The Scot who founded the Buick motor company

David Dunbar Buick. Picture: TSPLDavid Dunbar Buick. Picture: TSPL
David Dunbar Buick. Picture: TSPL
The iconic luxury of Buick motors have the distinction of being the oldest American brand of automobiles, but Scotland has the honour of being home to its founder.

David Dunbar Buick was born in Arbroath, Angus in September 17 1854. Like the founding titans of American industry before him, he travelled to America with his family as an infant. After leaving school, he took work manufacturing plumbing equipment, but before long he was showing an aptitude for innovation, including an early lawn sprinkler and a cost-effective means for enamelling cast iron bathtubs. It was in the 1890s when Buick began showing interest in the motoring world. He had a particular interest in combustion engines – so much so that he all-but-ignored the plumbing business, ending with the eventual dissolving of the company. In 1899, the Scot set up Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in Detroit, Michigan, selling combustion engines in the hope of revolutionising agriculture. Over the next three years, he set his sights on producing a complete vehicle, draining his resources while generating no return and the finished car, created with chief engineer Walter Marr. He was out of money and a single car to show for his work. Despite the immeasurable odds being stacked against him, he founded Buick Motor Company in early 1902 and immediately set to work developing a revolutionary ‘valve-in-head’ overhead valve engine.

Today’s overhead cam engines are all generally derived from David Dunbar Buick’s innovative designs. By 1906, Buick’s frivolity had caught up with him. He was awarded a severance package from the company he had helped build and left with only one share in the firm. Buick Motor Company’s president, William C. Durrant – former General Manager and Buick’s chief investor – purchased his share for $100,000, equal to $2.7million today. For those left in any doubt about Buick’s significant role in the history of motoring, his life’s work would later become the foundation on which General Motors was established. The Scot unsuccessfully revisited the automotive industry in 1921 with Lorraine Motors, but was almost completely broke by 1928 and in 1929 he died from cancer, aged 74. David Dunbar Buick was ushered into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1974 for his contribution to the fledgling industry in the late 19th Century. At the turn of the millennium, automotive historian Vincent Curcio said: “To date, over 35,000,000 motor cars have been built in his name, which will never be lost to history.”

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In particular, he enjoys the friendly interactions he has with other drivers who often allow him generous right of way to grant them a few extra moments to admire the rare vehicle. “You usually get a thumbs up as opposed to two fingers and people asking you to take photos. It’s great, you get a lot of buzz out of the way that people react to seeing cars that are a little bit unusual.” From grill to the iconic winged rear lights, the ’68 LeSabre exceeds 5.5 meters, so it’s little wonder other drivers give him a wide berth. “I think if you’ve got anything this size approaching you,” he says, “by the time you’ve taken it in and had a look at it, [they’re] thinking ‘well I might as well let them out’. “I think as well, because they’re quite big, people maybe like to see them coming out at an angle. “Just because they’re different, I think there’s a bit of a fascination – you don’t have to be a petrolhead to want to see one of these things going by.”