The history of Buick predates the birth of the automobile and continues to the present day. Their origins lie with the carriage and wagon makers and laid the foundations of the largest automotive giant, General Motors.
Buick's story chronicles the growth of the American car industry and many of it's individual giants and major personalities and points the way to the future of the American car industry.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America had over a thousand car companies, all vying for the public's attention and money. It was a time of experiment and growth, similar to the technology boom at the end of the 20th century and like most business booms, most of the small companies went bust fairly quickly.
Buick was founded by an ex-pat Scotsman named David Dunbar Buick who was an engineer down to his fingertips and another engineer, Walter Marr. Together they built their first prototype car which was enough to get them a US$3500 loan from a group of wagon makers which was enough to pay for their second attempt.
By September 1903 the new investors had moved the Buick Motor Car Company from Detroit to Flint, Michigan. This was the dawn of the motor car industry and the manufacturers of the time turned to motor racing to prove their products were fast, reliable and a viable alternative to the more traditional four-legged transport of the time.
In 1904, Buick and Marr designed their next attempt which would be the first motor car to be built at their new works in Flint Michigan. Marr and Buick's son took the car for it's first test when they drove it to Detroit and back. The round trip took a full 3 days.
At this time, the investors felt Buick was doing too much research and development and not enough building and marketing and subsequently put local businessman and carriage builder Billy Durant in charge of the company. Durant was a hard-nosed businessman saw motor cars as the future.
In 1905 Durant took some of the Buick cars to the New York Auto Show and managed to take more than 1000 orders. At the time, the company had built less than 40. Durant used the massive number of orders to convince his local bank to lend sufficient money to build a new and greatly enlarged factory. He then used his already established dealer network for his carriages to sell the new motor cars and in that same year, the factory managed to produce slightly over 700 cars.
In 1906, the company were building 2 models and produced almost 1300 cars and a year later that had gone to 6 models and 4600 cars.
Their biggest competition was Henry Ford who introduced his now famous Model T in 1908 and it was this car that truly put America on wheels.
As a challenge to Ford's Model T, Buick introduced the Model 10 in 1908 and in that year the Buick Motor Car Company produced almost 9000 cars which not only made Buick the number 1 motor car manufacturer that year but also outsold Ford and Cadillac combined!
In this same year, Durant signed up race car drivers Louis Chevrolet and Wild Bob Hermann and created his own racing team and promptly began winning almost every race they entered. Their race cars were dubbed the Buick 60 specials or Buick Bugs and these cars were capable of a phenomenal 105 mph. Their racing success brought Buick a further leap in sales.
Soon after this, Durant tried to buy Ford out but was unable to come up with the necessary US$8M asking price. However, he did manage to buy out Oldsmobile and he bought the two companies together under the joint name of General Motors and soon after added both Cadillac and Oakland which he later rechristened Pontiac to the GM collection.
All these takeovers meant Durant was constantly having to borrow money and he eventually bit off more than he could chew and he found himself in the hole to the tune of US$14M. At this point, the bankers moved in, took majority control of General Motors and replaced Durant with Charles Nash as President, who in turn recruited Walter P Chrysler as his right hand man.
Durant withdrew but he wasn't finished with the motor car industry and promptly formed Chevrolet Motors in 1911 and he set up shop in his old Flint, Michigan wagon works. As soon as he could, he started to acquire as much GM stock at every opportunity he could.
Billy Durant then met Johnny Bascock who was key advisor to Pierre Du Pont (who was one of the wealthiest men in the world) and ever the wheeler-dealer, suggested Du Pont begin to acquire as much Chevrolet and GM stock as possible and by 1916, their combined holdings were large enough for Durant to wrest control of GM and the bankers were out on their ear.
In 1917 the USA was embroiled in WWI and Durant tasked Chrysler with the task of aiding America's war efforts and the Buick factory replaced car production with aircraft engines, tanks and ambulances.
By the end of the war, Du Pont had made a fortune from gunpowder production and some of this money was invested in further General Motors stock.
Soon afterwards, came the depression and sales fell dramatically as did the company stock. Durant stepped in and started buying at marginal prices. Unfortunately he overextended himself dramatically and when the banks demanded the US$27M owed, Durant was unable to pay. At this point, Pierre Du Pont stepped in and bought Durant's entire GM stock for US$35M. Durant was rescued from bankruptcy but was again, out of General Motors.
Du Pont appointed Alfred P Sloane as President of Buick and the entire General Motors operation and through various holdings, Du Pont became the primary supplier to the conglomeration. The company prospered until the great depression began on what became known as Black Friday, October 29th 1929. Buick, GM and other car manufacturers could only wait and watch as their sales collapsed completely.
Sloane had to do something and his answer was to recruit Harlow 'Red' Curtis of AC Spark Plugs fame. Curtis was a great salesman and character and his first orders were to the design department to design him a car, he would want to own. The team set to work with vengeance and came up with a range of cars that have now all become highly desireable classic cars. Buick was back on track..... at least, they were until December 1936 when the famous Flint sit down strike began and production screeched to a halt.
GM tried to introduce strike breakers but the workers stood firm and the situation became ugly. Eventually US President Franklin D Roosevelt stepped in and forced both sides to begin negotiations. Finally, an agreement was reached, production began again and before long, sales figures and profits were rising.
By 1940 Curtis celebrated breaking the 1928 sales record when over 250,000 Buicks left the showrooms. The most famous Buick of the time was the custom-built Y-Job which was elegance personified and with it's sleek low aerodynamic body shape and electric windows was one of the best Buick sales tools of the time.
Then on December 7th 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States on America was embroiled in WWII. Motor car production stopped and the factories switched to tanks, planes, guns and bombs.
Finally the war ended and the economy recovered and everyone wanted a piece of the new post war lifestyle. Sales soared as stunning new models such as the Buick Roadmaster were unveiled and by the mid 1950s, Buick were selling more than half a million cars a year.
Buick were selling more than cars. They were selling life style that stirred America's imagination. Big cars, big engines and big wings were in vogue and GM took full advantage by launching their now famed touring Motoramas that toured the country to show off the GM dream car range and it succeed in spades. Sales and production levels went through the roof. It was in this era that Buick first introduced their signature 'porthole' models. In 1955 sales figures rose to 745000 and Buick became the 3rd largest car manufacturer in the world.
By the end of the 1950s a change in design and style was expected and GM responded with a lighter, slimmer and ever so slightly more discreet look was introduced. Model names also changed and the Super, Century and Roadmaster were out and the Invicta, La Sabre and Electra were introduced these were followed in 1963 with the fastback Buick Riviera.
Buick sales figures peaked at just over 821,000 in 1973 but then came the OPEC fuel crisis that same year. Fuel prices soared and sales of the Buick gas-guzzling luxury cars collapsed. Suddenly customer interest was focused on the smaller, lighter imported Japanese cars and customers soon realised that not only were these cars better on fuel they also had far better reliability and build quality than their American cousins.
Buick along with the rest of the American car industry realised that if they were to survive, they had to address issues such as fuel economy, safety, quality, reliability and durability. They also had to change their dealer network attitudes to customers in general and women in particular.
It was a time of tremendous change and Buick struggled to come to terms with the market's new demands yet continue as one of the builders of premium American motor cars. They built new factories and launched new, more suitable models such as the 2 seater Riata and a lighter, more economical Roadmaster model. Times were hard and they started to produce concept cars with the aid of young celebrities such as Tiger Woods to lure the younger market into their showrooms.
It took a while for Buick to re-invent itself, but they did it and as they approached their centennial, the company had new models in the pipeline and as the new century dawned, they were ready for the new challenges it would bring.
Buick celebrated it's centennial in 2003 and hosted a huge public party in Flint, Michigan. The event attracted hundreds of classic Buick motor cars and thousands of people from miles around filled the park close to where the original Buick company got it's start in 1903.
The cars exhibited dated from the very first models to roll out of the factory, through the elegant dream cars of the late forties and fifties, onto the overstatement, big wings and gas-guzzling engines of the sixties and all the way up to the current models. It was an absolute feast of delight for any classic car fan.
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