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The Real Ghost in Buick's Past

July 1, 2003, by Bill Cawthon

A number of auto companies have been celebrating their centennials recently. Probably the most publicity has been focused on Ford Motor Company's one-hundredth birthday, but another company, arguably as crucial to the development of the modern American auto industry, also hit the century mark.

Buick turned one hundred on May 19, 2003. If my claim for Buick's importance surprises you, consider this: Buick was the company upon which the world's largest auto company, General Motors, was built. Buick gave GM founder Billy Durant the credibility and leverage to acquire Oakland (the predecessor of Pontiac) and the cash to buy Cadillac.

David Dunbar Buick. Illustration produced from a photo in the General Motors' archives. Copyright 2003 General Motors and Wieck Media Services.

Recent Buick ads have featured the ghost of GM stylist Harley Earl. But the real ghosts in Buick's past are far more interesting. They are also more tragic: both of the men most responsible for the creation of Buick died in poverty and obscurity. I wrote about Billy Durant a while back; this time, I want to introduce you to David Buick.

David Dunbar Buick was born at 26 Green Street in Arbroath, Scotland, on September 17, 1854. His father, Alexander Buick, was a joiner and brought his family to the United States when David was two years old. The Buicks settled in Detroit, Michigan, which was a busy lumber town at the time. David's father died three years later and his mother went to work for a candy butcher to support the family.

Buick was fifteen when he got a job with the Alexander Manufacturing Company, a plumbing fixture manufacturer. When the business failed in 1882, Buick and William Sherwood, an old friend from Buick's school days, took it over and renamed it Buick & Sherwood. Buick became president of the new enterprise.

Within a few years, Buick & Sherwood was prospering. Buick, an inveterate tinker, developed a number of improvements to the company's products, but his most lasting contribution to the plumbing industry was the invention of a method of bonding porcelain enamel to cast iron bathroom fixtures. This was a huge improvement and one that is still in use today.

Had Buick stayed with his plumbing company, it's quite possible he would have been a very wealthy man. But, like so many tinkers and inventors of the time, he was captivated by the new internal combustion engine and the automobile.

David Buick was temperamental by nature and had poor business skills. His newfound obsession with engines was the final straw for an already strained partnership. His old friend and partner finally laid down the law, telling Buick to either get on with their real business or get out of it. Buick chose the latter alternative and sold the company for $100,000, a large sum of money at that time.

The first Buick built in Flint. One assumes the coachwork would come later. Detail from a photo in the General Motors' archives. Copyright 2003 General Motors and Wieck Media Services.

Buick used his share of the proceeds to open the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899. The company was formed to manufacture gasoline engines for agricultural and stationary use, but it wasn't long before Buick became interested in building an automobile. Ahead lay the road to ruin for David Dunbar Buick.

Little is known about the first Buick car, including who actually built it. When he began Buick Auto-Vim and Power, Buick had hired a talented machinist named Walter Lorenzo Marr. Either Buick or Marr built the car, but there is no doubt about who owned it. Buick had already burned through his original investment and, strapped for cash, he sold the car to Marr for $225.

In 1902, Buick organized the Buick Manufacturing Company to make engines for other automakers and produce Buick automobiles. Buick and Marr developed the powerful and efficient "Valve-In-Head" engine for which the company became famous. By the end of the year, the company had produced one car and was again in dire financial straits. Buick produced great products, but the company always spent too much on development.

A 1905 Model C, one of the last Buicks produced while David Buick was with the company. A year later, he severed all ties with Buick Motor Company. Illustration from a photo in the General Motors' archives. Copyright 2003 General Motors and Wieck Media Services.

The following year, Buick borrowed $5,000 from Benjamin and Frank Briscoe, successful manufacturers and early auto industry promoters, and formed Buick Motor Company. This was the company that turned 100 a month and a half ago. The company was capitalized with a stock value of $100,000, of which Buick got $300. Since all Briscoe wanted was his money repaid, he made a deal with Buick offering him all the stock if he could repay the original loan within four months. If not, Buick would lose all his interest in the company.

There are differing accounts of what happened next. Some say David Buick sold the company to get the cash to repay Briscoe; others say that Briscoe arranged the deal, hoping to get his money back. In any event, Buick Motor Company was sold to James Whiting of the Flint Wagon Works in Flint, Michigan and everything was moved the 115 miles from Detroit to Flint. A year later, Buick managed to build a second car, but by then Whiting was also worried about his investment and was looking for a buyer.

In 1904, Buick managed to turn out 37 Model B automobiles. Whiting gave one to William Crapo Durant, a very successful businessman and owner of Durant-Dort, the country's largest carriage maker. While Durant had no interest in cars, he drove the Buick for a couple of months and discovered that it would climb hills and drive through mud better than any other car on the market. On November 1, 1904, Durant reorganized the company and became general manager of Buick.

Although David Buick was still president, Durant was now the driving force. Durant was a classic Type A personality and wanted to see volume sales of mass-produced vehicles. Buick, on the other hand, regarded every car as a work of art. The two clashed, but in the end, it was no contest. Durant had every investor on his side. In 1906, 52-year-old David Buick left the company he had created and moved his family back to Detroit. Two years later, he sold his stock in Buick to Durant for $100,000. This was one of Buick's worst business decisions. In 1921 Benjamin Briscoe said that if Buick would have held on to his stock, it would have already been worth $10 million. It's estimated Buick's stock would today be valued at well over $100 million.

Back in Detroit, David Buick's luck didn't change. A General Motors press release about the Buick centennial claims that he prospered for a number of years, but other sources tell of a series of bad investments that wiped out his settlement from Durant. He did make one more attempt to get into the auto industry after the First World War, hoping to manufacture a patented carburetor he had developed. He even designed another car and built a prototype in 1923. However, nothing ever came of these ventures and Buick faded from the automotive scene.

In the last years of his life, Buick held a series of low-paying jobs. At the end, he was an inspector at the Detroit School of Trades. Far from being able to afford one of the cars that bore his name, Buick was impoverished and couldn't even afford a telephone. But he was not bitter. In 1928, he was interviewed by Bruce Catton, a young newspaper reporter who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. In their talk, Buick was very candid about his life, expressing no regrets and holding no enmity towards Durant. Of course, by that time, in one of automotive history's great ironies, Durant had also been forced out of the company he had formed, though his ultimate downfall was still a couple of years in the future.

Even thought it's now highly stylized, the Buick family crest is still the symbol of the Buick line of cars. Illustration from materials in the General Motors' archives. Copyright 2003 General Motors and Wieck Media Services. Buick and the Buick logo are registered trademarks of General Motors Corporation.

Less than a year later, on March 5, 1929, David Dunbar Buick died of complications of colon cancer in Harper Hospital in Detroit. He was 74 years old.

In that same year, General Motors produced 196,104 Buicks, making it the sixth most-popular car line in the United States. Eight years later, General Motors adopted the Buick family crest as the logo for the car line.

The house in which David Buick was born is gone; torn down to make way for public housing. In 1994, General Motors placed a plaque on Green Street, commemorating the birthplace of Arbroath's most famous son. There has also been talk of renaming a nearby highway for Buick.

Next time you see the "ghost" of Harley Earl talking about designing you a great car, think about the real ghost behind the name, David Dunbar Buick, who believed each car was a work of art.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005