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Buick Motor Division's famous "tri-shield" emblem, basically three shields inside a circle, can be traced directly to the ancestral coat of arms of the automaker's Scottish founder -- David Dunbar Buick.

The value of the Buick logo was noted in the early 1990s in a study commissioned by a corporate identity firm, the Schechter Group. A study of the impact of corporate symbols, it found that consumers' opinions can be helped -- or even hurt -- by their logos. It further observed that "among car marketers, GM's Buick gained an astounding 53 percent in positive image with its tri-shield symbol."

Here is how the tri-shield was developed. In the mid 1930s, a General Motors Styling researcher, Ralph Pew, found a description of the ancestral arms of the Scottish Buick family -- then spelled Buik -- in an 1851 edition of Burke's Heraldry in the Detroit Public Library. (The reference was apparently dropped in later editions.)

The description, not accompanied by a picture, was interpreted as a red shield with a checkered silver and azure (light purplish blue) diagonal line running from the upper left corner to lower right, an antlered deer head with a jagged neckline in the upper right corner of the shield and a gold cross in the lower left corner. The cross had a hole in the center with the red of the shield showing through.

Buick Motor Division first used the Buick family crest as a decoration just above the radiator grille on its 1937 models, and it was a very close representation of the crest described in Burke's. The shield was "modernized" (made longer top to bottom and narrower in width) in 1939. It was modified again with classic heraldic symbols embellishing the top and bottom of the shield for 1942. That was a short model year because Buick stopped producing cars February 3, 1942, and then converted to World War II military production.

There were other changes through the years -- for example the crest was widened in 1949 -- to blend in the emblem with hood and grille styling. But the basic elements of the original crest were retained.

By 1960, the logo had undergone a major revision. In place of one shield, a tri-shield appeared, representing the three Buick models then being built -- LeSabre, Invicta and Electra (all introduced as 1959 models). Again, all of the original crest symbols and colors were retained, with the major difference being that instead of one shield, there were now the three overlapping shields in red, white (later silver gray) and blue.

In 1975 the Buick Hawk concept was initiated as part of the Skyhawk line. It was so well received that the symbol of a hawk perched on block letters of Buick was expanded to all car lines in 1976, though the tri-shield was retained as Buick's primary mark. The hawk soared to popularity and a red-tailed hawk named "Happy" was even trained to land on Buick hood ornaments in television ads. But by the late 1980s, management decided to re-emphasize the tri-shield, and so the hawk (and, not incidentally, the Buick Skyhawk car) was retired.

Today, the tri-shield is modernized with fewer details. The buck's head and cross are gone, the diagonal is no longer checkered. But the red shield and diagonal line survive, along with the silver gray and blue (used on the middle and right-hand shields, respectively) from the original description.

The Buick family crest, like the Buick nameplate, keeps alive the memory of David Dunbar Buick, who started a chain of events that gave birth to Buick Motor Co. and led to the creation of General Motors -- the world's largest automaker.

Early Buick Symbols

The first widely recognized use of the Buick name was a large brass cursive "Buick" that appeared on the mesh radiator grille of early models -- but there is some confusion about how early. Of the 729 Model C Buicks built in 1905, 13 still exist and most of them are restored with that Buick script up front. But the script does not appear in known 1905 vintage photos of those cars. The only visible nameplate on early 1905 Buicks (including the Model C owned by Buick) is "Buick Motor Company" in block letters on the front sill plates. A block-letter "Buick" appeared on running boards later in the year. The first known use of the script on the front of a Buick is on a 1906 car photographed that year. By 1908, the script was in wide use.

Even earlier, a design used in the only known Buick Manufacturing Co. literature (a 1902 or '03 catalog) and in the first Buick Motor Co. catalog (1904), depicted Uncle Sam walking astride a world globe and pulling a Buick engine on a wheeled cart. The globe carried the slogan, "Known all over the world," which was quite a boast at the time.

In 1905, the Buick catalog displayed a circular design with "Buick" in the middle and "The Car of Quality" in the border. (Buick continued that quality theme through the years, most recently when it began using the phrase, "The New Symbol for Quality in America," after LeSabre and other models won high ratings in independent customer surveys in the late 1980s and early '90s.)

In 1911, an odd-looking Buick logo appeared with a giant "B" with the "uick" inside it. About that time, the famous Buick slogan, "When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them," also was introduced. The slogan lasted for decades but the awkward logo was soon gone.

The Buick script framed inside (and overlapping) a rectangle dates to around 1913 and appeared on the faceplate of the standard Boyce motometer fitted to the top of the radiators of various Buicks prior to 1927. That popular logo showed up in grille designs well into the '30s. The script was also used inside a circle with "Authorized Service" in the border for dealerships and other service providers.

Other Buick icons included hood ornaments. Some collectors say the Buick hood ornaments of the late 1920s were among the finest produced by the Ternstedt company of Detroit. They ranged from a goddess in 1927 to a figure 8 with wings (representing 8-cylinder power) in the early 1930s.

Detailed Shield Description

For those with particular interest in heraldry, this is how the coat of arms of the ancient Scottish family of Buik (note spelling) was described in Burke's Heraldry published in 1851 (which did not offer a picture):

"Gu. A bend chequy, ar. and az. betw. a Buck's head erazed in chief, and a cross couped and pierced, or, in base."

In 1937, this is how Buick interpreted the above: "Gu" means gule (red), which is the color of the field. "A bend" refers to the diagonal bend from the upper left corner to the lower right. "Chequy" means checkered, referring to the design on the bend. "Ar." means argent (silver) and "az." means azure (blue), giving the colors of the checks on the bend. "Betw. a Buck's head erazed in chief, and a cross couped and pierced, or, in base" indicates the course of the bend between the buck's head in the upper right corner of the shield ("chief") and the cross in the lower left corner of the shield. The term "erazed" refers to the jagged, broken edge of the buck's neck. "Couped" refers to the smooth edges of the cross; and "pierced" to the round perforation of it, through which the red color of the field is shown.

Source: Buick Motor Division
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