with the oil embargo late that
year, and sales totaled fewer than 500,000 in both
1974 and '75.
Buick rebounded. The division re-introduced the V-6
and continued to develop economical engines and
attractively designed cars that became ever lighter
and more innovative. And when the U.S. auto industry
as a whole was severely hurt by the high gasoline
prices of the early 1980s, Buick actually increased
its market penetration significantly. Among its most
heralded models during this period was the first
front-wheel drive Buick, the 1979 Riviera S Type with
turbocharged V-6 engine, named Motor Trend's "Car
of the Year."
Buick broke sales records in both 1983 and 1984 --
with more than one million Buicks sold worldwide in
'84 -- and had its second-best sales year in history
in 1985. Also in 1985, Buick-powered cars won the pole
position and the second spot in qualifying for the
Indianapolis 500 -- the first time since 1931 that an
American production-based engine had won the Indy 500
pole. Although those cars did not finish the race
itself, the qualifying success was a strong indication
that Buick's high-tech engines were highly competitive
on the race tracks of America. Buick engines powered
11 of the 33 cars in the 1990 Indy 500 -- more than
any other manufacturer -- and in 1992 won the pole
position again with a record-setting performance. That
year, 12 Buick-powered cars qualified and one of them,
driven by Al Unser Sr., finished third.
Buick's 1986 and 1987 Regal Grand National, and a
limited-edition 1987 GNX, were widely acclaimed as the
quickest American-built cars. They were powered by
intercooled and turbocharged versions of the 3.8-liter
One featured car for '86 was the front-wheel-drive
LeSabre, built at "Buick City" in Flint.
Buick City, an innovative project strongly backed by
then-General Manager Lloyd E. Reuss, as well as UAW
Local 599, was built inside walls of old buildings in
Buick's former Flint complex which formed the
cornerstone of General Motors.
In 1989, Buick City was No. 1 in North America and
No. 2 in the world in quality rankings by J.D. Power
and Associates, an independent market research firm.
That year, LeSabre was ranked as No. 1 in North
America and No. 2 in the world among 154 domestic and
imported models in J. D. Power's & Associates
Initial Quality Survey. It was the first in a long
list of Buick successes in various independent
The division promoted its success by advertising
Buick as "the new symbol for quality in
Defining Buick's future direction, Edward H. Mertz,
who became general manager in 1986, said Buick would
provide automobiles with qualities that made them
famous -- "premium American motorcars" that
would be substantial, distinctive and powerful. Buick
would emphasize its position of providing upscale cars
with smooth power and distinctive styling along with
rich detail and comfortable accommodation.
In the 1991 model year, Buick led all automakers,
domestic and import, in market share improvement and
sales volume improvement in the U.S. market. Mertz
retired in early 1997 after more than 10 years of
service as general manager. He was succeeded by Robert
E. Coletta, Buick general sales and service manager,
who had served at GM for more than 41 years -- all at
In 1997, Buick LeSabres were the primary vehicles
used in a consortium's federal demonstration of
"hands-free" travel on an automated highway
-- express lanes of Interstate 15 near San Diego. Also
that year, construction began in Shanghai, China, on a
plant owned by a GM/China joint venture to build up to
100,000 midsize Buicks a year for Asian markets.
One reason the Chinese wanted Buick was because of
its reputation in China dating to the 1920s and '30s.
In those decades, Buick was internationally famous for
power, durability and style. With the decision to
build Buicks in Shanghai, a new chapter in the brand's
international heritage was about to be written.
Source: Buick Motor Division
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