The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road

The Buick Origin Story.

Image: GM/ Wieck Media Services

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.

Image: Macsmotorcitygarage.com

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?

Image: Macsmotorcitygarage.com

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. 

“Gee Dolland, this is one swell place. Sure is, Madge but sit properly in the car or I’ll push you in the water.” Image: Macsmotorcitygarage.com

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. 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

22 thoughts on “The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. That’s a great insight in a largely forgotten name in automotive history. I was aware of the connection with the plumbing industry and William Durant, but nothing more.

    I’ve been on the lookout for that Regal coupe that I spotted the other day, but alas no luck so far. Here are a few photos of one of my favourite Buicks. This one is heavily modified though. The straight eight has been replaced with a GM crate engine for instance.

    1. I got lucky today as I spotted the Regal again. It’ a ’92 Regal Gran Sport. It certainly has seen better days.

    2. The Regal looks good from the front, I think . Buicks from thenabouts looked rather charming. Can we call Buick a US version of Rover? There´s another middle-market brand that like Saab and Lancia foundered in the polarised world of branding.

    3. Nostalgia strikes again – in my first year at Grammar School (1958) I was amazed to find that one of my teachers, Mr Gray, ran a Buick; a late-’40s Roadmaster, LHD, appropriately grey in colour, which he never washed or polished. I very much doubt that the Headmaster (1952 Morris Oxford) approved and Mr Gray and the Buick soon moved on, never to be seen again. But that car had a certain presence sorely lacking in its American contemporaries. Thanks, Andrew, for the reminder.

  2. Good morning Andrew. An interesting history, well told, thank you. I hadn’t realised that Buick’s relationship with the car company that carried his name was so fleeting.

    It is sad that the US Buick range is pared back to just three crossovers. I wonder if traditional Buick customers have migrated from their sedans to these, or defected to another marque?

  3. Nice story. I have a lot of time for Buick. I drove a 1984 Century when I lived in the US. It served me very well with its V6 (the biggest engined car I have ever run) and spacious boot and interior. I had plans to be a car designer with the intention of working at GM so my MA Automotive final project was a Buick Riviera. I packaged it around the Opel Omega and it ended up just huge. The hardest parts were the wheel arches which were stupidly flared. I could really have done with more tuition on that point. The model I made, 1:4, is stored in a loft over a garage in Essex – or that was where I hid it when I departed from the Sceptred Isles in 2004. Buick is a bit like Lancia in that it´s not really well-understood, being a car for people who don´t want to show off too much. Such pulled-punches are not fashionable: every marque seems to be the fullest expression of one simple idea. Buick and Lancia are synthetic and reserved and such ideas don´t have ready appeal. In m my dream garage there´s room for an Electra Park Avenue, a Park Avenue and two Riviera: the 1963 and the face-lifted penultimate model which Bill Porter did – it´s a lovely machine inside and out and not too huge either. One time, about a decade ago, one parked in my ´hood and I still imagine I will see it again in the same place. Goodness knows where it is; it must be the only one in Denmark.

    1. Richard, I never would have guessed…

      So difficult to find photos of these without fake wire wheel covers and “landau”half vinyl roof trim.

    2. Gooddog: that´s the one. I like them best in dark blue or black. Motor Trend (or one of its type) liked this version of the Riviera, seeing at a car from GM that people would like to buy and not one that must be sold.

  4. Thank you for the story of Mr. Buick, Andrew. Until about ten to fifteen years ago, the Buick was the quintessential car of Mr. and Mrs. America, perhaps only challenged by the Ford F-150. Nowadays the picture is not so clear, alas.
    Also worthy of note is that a few people that made a name for themselves later on worked at Buick first: Louis Chevrolet was one of the drivers of the Buick racing team, and both Charles Nash and Walter P. Chrysler were at the helm of Buick before they established their own car companies.

    1. If you ask me, Buick stopped being a quintessentially American car around about the late 80s. For most of that decade the brand sailed on on the back of its large clientèle but this shrank as they aged and died and as GM successively failed to offer contemporary interpretations of the brand. The GM brand hierarchy was not devised for a world of German and Japanese competitors and local competition from the move to trucks and away from saloons. Further, GM muddied its own water by offering Buicks in sectors the brand did not belong and they did this to keep dealers happy. There really only needs to be three Buicks: a medium-sized one, a large one and a specialty product. They also needed their own factory and their own engines (or modified ones form the GM parts bin). The other problem was that it became harder and harder to make Cadillac special enough to maintain the Buick-Cadillac distance. I think I could have defined two niches for both brands without artificially handicapping either but this was beyond GM USA´s often moronic management.

  5. Another very enjoyable read Andrew, thank you. I’m sat in the grounds of Harewood House, with ABBA songs ringing out in the distance as the Mamma Mia stage show is performing in the grounds. A very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

  6. My antennae are not particularly well tuned to the nuances of the US market, in relation to Buick’s position and success, but I had look at some sales numbers:

    Brand Buick is managing 2-3 White Hens in the USA, but in China sales are around half US Chevrolet numbers.

    Perish the thought, but if it wasn’t for the enduring Chinese success, would the Arbroath bath-enameler’s nameplate have gone the way of Oldsmobile and Pontiac ten years ago?

    1. Buick dealerships are paired with GMC. GMC sold 564,946 vehicles in the US in 2019 compared with 413,881 in 2012 (carsalesbase.com)

      I can’t answer your question Robertas, but I’ve noticed that GMCs resemble loaves of American white bread, whereas Buicks look a bit more like scones. Both smell like off-gassing plastics. I hope this information was helpful.

    2. gooddog – The USA is a land of mystery to me, but it seems baffling that Buick and GMC are paired in the GM dealership network. I’m aware that GMC suvs are distinctly upmarket in their pricing, and the Denali versions far more so, but to a European it’s like VAG pairing Audi with the VW Nutzfahrzeuge, or Stellantis re-launching Lancia through the Fiat Professional dealerships.

    3. Robertas, GMCs light trucks (pickups and vans, all badge engineered Chevrolets) were formerly sold at Pontiac dealerships. It was pretty much the same business model they used for Chevrolet. Medium and heavy duty trucks for both brands have always been sold in stand-alone dealerships.

  7. Before we leave this story, there remains a missing chapter.

    It starts with a lone eagle:

    And ends with a certain Icarus-like black raptor:

    I wrote a long-winded screed touching upon:

    – The very Buick turbocharged 90° V6 which powered the entire genus of these beasts.
    – The black raptor which ate Corvettes for breakfast – and its own transmission for lunch
    – Internecine jealousy (it’s GM after all) and moronic management (ditto).
    – The original 100mph Century.
    – Sun Yat Sen and Zhou Enlai (both long deceased).
    – The real similarity with Saab (hint above, it begins with a “T”).

    As my writing skills often resemble a dropped plate of spaghetti, I couldn’t quite get it together. However, I feel strongly that this chapter needs expounding upon, the story seems glaringly incomplete without it. Would that an appropriate author could coalesce some thoughts on the turbo V6 era for us.

    1. This is one of the Irv Rybicki cars. It doesn´t say Buick to me. It says “generic car used in the background of a commercial where they can´t use real cars”. This phase didn´t end until the second half of the 1980s when the brands gained a bit more personality. Even still, some of them were quite interchangeable (thanks to the literally interchangeable front- and rear-clips or nose cones). I am aware the T-Type was quite a monster car yet nothing of it was all that Buick-y. Any of the A-body (?) cars could have done the same thing if amended the same way as the Buick. Buick is for me plush and comfy but not as ostentatious as a Cadillac.

    2. gooddog: Patience will (in this instance) bring its own reward. Mr Miles has not finished with Buick just yet.

    3. Richard, I keep pondering what they could have done to attract younger buyers in the 1980s and beyond. The Reatta was a design-driven attempt bearing traditional Buick attributes. It did not resonate with buyers.

      Chevrolet reportedly nuked plans to make the similarly themed and even more lovely 2016 Avista concept (based on the current Camaro), but I don’t know if it ever had a business case.

      Instead, there was a Buick Cascada (and even a Holden Cascada) ummm… GM is lost.

    4. gooddog: Once more you have anticipated the estimable Mr. Miles, who has a Reatta profile brewing as we speak. More Buick goodness soon…

  8. A great article Andrew and very well put together. Sitting in my study listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis playing Carnage…

  9. Yes – nicely told, thank you, Andrew. I’m always a bit hazy (forgetful) on the difference between GM’s US brands, so this was useful.

    I found a transcript of the 1928 interview. It’s a bit a sad, of course, and Buick had clearly had to work hard for everything he eventually lost. His former friends in the industry don’t appear to have been too generous, either. Still, as the sign in his office said, ‘No trials, no triumphs’.

    http://gmtegirl.blogspot.com/2016/02/david-dunbar-buick.html

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