David Dunbar Buick founded the forerunner of the oldest surviving American car brand, the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899. Prior to that venture, Buick was a partner in a plumbing supply manufacturing business called Buick & Sherwood Manufacturing Company.
Over the 17 years he worked in plumbing, Buick was credited with a number of patents including a lawn sprinkler, bathtubs, and a method of affixing enamel to cast iron, which ultimately led to the porcelain bathroom fixtures we know today. Buick got interested in automobiles around 1895. Recognizing the potential for tremendous growth in this area, he sold Buick & Sherwood for $100,000 and got into the automotive business with his half of the money in 1899.
His gift for innovation followed him into this field as well; Buick is credited with inventing the overhead valve engine along with Walter Marr, a fellow engineer. They installed it in their first prototype car and worked to improve the engine, along with another engineer, Eugene C. Richard. The overhead valve design permitted air to flow into an engine more efficiently, which improved power output considerably.
Like so many early automotive entrepreneurs, Buick’s cash situation eventually got light and he had to find somebody to back him up. Buick garnered financial support from Ben and Frank Briscoe in 1902, but things got bumpy again pretty quickly. He had to go back to them again in 1903. This time, they created the Buick Motor Car Company and worked out a stock sharing deal—giving the Briscoes partial ownership of the company.
When the money ran out a third time, the Briscoes sold the company to James Whiting, who kept Buick on, primarily for his engineering expertise. By 1904, the engine was running strong and Buick put it in another prototype vehicle. This one proved to be reliable and Whiting was convinced to put it into production, 37 cars were produced. Also in 1904, Whiting hired William Durant to be general manager and director of Buick Motor Car, giving him full control of the operation.
Durant proceeded to marginalize Buick, and by 1908 had pretty much forced him out of the company. Meanwhile, he turned Buick Motor Car Company into the largest carmaker in America. With the profits, he set about acquiring other car companies and created General Motors. Initially, the concerns comprising General Motors were in competition with one another, but Durant shrewdly decreed each brand would serve a specific aspect of the marketplace and General Motors soon became the largest car company in the world. Buick Motor Company’s role in General Motors was cemented as the second tier luxury manufacturer—with Cadillac automobiles occupying the top spot. Buick cars were aimed at older, more affluent professionals who either didn’t make the income required to justify buying a Cadillac, or wanted to avoid the inherent ostentation of the wreath and crest brand.
That pecking order survives to this day.
After Buick Motor Company, David Buick went to California to try the oil business, then he went to Florida to try real estate, he also tried to start at least two other car companies, but nothing really worked out. Moving back to the Detroit area, he got a job as a trade school teacher in 1928, and died in 1929. According to his obituary, he was not bitter over his lost fortune nor was he envious of those who gained fame because of his contributions to the advancement of the automobile. Buick remarked to an interviewer in 1928, “Success consists in looking ahead and forgetting the past. I just got a few bad breaks. Anyway, money is useless, except to give one mental security.”
With its roots firmly in engineering, the Buick Motor Company routinely introduced innovations. the first fully enclosed Buick car was offered in 1911. In 1931, Buick debuted an overhead valve straight eight-cylinder engine with a synchromesh transmission. Buick automobiles also introduced flashing rear turn signals in 1939. In 1948, Buick vehicles introduced the first torque converter-type automatic transmission offered in U.S. passenger cars. Buick autos were also among the first to offer vehicles with power brakes, power steering, and 12-volt electrical systems.
A number of the styling elements of Buick cars have specific significance. The tri-shield Buick emblem (used to this day) is an adaptation of the coat of arms of Scotsman David Dunbar Buick’s family. The portholes, first seen on 1949 Buick vehicles, initially denoted the displacement of the straight eight engine in the car to which they were affixed. Today they reflect the number of cylinders in the car’s engine; V8 models have four ports on each side, V6 models have three.
Another iconic Buick styling cue through the years was the “Sweepspear”. This was a curved chrome-plated trim piece running down the side of the car. After passing the front wheel, the Sweepspear arced gracefully downward toward the rocker panel just ahead of the rear wheel. It then curved up and over that wheel, before terminating at the rear of the car. If you look closely at today’s Buick Lacrosse flagship, the Sweepspear is still evident.
A number of iconic Buick models have captured the imagination of the American motoring public. Buick’s luxurious Roadmaster, LeSabre, and Electra 225 highway cruisers come most immediately to mind. However, during the muscle car era, the performance-oriented Buick GSX also offered 360 horsepower and 510 ft-lbs of torque.
The Buick Regal Grand National, the ultimate iteration of which was offered in 1987, was well ahead of its time. Featuring a turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 (a strategy many manufacturers are employing to this day), the Grand National was rated at 276 horsepower (though everyone agrees that figure was understated) and 360 ft-lbs of torque.
During the recent reorganization of General Motors, one of Buick automobile’s saving graces is the popularity of the brand in China. Fully 35 percent of Buick’s worldwide sales are in that country, making it the largest market for Buick anywhere in the world. Today, the lineup of Buick automobiles lincludes luxury sedans, sports sedans, and crossover SUVs, as America’s oldest surviving carmaker tries to appeal to a younger audience of upwardly mobile professionals.