The Buick Origin Story.
David Dunbar Buick was but two years old when the family emigrated from Arbroath, Scotland for a new life in Detroit, 1856. Upon leaving school he worked for and then later owned a plumbing goods company (The Alexander Manufacturing Company). With an inventive mind, David produced a lawn sprinkler alongside a vitreous enamel coating for cast iron baths. By the 1890’s, the internal combustion engine held more interest than ablutions – the company was sold.
Afforded both time and financial independence, Buick indulged. Incorporating the Buick Auto-Vim & Power Company in 1899, his market was agricultural engines. Very soon the automobile enveloped his life and swiftly draining his finances with just a single car made in 1902 under the new name, Buick Manufacturing Company. Ploughing what little cash he retained into developing an OHV engine, a loan of $5,000 was had from close friend Ben Briscoe in order to make the Buick Motor Company.
Briscoe had doubts concerning Buick’s acumen; on hearing of a new automobile project in Flint, over a hundred miles from Detroit, he persuaded Buick to move his fledgling business there with the Scot president. The Flint general manager was a chap with bigger ideas than Buick could dream of; William Durant saw his opportunity to build more cars cheaper.
Buick was an idealist and craftsman; to him every car he made was unique with a total of just fifty cars made in twenty four months. Durant, forcibly keen to expand production offered Buick a severance package – one solitary share of the company that bore his name. And for that single share Durant paid Buick $100,000.
Financially secure again in 1906, Buick and his family returned to Detroit severing all ties with the suddenly expanding automobile industry – for a while. Garnering a reputation for backing the wrong horse, Buick made unsuccessful investments in both land and oil companies. But with the coffers almost empty, he attempted two final flings in the car game with Lorraine Motors in 1921 and a company producing carburettors, both vainglorious. Practically broke, Buick worked in the Detroit School of Trades as an Inspector until the day he died in 1929. Interviewed the year before he expressed no regrets and had no enmity toward Durant.
As to the newly empowered car company bearing his name along with coat of arms, things progressed rather well. Under Durant and the investors, by 1923 Buick had made and sold a million cars, at one point surpassing Ford and Oldsmobile.
Marketed and perceived as a Premium brand since the 1920s, Buick, now sheltering under the increasingly large GM umbrella, their demographic was placed just under that of Cadillac but well above GM’s own more prosaic wares. Presenting a sober, more conservative face to Cadillac’s flash and more outré Oldsmobile, a Buick’s proportions engendered a sense of longevity and reliability, while ensconced in luxury.
While most American manufacturers cleaved to the V8 as the darling of engines, Buick (a name that could never be shortened) kept faith with more economical straight sixes and eights until the mid-1950s.
Returning to Dunbar’s ancestral badge; a single shield incorporated his coat of arms on radiator fronts from 1937-60. Then undergoing an overhaul to its triple shield, the red, white and blue denoted the LeSabre, Invicta and Electra models.
For the decade that sired yours truly (1970s), Buick’s suddenly were represented by a hawk motif whereas by the decade that taste forgot (1980s) the tri-shield returned but in a simplified manner. Variants could have their shield à la Mercedes gunsight at the bonnet’s leading edge whereas today’s Buicks wear dinner plate sized badges centre grille but at least maintain the shields.
Another unique to Buick design trope being the delightfully named Cruiserline Ventiports from 1949. Stylist Ned Nickles played a large role in their origin altering his personal 1948 Roadster adorned with four port holes on the cars flanks. Dependant on story, Nickles fitted minute lamps in each port which flashed in accordance with engine firing. Or maybe they actually were flaming exhaust ports, akin to machine gun muzzle flashes, aping aerial wartime fighters?
Regardless, manufacturing boss Ed T. Ragsdale found them ridiculous, a gimmick ruining the cars looks. However, general manager Harlow Curtice loved them, praising Nickles’ ports, forwarding their use (minus the flames) with subtle changes over the years. The RM of 1949 being the flagship had four CVs, the marginally lesser Super and Specials making do with three.
As Buicks evolved the portholes received tweaks until 1958 where for a twelve month period, they were discontinued. Returning for MY1960, more stylised versions would sit atop fenders – often elongated, chromed or both.
But how the world changed. GM have long cast their gaze eastward with Buick selling extremely well in China (and to a lesser extent, Israel) since before the Second World War. The name is held in such high regard that some twenty three models are available sporting monikers including; Willan, Hideo, Lacrosse Aivia, Excelle, Hero, Read Long, Regal, Angke Banner Aivia, to name but nine. Remember that many are other GM products inveigled for tastes more oriental. Some arrive even with portholes but their presence appears haphazard in not only size and shape but lack of consistency with models.
Overall they shift a million units per year in the world’s most populous region. Throw in Mexico and Canada to bolster sales figures leaving the U.S. nary a shadow of its former glories. The Scottish brand “at home” purveys nothing but SUV’s and all without portholes. The elegant, all American made Buick sedan is now history.
Personally believing Dunbar would be proud of his products, even though they contain not a solitary dollars worth of the uniqueness that his original hand built models were, his name lives on. Has the brand been diluted by such far flung sales? It would appear not. In this global economy, it’s a comfort knowing at least one old fashioned name is supporting proceedings, even if sadly, the man himself has been largely, until now, forgotten.