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The History of Buick
(A General Motors Story) Buick has been one of the great names
in American automobiles for virtually all of the 20th century its model names
like century Roadmaster and Riviera evoke fond memories but its founder
David Buick and several of his successors have had to hang on tight as
Buicks fortunes rode the unpredictable roller coaster of world events it’s been
quite a ride for Buick early in the 20th century more than a
thousand automobile companies emerged most were little more than daydreams and
quickly failed a few prospered for several years some for decades but only
a handful still exist Buick one of the lucky survivors was
founded by an inventive Scotsman David Dunbar Buick born in a small industrial
town in 1854 David Buick emigrated with his family to the United States two
years later he became a successful plumbing inventor and manufacturer in
Detroit but his real passion wasn’t porcelain it was engines he said you
can’t drive a bathtub into town in the mid 1890s he turned his attention to
building gasoline engines he started a succession of companies that initially
produced engines for farm machinery Buick was a Commodore in the Detroit
Yacht Club and helped to transform their sailboats into motor boats with his
engines around 1900 one of Buicks employees Walter Marr built the first
Buick automobile in the barn behind David Buicks Detroit House Buick and
Marv were a lot alike both were about 5 foot 4 and had hot tempers they often
argued with each other when they split up for a brief period in
1901 Buick tried to sell their first car tomorrow he wanted $300 but Marr held
out and finally got it for $225 but Morrow was back soon he would work for
David Buick three times Buick and Mar then raised the money to
build a second car the car had problems and their investor wanted to unload the
company and get his $3,500 investment back horsepower was still the norm and
most people were wary of making a speculative investment in automobile
manufacturing but enough automobiles were appearing on major city streets by
1903 but some were willing to take the financial plunge by that summer Buick
found a group of wagon makers in Flint Michigan who would take the risk and buy
his company by then Flint was a prosperous city of 14,000 people located
on the edge of the Great Michigan pine forests the money from lumbering had
fueled several local enterprises the most successful wagon and carriage
building would ironically provide the financial basis for their competition
the automobile by the turn of the century several of
the wagon makers had determined that a faux horseless carriage was going to be
a threat to their business they’d better get aboard by September of 1903 the new
investors have moved the Buick company bag baggage and David Buick from Detroit
to Flint the Buick Motor Car Company was born it was the right time to enter the
auto business through endurance demonstrations such as the glutton tour
the public was becoming convinced that cars could take the punishment of the
road people began to believe that automobiles were durable and practical
forms of transportation auto racing was also becoming a popular
form of amusement thousands of people would flock to weekend races such as the
one held by the Vanderbilts on Long Island to see the Daredevils compete the
racing fans left the track excited about the future of the automobile in the
spring of 1904 David Buick desperately wanted to cash in on this enthusiasm he
enticed Walter Marr to rejoin him and help him build the first Flint Buick
automobile mara and David son took the car
basically a running chassis on a test run to Detroit and back
they started July 9th 1904 and returned three days later about a three hour
round trip today the new investors soon learned that
developing an automobile company was more expensive than they’d realize the
company ran into financial problems in the fall of 1904 they turned to Billy
Durant one of Flint’s other carriage builders for help
Durant was a legend in Flint he seemed to have the ability to produce almost
magical business success although not a flint native his roots were there Durant
the grandson of a flint lumber baron land michigan governor was born in
Boston on December 8 1861 he moved to a fine house in Flint with his mother
Rebecca Durant a decade later when his mother and father separated he was a
restless child who dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather’s
lumber mill he quickly decided he didn’t like hard labor but the slightly built
young man had a knack for selling in business he successfully sold patent
medicine cigars insurance and real estate in 1886 he got into the vehicle
business almost on a whim one evening in September he saw an attractive
horse-drawn road cart on the streets of Flint the next night he took the train
to Coldwater Michigan where the cart was manufactured and bought the rights to
build it along with its patented spring suspension he borrowed $2,000 and started the
blue-ribbon carriage company with a partner and close friend J Dallas dort
by 1900 they were the largest producers of horse-drawn vehicles in the country Durant was a promoter and a super
salesman he talked softly had a dazzling smile and as walter Chrysler later said
he could charm a bird right down out of a tree Durant and ork became
millionaires durant succeeded by buying and combining
component companies and placing them under the durant dort empire durant
bought wheel axle varnish paint and carriage top companies and move them to
flint but in the early 1900’s durant became bored and left flint for new york
city he played the stock market and looked for new challenges but he
couldn’t entirely escape from Flint in 1904 the Restless Durant was approached
by old friends and asked to come home and rescue financially strapped Buick it
would be a tough decision to make by 1904 the automobile was making its
mark in American cities while Durant didn’t particularly like automobiles an
opinion shared by most carriage builders he recognized their growing popularity
he agreed to return to Flint to have a look at Buick in Flint
Durant took a Buick out for a spin the Buick climbed hills and ran through mud
like nothing else he’d ever seen if automobiles could be this good he
decided it was time to get out of the carriage business durant agreed to take overview we can
turn the experiment into a viable company no one else could raise money
sell products and plan big organizations like Billy Durant Buick success seemed
to be assured on November 3rd 1904 two days after
taking over he hauled out every Buick that had been built and staged a parade
in downtown Flint complete with a brass band and Tooting bugles even though he
didn’t have a booth Durant went to the New York Auto Show in January of 1905 he
took orders for more than 1,000 Buicks the company hadn’t even built 40 with
these orders in hand he raised enough money from Flint’s banks and business
people to build the country’s largest assembly facility the new plant launched
a migration to Flint but there wasn’t enough local housing for all the new
workers and a shanty town developed eventually Buick would have to build
houses for its growing workforce using Durant dort carriage outlets and
salespeople as the nucleus of a giant distribution system
Durant began to promote Buicks across the country
his efforts paid off Buick production grew rapidly his new Buick factory
produced over 750 cars in 1905 by 1906 Buick had two models and was
building almost 1300 cars a year one year later there were six models and
output had increased to 4,600 cars in 1908 Henry Ford introduced his famous
Model T just as America really started to accept the automobile the fledgling
car industry was clearly on its way and the race was on to be number one buick also produced a significant new
model that year it was the cute and popular model 10 buick produced 4000
model 10 runabouts in 1908 and 4820 other cars this made buick the number
one producer of automobiles in the country Buick outsold Ford in Cadillac
it’s two closest rivals combined Durant had made the jump from leading producer
of carriages to leading producer of automobiles to keep the spotlight on his cars he
sponsored a racing team the Buick racing team began to gather trophies and
headlines across the country the stars of the team were Louis Chevrolet and
wild Bob Berman they would win more than 500 races and keep you ixnay on the
papers the Buick 60 specials one each for Louis
Chevrolet and Bob Berman were aerodynamic cars that went faster than
105 miles per hour unofficially they were called the Buick bugs racing
exploits pumped-up viewing sales for a country that was largely rural and
still relied on the horse these demonstrations of speed were exciting
like nothing else people had ever seen to keep their cars in mille I’m light in
1911 and further demonstrate the durability and practicality of a Buick
the company sponsored the first attempt at driving from San Francisco to Reno
Nevada Reno’s Chamber of Commerce welcomed the idea and envisioned a day
when car loads of Californian tourists would visit but in 1911 the road to Reno
was treacherous at the lower elevations the drivers encountered soft wet snow
but as they climbed the steep Sierra slopes the snow turned to ice sleds had
to be built and the car was wrestled over a crest with a combination of
muscle motor and willpower even when they started their descent
into a more moderate climate ropes were needed to pull them through the
underbrush as they closed in on their destination
they planted a flag to commemorate their trip the tired crew made it to Reno but it
would be many years until the Chamber of Commerce could realize its dream of a
drove of tourists swarming in from California the drivers efforts though
provided further proof that the auto would prevail over the horse while Buick
was the number one auto manufacturer Durant wanted more he began to formulate
his ideas for an auto Empire the success of Henry Ford’s model-t the
genius of its inventor has led many to believe that its impact was a foregone
conclusion when it was introduced in 1908 but Henry Ford while confident
didn’t know the scope of what he’d done Durant though had a feeling he
approached Ford and offered to buy him out Ford’s operations were bursting at the
seams and he was facing the daunting prospect of raising the money to build a
new factory Durant’s offer was tantalizing Ford agreed to sell but he wanted cash
eight million dollars Durant tried to raise the money but his audacious
appetite staggered his bankers imaginations bear point Morgan and
others turned him away two years later the growing success of Henry’s Model T
upped Ford’s asking price to 35 million unfazed by his inability to buy out Ford
Durant soon found another auto company he could acquire the former low-priced
leader Oldsmobile the curve – Oldsmobile was the first American automobile that
had been assembled in large numbers the company’s attempts to diversify its
products hadn’t worked and by 1908 the company had fallen on lean times however
it was still a famous name and Durant thought he could build on
that he combined view we can dolls together under a new company called
General Motors on September 16 1908 the rampant acquired the prestigious
luxury car line Cadillac and the mid-priced Oakland forerunner of Pontiac with an eye on publicity he lured a
famous bicycle racer Albert champion away from the company that bore
champions named informed AC sparkplug it was rumored that Durant often carried
a suitcase stuffed with cash people said he juggled millions like
some gambled with pennies but most of his deals were engineered as a stock
swap while his fledgling organization acquired dozens of companies its
financial backbone was still Buick but his growing empire was vulnerable he
became financially overextended and needed 14 million dollars a group of
cautious Boston bankers led by James Starro held the company’s future in
their hands while they deliberated about loaning the money to Durant his
operations ground to a halt with his factory shut down no money for
payroll and bankruptcy looming he granted the bankers demand for such a
large block of stock but they became the majority shareholders they installed his
former protege Charles Nash as GM’s new president Nash you’ve actually went on
to found his own company the forerunner of American Motors within a year Nash
hired someone else who would start a car company Walter P Chrysler Chrysler’s
engineering and manufacturing expertise laid the basis for a strong Buick
organization Durant had pushed Buicks production to over 30,000 cars in 1910
the interruption of production caused sales to decline to 13,000 in 1911 Nash and Chrysler had their work cut out
for them Durant did not spend much time sulking
he teamed up with his former race driver Louis Chevrolet and started the
Chevrolet company in 1911 but Louise constantly burning cigarette
bothered Billy who insisted that if a gentleman must smoke he should at least
smoke cigars personalities aside they also disagreed about the car Durant
wanted a small light car to compete with the number one seller Ford’s model-t
Louie wanted something grander Durant got his way by redesigning and repricing
the car when Louie was away on a European trip that Durant had
conveniently arranged the car was out by the time Louis returned the public loved
it but Louie didn’t like the car that bore his name and it was a parting of
the ways but once again
Durant’s instincts were right the Chevrolet took off it was soon
outselling GM and challenging Ford when Chevrolet’s headquarters in the old
Flint Wagon Works building durant started to quietly buy back GM stock it
was during this time that Durant met Johnny Raskob a very astute confident
and advisor of one of America’s richest men Pierre DuPont Raskob convinced
DuPont to invest in Chevrolet and General Motors something he would
continue to do by 1916 the automobile was firmly
established on the streets of America DuPont saw the growth potential and was
happy to join Durant’s efforts Durant wanted DuPont’s help in
recapturing General Motors with the stock he’d bought with Chevrolet’s
profits and the DuPont support he effectively took back control of GM in
1916 the bankers were out dorrance returned stunned the business world the DuPont’s continued to buy GN shares
and consolidate their interests for the time being
Durant was back at the helm and GM once again grew rapidly he added a research
division Delco laboratories the inventors of the self-starter he also bought many component companies
and secured the services of the Fisher brothers bodybuilding company but even
with all this expansion Buick was still GM’s main asset now that Durant was back
Nash resigned Durant retained water Chrysler and made
him president of Buick America was soon off to war and one of Walter Chrysler’s
first challenges was to help Buick gare up to produce armaments Buick built
thousands of Liberty aircraft engines ambulances and a new weapon tanks it was a terrible conflict that showed
the power and the importance of the machine airplanes tanks machine guns and
trucks it was an automated world whose armies were now supplied by factories
with seemingly unlimited capacity but finally it was over as the cheering from the victory parades
fill the air the DuPont’s started to search for ways to invest the money they
had earned selling gunpowder during the war Durant’s own gargantuan appetites were
also once again aroused he began a spending binge that netted him another
slew of companies including a refrigerator manufacturer Frigidaire since every emperor needs a castle
Durant commissioned our new headquarters for General Motors of course it would be
the world’s largest office building buick was doing its part to keep the
money rolling in the Buicks looked better than the state Model T’s and were
chipping away at the lead Ford’s cars had developed then a post-war depression
put an abrupt halt to Durant’s plans attempting to prop up GM’s declining
share price Durant bought its stock on margin but
the stock kept falling and eventually his creditors demanded their money he
owed 27 million dollars money he no longer had Pierre DuPont offered to rant 35 million
dollars for his remaining shares this would pay off the creditors but he would
lose his company he had no choice Durant took the deal and went home the DuPont’s now controlled General
Motors the largest auto paint supplier a portion of United States steel and soon
they’d form a syndicate to control United States rubber it was a new era a GM and had viewing the 1920s started roaring and Americans
had money to spend Florida real estate was booming people
were going to the beach playing golf speakeasies were busy
even though gangsters control the flow of illicit alcohol it was a time of growth and abandoned
both Buick and GM were aligned to reap the rewards of the era the DuPont’s
appointed Alfred Sloan dove the GM presidency to stabilize the company and
provide a solid foundation for the future the one millionth Buick was built in
1923 annual production reached 260,000 units in 1926 cars such as the $2,100
opera coupe combined reliability with luxury features like power operated
windshield wipers and silk window shades set Buicks apart Sloan had carefully
structured General Motors so that its automobiles formed a graduated product
lineup Buick took its place just behind the Cadillac the Buicks from nineteen
twenties rivaled Cadillac in size power reliability and style as Buicks
reputation grew Flint prospered it’s thriving theater district featured the
latest Hollywood films and the major vaudevillians including George Burns and
Gracie Allen how many people the laughter began to fade on October 29th
of 1929 when Wall Street crashed more than 12 million shares changed hands in
a single day an estimated 50 billion dollars was lost that day as millions of
people saw their savings disappear banks closed and the real estate boom
collapsed the car makers soon felt the result of Wall Street’s decline
as a maker of near luxury automobiles Buick was harder hit by the country’s
economic troubles than some of its competitors Buick responded by introducing a smaller
more economical car line called the Marquette its engines and drive trains
were less expensive than the standard viewings but they produced fairly good
performance for the times it could go from zero to 60 miles per
hour in about 30 seconds and had a top speed of nearly 70 miles per hour but the public in the Buick dealers
never warmed up to the Marquette and after building 35,000 the car was
dropped buicks sister division at General Motors
Oakland had also introduced a low-cost version of their product their car
called the Pontiac eventually supplanted the parent organization by 1933 Buick
production had plummeted to a little more than 40,000 units Flint was a ghost
town thousands were thrown out of work but late that year Harlow H Curtis the
39 year old president of AC sparkplug was tapped by GM to change Buicks
fortunes a super salesman in the Durant mold red Curtiss nicknamed for his red
hair brought power speed and sales back to Buick as part of his efforts curtis
issued a challenge to GM’s chief designer who always drove Cadillacs
Curtis said design a Buick you would like to own the result was a line of Buicks that
pushed sales close to 200 thousand cars while Buick was off relief Flint was
about to explode in December of 1936 the famous Flint sit-down strike paralyzed
auto production just as the economy was starting to pick up the workers
complained about the speed of the assembly line the long grueling hours
and the lack of any benefits violence erupted as the strike dragged dog eventually an agreement was reached the
strike resulted in GM’s recognition of the United Auto Workers as a bargaining
agent Local 599 at Buick became the UAW s largest GM local the dark financial
cloud started to lift at Buick in 1940 it would break its 1928 sales record and
sell over 250,000 cars new models were being prepared and Kurtis was upbeat
about the future Buicks traditional customers responded to the cars and
Buick was confident that it knew what people wanted quality could taste social
acceptance and values new it’s renewable equai job
it featured striking aerodynamic styling including inset headlamps no running
boards and such innovations as electric windows and the flush mounted
convertible cover while America was once again dreaming war was becoming a
reality in Europe and Asia as the war began it became clear that
America would be drawn into the conflict to speed up the production of armaments
for the conflict President Roosevelt organized American industry under the
leadership of the former president of General Motors Bill Knudsen many manufacturers were reluctant to
convert their operations to weapons production after suffering through a
nearly a decade long economic depression they were finally making money again but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor
when America entered the war industry responded Buick halted production of
it’s 1942 models and became part of the arsenal of democracy buick built aircraft engines Hellcat
tank destroyers and other military hardware Buick was awarded more than 30
separate military contracts Buick built material could be found at virtually
every fighting front by the time the war finally ended the
employees of Buick had produced more than four hundred twenty four thousand
steel cartridge cases nineteen thousand tank power trains nine million twenty
millimeter shells twenty five hundred Hellcat tank destroyers and twenty-nine
hundred months for anti-aircraft guns while it was time to celebrate Kurtis
wanted to start building Buicks again after the war
curtis pushed Buick to reconvert its production lines and deliver new cars to
the public he launched a huge expansion ever adding 1.3 million feet of factory
space enough room to build five hundred and fifty thousand cars Curtis saw a
bright future for viewing his efforts were rewarded in 1952 when
he became GM’s president Buick once again had a good friend in high places while it was going to be a great era for
the American economy its foes and allies had both suffered the effects of the war Europe and Japan were buried under
mountains of rubble and faced the prospect of many lean years it would be
a long time before they could challenge the economic dominance of the United
States the United States manufacturing base had escaped unscathed and was more
productive than ever but some feared that complacency would set in the
post-war era was America’s moment in the Sun opportunity was everywhere and
prosperity was a given rationing had been lifted sugar coffee produce and
nylon stockings everything that had been denied during the war was now available
people flocked to the well-stocked stores gasoline and tyres were also finally
obtainable again and people couldn’t wait to buy a new car Buick introduced
new models and saw curtis’s prediction that they would sell more than 500
thousand cars a year realized a major concern for the automakers was
how to keep track of all the money that was rolling in new ways had to be
invented to monitor the staggering profits finance became more important
than product development to the car companies at Buick and elsewhere
technological innovation took the backseat to styling these large land
cruisers were fairly unsophisticated mechanically but they had a certain
appeal a dollop of chrome here the splash of color there was enough to set
American heart’s racing in the 1950s Detroit was selling dreams and a
succession of show cars fostered American fantasies the Buick XP 300 and
LeSabre were long and low their jet age look was perfectly in tune with the
times as sales soared quality started to
decline no one really noticed for years because there were very few foreign cars
for comparison the few foreign cars that made it into the US were owned by
enthusiasts initially they had very little impact on the market most Detroit
executives dismissed or even derided the imports Buick world the buoyant tide of ever
increasing sales Buicks sales rose rapidly to 550,000 in 1950 and a 745,000
and 1955 in 1955 Buick ranked third in industry sales it’s famous portholes
were being seen everywhere but in 1958 the dream started to fade
the cars had become too bloated and laden with chrome people for the
American consumer the aversion to the styling excesses of the decade and an
economic downturn sent sales spiraling Buick started searching for new designs in 1959 Buick changed the names and
shapes of its entire production line discarding special century super and
Roadmaster in favor of LeSabre invicta and electron but more had to be done while Buick was developing its new
products the US Supreme Court ruled that the DuPont family must divest itself of
its GM Holdings this case had been fought for years but finally the courts
forced the du Pont’s out Buick along with GM began a new decade and a new era the recession of 1958 had made small
cars popular and Buick introduced the special a compact car with an aluminum
v8 engine in 1961 the following year Buick offered the first production v6 in
the special Buicks large cars were also new that year and boosted by a reviving
economy total sales climbed to more than 450,000 cars in 1963 the riviera
considered a modern classic today was introduced Buicks sales continued to rise through
the 1960s and hit a record 820 1165 in the 1973 model year in these go-go years
Buick abandoned its six-cylinder engines and gave the public ever bigger and more
powerful v8 but the bottom fell out again with the oil embargo late in 1973
and sales sank below 500,000 in both 1974 and 75 Buick would have to change
or go under when the American public flocked to small fuel-efficient imports
they discovered something Detroit had abandoned quality consumers started to
forsake their allegiance to their domestic cars Buick along with the rest of the
American auto industry started to search for a winning response Buick once again
recognized the importance of fuel economy and reintroduced the
fuel-efficient v6 it had to repurchase the tooling from American Motors which
had bought it in the late 60s for use in its small cars no one at Buick was sure
if the public would respond to the slimmer trimmer fuel friendly American
cars they did and Buick started a slow climb back up the sales letter when most of the US auto industry
suffered a sales slump due to the high interest rates and rising gasoline
prices of the early 1980s Buick actually increased its market share during this
era Buick and the rest of the industry was pressured to develop numerous safety
features pollution controls and engineering innovations for fuel economy
this meant building even smaller more aerodynamic front wheel drive cars but
smaller didn’t necessarily mean underpowered
Buicks turbo powered v6 engines helped to convince American consumers that they
could abandon their beloved gas hungry v8s
without sacrificing the performance the Buick had weathered the tumult of
the 70s the need for change didn’t let up in the 1980s the competition from
high-quality fuel-efficient European and Japanese cars was now acute to build the
new cars Buick needed to compete required a complete renovation of its
factories Buicks old plant the cornerstone of General Motors was
converted at a cost of 350 million dollars it became known as Buick city a
team of hourly and salaried workers came together to design the plant and create
a new direction for the company a far cry from the days of the sit-down
strikes while confrontation wasn’t completely gone it was clear to many
that cooperation would be necessary for the future the results began to show by
1989 the Buick LeSabre was ranked as the number one American car and as the
number two car among 154 domestics and imports sold in the United States after
years of turmoil it was clear that Buick was once again building premium American
motorcars there were some setbacks the two-seat luxury sports car the Reata
only lasted for a few years after its 1988 debut the front wheel drive riggles
Buicks bread-and-butter family sedans were trounced by Mercury Sable and the
upscale imports and a return to a large rear drive car
with a great old name the 1992 Roadmaster sedan was cut short
when GM closed the plant but there were also some successes cars such as the
elegant Park Avenue continued to show that Buick was alive and well to many
observers the clear signal that Buick was back as an automotive leader came in
1993 with the introduction of the restyled Riviera
when longtime Buick employees saw the car emerge from the design studios they
knew that Buick was once again asserting itself is a forward-looking company the
renewed emphasis on quality and style has once again put Buick on a path that
would have made David Buick in Billy Durant

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