Scottish fact of the day: Buick Motor Company

A 1950 Buick Le Sabre. Picture: Chuck Coker

A 1950 Buick Le Sabre. Picture: Chuck Coker

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CURRENTLY the oldest active North American car producer, Buick is among the oldest car brands in the world.

It originated as the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899, making internal combustion engines and motor cars, and was incorporated in Detroit as the Buick Motor Company in May 1903 by Arbroath-born David Dunbar Buick.

Buick’s history

Buick emigrated to America with his parents in 1856, at the age of two, and left school aged 15 in 1869.

He began working with a company that made plumbing goods, taking the firm over with a partner when it ran into financial difficulties in 1882.

Buick began to show his prowess as an inventor around this time, producing a number of innovations including a lawn sprinkler and a method for coating cast iron with enamel - allowing for the production of ‘white’ baths at a lower cost.

His innovation and his partner’s business management skills led the company to become quite successful.

It was during the 1890s that he stepped up his interest in internal combustion engines, at the expense of the plumbing business. He split from his partner and the company was sold.

Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company

With his partner gone and the plumbing business down the pan, Buick turned his attention to engines full-time, setting up the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899.

The aim of the firm was to market engines for agricultural use, but Buick blindly focused on the development of a complete car, with the result that by 1902 he had used up the vast majority of the money he had made with the plumbing business and had little to show for it, other than a single car.

Buick Manufacturing Company

In 1902, he set up a second company - the Buick Manufacturing Company - with the dual aim of marketing engines to other car companies, as well as making and selling its own cars.

By the end of the year, Buick had again run out of money with one car to show for his work, after experiencing manufacturing and development problems.

He did produce the revolutionary ‘valve-in-head’ overhead valve engine, which was much more powerful than the side valve design which all other manufacturers were using at the time.

Virtually all modern engines can be classed as derivatives of Buick’s invention as overhead cam engines are based on the design of the overhead valve engine.

Despite this, Buick’s money ran out yet again and in 1903, Buick was forced take out a loan from his friend Benjamin Briscoe (also a car enthusiast) to the tune of $5000 at the time - around $131,241 or £83,533 in today’s money.

Buick Motor Company

In return for his financial help, Briscoe received a 97 per cent interest in the Buick Motor Company, formed by Buick later in 1903. The firm would later become the cornerstone of General Motors.

But Buick accepted a pay-off in 1906, and left the company he’d founded with just one share in his possession.

William C. Durant, then president of the company, bought Buick’s share from his for $100,000 - equal to $2.6 million today.

Post-Buick Motor Company

After his departure from the motor firm, Buick unsuccessfully invested in California oil and Florida land, and dipped his toe back into the engine production world by making carburetors with his son Tom.

In 1921, Buick returned to car manufacturing as president of Lorraine Motors, which built just a few hundred cars between 1920 and 1922.

The following year he introduced the Dunbar, a prototype car.

In 1928, just five years later, he revealed in an interview that he was close to being completely broke, unable to afford a telephone, and was working as an instructor at the Detroit School of Trades.

He died in March 1929 from colon cancer, at the age of 74.

Whiting’s takeover

What of the Buick Motor Company? James H Whiting took over the company in 1903 and moved it to Flint, in Michigan, away from Detroit, bringing in Durant in 1904 to manage the firm.

Under Durant’s stewarship, Buick flourished, becoming the largest car maker in America.

Whiting joined forces with RS McLaughlin in Canada in 1907, with a 15-year contract for motors.

In September 1908, General Motors was founded in Flint as a holding company for McLaughlin Car Company of Canada Ltd., and Buick.

At first, the companies making up the corporation competed with each other, until Durant decided he wanted each GM division to target a particular class of buyer, with Buick occupying a spot near the top, just behind Cadillac.

Buick holds that position to this day.

Post-1910s

In 1911, Buick introduced its first closed-body car, four years before Ford, and launched a short-lived sister firm - Marquette - in 1929.

Buicks were popular with the British Royal Family during the 1930s, with Edward VIII importing a Canada-built McLaughlin-Buick, while George VI used one for a coast-to-coast tour of Canada in 1939.

It was also the first company to introduce turn signals, or indicators, in the same year.

World War II and the 1950s

During the Second World War, Buick made the M18 Hellcat army tank, and supplied radial engines for the B-24 Liberator, Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Douglas C-54 Skymaster aircraft.

Later in the 1950s, Buick celebrated its 50th anniversary, and scored the best sales in its history with over 738, 800 cars sold.

A number of Buick models manufactured during this time had rear tailfins similar to rocket ships, coinciding with the beginning of the space age.

1970s onwards

In 1977, Buick broke its record sales figure from 1955, selling 773,313 cars and again in 1978 (795,316 cars) as it enjoyed its 75th anniversary.

The company continued to record increasing sales figures, along with introducing new models as well as concept cars, the most recent in 2013 with the Buick Riviera concept, with gullwing doors (Back to the Future DeLorean, anyone?) and a plug-in electric driveline.

Buick continues to market cars and is still very much a key player in General Motors - none of which would have been possible without the Arbroath-born David Dunbar Buick.

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