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Buick is the oldest American automaker still active today, and one of the most successful of all time - anywhere. Even in the early days, Buick was a luxury brand and its living-room inspired interiors led some to call Buick the “moving couch of America.” Today, following in that tradition, Buick continues as one of GM’s luxury brands, along with Cadillac. While Cadillac may have slightly more prestige, Buick is for the customer who is financially comfortable but perhaps doesn’t want the ostentation of a Cadillac. This is not to say, however, that Buick’s are plainly styled. On the contrary, Buick’s have frequently featured new and arresting visual designs. Perhaps this is why Britain’s King George VI chose one for a coast to coast tour of Canada in 1939 (call it a regal Buick). It was also a fitting choice since the Buick family tree of models and sub-models can sometimes be just as tangled as the royal lines, but generations have enjoyed them since all across the globe.
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Look no further than 1A Auto for your aftermarket, original equipment (OE) replacement, new and performance Buick auto parts and get your car or SUV the new parts it needs today from Buick enthusiasts just like you! If you happen to be an enthusiastic Buick owner, have a deep passion for Buick vehicles, or just want to learn more about the automobile manufacturer, continue reading below for a detailed look at the brand's history and some of its past and present models.
Buick is a luxury vehicle brand of General Motors (GM) and holds the distinction of being the oldest American automotive make that is still active, and it is also one of the oldest automobile brands in the world. Buick models are sold in the United States and in the other parts of the globe, such as Mexico and China.
The origins of Buick can be traced back to the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company, which was founded in 1899 as a manufacturer of internal combustion engines and motor cars by David Dunbar Buick. Mr. Buick, who was born in Scotland and immigrated to Detroit at the age of two along with his parents, had previously worked in the plumbing business and co-owned a company that made plumbing goods. During the 1890s, Buick became quite interested in internal combustion engines and began to experiment with them. He began spending so much time with them that he basically neglected his plumbing business and, as a result, his now disgruntled business partner lost his patience with Buick and dissolved their partnership. The company was sold, which left Buick with all of the time in the world – and the needed capital - to devote to his new-found passion. Buick was soon building engines for farm use and boats and this led to the establishment of the aforementioned Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899.
While the company initially set out to manufacture and market engines for agricultural use, Buick also stated that one of the companies’ specialties was automobile engines, and the company soon set its sights on the development of a complete car. Between 1899 and 1902, Buick and his associates built two prototype cars and designed and produced the revolutionary overhead valve (OHV) engine, which would later be called a "valve-in-head" engine. Virtually all modern engines found in automobiles today are derivates of this Buick invention. Also, during this time, the name of the company was changed to the Buick Manufacturing Company, and the purpose of the company shifted a bit too marketing engines to other automobile companies and manufacturing and selling its own cars. Unfortunately, the company experienced numerous financial problems during this period due to the fact that more time was spent on research and development than on marketing and sales. With little to show for his work and out of money, Buick was forced to raise more cash via a loan from Benjamin Briscoe in 1903. In return, Briscoe gained a controlling interest in the company. Thanks to this financial assistance, Buick was able to form the Buick Motor Company in May of 1903.
The company continued to struggle financially and within months of the incorporation of the Buick Motor Company, Buick and Briscoe decided to sell the company to the Flint Wagon Works, a horse-drawn vehicle manufacturer. It was taken over by its president, James H. Whiting, who announced that the company would be moved from Detroit to Flint, Michigan. Whiting was excited about the potential of selling Buick’s gasoline engines to farmers. A new Buick Motor Company was incorporated shortly thereafter, and the old one dissolved to reflect the move. David Dunbar Buick stayed on initially after selling his company and was in charge of day-to-day operations. While Whiting was not initially sold on the idea of producing automobiles, he was ultimately convinced in large part by Buick’s former engine manager, Walter Marr, who had by now returned to work for Buick after having previously left, and David Dunbar Buick himself. By the early summer of 1904, the company had built the first Buick in Flint. Marr and Thomas Buick, David's son who was also working at the company, took the car on a test run to Detroit and back. This endurance test was so successful that Whiting ordered production to start on the first models that would be offered to the public for sale, immediately. The architecture of this prototype car would be the basis for the first made-for-sale Buick vehicle, the Model B, which was built in Flint. By the end of the year however, with only a limited supply of cars produced, the company was almost bankrupt. Whiting, in desperate need of more money and someone younger than himself to take control and manage Buick, turned to a competitor of the Flint Wagon Works, William C. Durant, who was the founder of Flint’s highly successful Durant-Dort Carriage Company, another manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles.
While Durant was highly skeptical of automobiles at first as well, and thought they were unsafe, loud, etc., the cosmic shift from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles was underway. Other personal reasons also contributed to Durant considering the proposition of taking control of Buick, but he first had to be convinced that the car was indeed a great product. Trying to sell Durant on automobiles was a daunting task for Whiting, but he knew that if he wanted to save Buick, Durant was the man to do it due to his many connections, and thus he had to persuade him. Eventually, Durant, who was never one to back down from a business challenge, was sold on the car and the company by Whiting and his associates. He took complete control of the company in late 1904, and Whiting then resigned his position as president of Buick, though he stayed with the wagon works business for a few more years.
In 1905, Durant put a Buick car on display at the New York Auto Show and, within a few days, there were orders for over a thousand cars. He also was able to sign up dealers to sell Buick’s, recruiting many who had sold his carriages before. Durant’s intuition that the Buick was a “self-seller,” a product so good it could sell itself, quickly proved to be true. Durant’s own engaging personality certainly helped in getting the company off the ground and building it into a success early on, with the car’s engine performance touted as Buick’s claim to fame. In 1906, the company built its first production four-cylinder car, a 1907 Model D. The following year, a man named R.S. McLaughlin started the McLaughlin Motor Car Company, which was one of the first major automobile manufacturers in Canada, and eventually formed an alliance with Durant to produce Buick’s in Canada. The pair entered into this partnership by exchanging an equal share of McLaughlin and Buick stock. By 1908, Buick had become the largest automobile producer in the US, and its new Model 10 was its biggest seller. Thanks to the success of Buick, Durant had gone from being the biggest producer of buggies to the biggest producer of automobiles. On top of it, with the help of the transaction with McLaughlin and the profits from Buick’s success, Durant was able to finance the establishment of a new holding company that year as well. You may have heard of it - General Motors (GM)? At this point, McLaughlin exchanged his Buick stock for General Motors stock, and joined the board of General Motors in 1910. Buick was folded into the newly organized General Motors holding company, adding equity, and was the only company to be held by GM upon its inception. That did not last long though as Durant embarked on a series of acquisitions of other vehicle manufacturers, using the proceeds he had earned by selling stock in his new company to fund the purchases. By 1910, he also had Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Oakland (which would be the basis for the formation of Pontiac years later), and a few others under the GM umbrella. At first, all of the different automobile manufacturers competed against each other, but Durant quickly ended that as he wanted each brand to target one particular class of buyer. In this setup, Buick was near the top, a position it continues to hold in GM’s lineup today.
So, what happened to David Dunbar Buick, the original founder of the company, you ask? Well, once Durant assumed control, Buick quickly faded into the background. He would eventually leave the company a few years later, taking with him a modest severance package that did not truly represent his importance in the company’s history. After unsuccessful investments in California oil and Florida land, and an attempt with his son Tom, who had also left Buick by then to manufacture carburetors, Buick made a brief but unsuccessful return to the automotive industry in the 1920s. By the late 1920s however, Buick was broke and would die in 1929 at the age of 74, although his significance to automotive history has been etched in the annals of time.
In 1910, Durant became financially overextended due to his many company acquisitions and banking interests assumed control of GM, while forcing Durant from his top management position. Durant left and co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company a year later, with help from a few of his old pals at Buick. The same year, Buick made an early mark as a luxury vehicle with the introduction of its first closed body car in 1911, four years before Ford’s. Not long afterwards, thanks to the profitability of Chevrolet, William Durant was able to repurchase a controlling interest in GM, and he eventually returned as head of the company, bringing Chevrolet along with him after the deal was complete. The General Motors Corporation was then incorporated in Delaware at this time, and what was the General Motors Company of New Jersey was dissolved (it has once again become the General Motors Company as a result of its bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009). However, Durant would lose control of the company again, this time for good, in 1920.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Buick had become a top choice for people in high places, like kings, sultans, and other political leaders. The British royal family in particular took quite the shining to them; King George VI used a Buick for his coast to coast royal tour of Canada in 1939. Buick engines also grew from the flat-twin used earlier in the Model B to the straight-eights used in the 1931 Series 50. In 1936, to signify engineering and design advancements, Buick switched from giving its models numeric names to true model names. Among others, the Series 40 was named the Special, the Series 60 was named the Century, and the Series 80 was introduced as the Roadmaster. The Roadmaster was Buick’s longest non-limosuine car. It was even heavier than Cadillac’s Series 60, but was a bargain at $1,255, which was $440 less than the Cadillac. Buick’s total sales increased that year from about 48,000 to 158,000 units, with the Roadmaster accounting for about 16,000 of those.
Despite a slight hiccup during the Great Depression, the company was quite successful in the period just before World War II. However, although the company made other improvements throughout this time period, including being the first automaker to introduce turn signals in 1939, it was after World War II that Buick really hit its stride.
Post World War II
Buick vehicles were extremely popular following the war thanks to features such as vertical-bar grilles, hardtop-convertible styling, and powerful eight-cylinder engines, to name just a few. Following World War II, the Roadmaster came to include several design features that came to be Buick hallmarks, some of which are still in use today. In 1946, Buick added a “bombsight” hood ornament inspired by World War II aviation technology. Warplanes would also inspire wider windshields and a feature which Buick called Ventiports (aka portholes). Buick’s styling head Ned Nickles had added four lights to each side of his 1948 Roadmaster’s hood and wired them to the distributor so that each light would flash simultaneous to the firing of a corresponding piston. This was intended to imitate the flaming exhaust of a fighter plane. Buick’s president Harlow Curtice liked the look so much that he had designers install a non-lighting version on all 1949 Buick’s. An early brochure claimed that these portholes helped ventilate the engine, allowing air more easily out of the engine compartment. This may have just been clever marketing copy, though, since Buick began plugging the ports later that same year.
In 1950, the Roadmaster was restyled and included two more trademark Buick features: the Sweepspear, a line of chrome curving from the headlight to the back wheel, and the oval grille that became affectionately known as the “dollar grin.” Consumer Reports said of the new Roadmaster, “a toothbrush for the dentures comes extra.” The dollar grin can be seen on some Buick models today (as can Ventiports). Buick released the Skylark option package for the Roadmaster in 1953. The Roadmaster Skylark was a limited edition convertible built to show off Buick’s design expertise. It featured a lower roofline and lowered seating compared to the standard Roadmaster and a window frame that dipped towards the back of the door and then curved up again toward the back of the rear window. It also featured practical enhancements like power windows, power brakes, AM radio, and Buick’s first V8 engine (after a long line of straight-eights). The Sklylark would go on to be an option package for the Buick Special and eventually became its own line.
Shortly afterwards, Buick improved on the V8, building a version of the engine with small, vertical valves. Since the valves resembled nails, hot-rodders, with whom the engine quickly became popular, called it the “Nailhead” engine. The Nailhead was used to power the 1954 Buick Special (which also featured a new body and lower ride that year). Along with these other performance-minded projects, Buick reintroduced the Century as a performance model in 1954. In the 1930s, the Century had been Buick’s first production car designed to reach one hundred miles per hour. Buick accomplished this goal by putting a large Roadmaster engine into the smaller Special’s body. In 1954, it used more or less the same way, putting its largest V8 into a Special body. The Century remained Buick’s performance line throughout the 1950s and saw fleet-use by the California Highway Patrol.
In 1959, Buick introduced new names and new designs for its cars. The Special was replaced as Buick’s entry level full-size car by the Buick LeSabre and the Roadmaster was replaced as Buick’s luxury model by the Buick Electra. Both of the new models featured very prominent tail fins known as “delta wings.” Although they were very striking to the outside viewer, they reduced rear visibility for the driver and were shrunk for the 1961 model year. The Electra was available in a standard model and as the Electra 225, named for its length in inches (that’s nearly 19 feet) and colloquially known as the “deuce and a quarter.” In addition to its huge size, it had a host of available features, including an electric clock, trunk and glove compartment lights, a cigar lighter, a glare-proof rear view mirror, power steering, and power brakes. The LeSabre may have been slightly less upscale, but throughout its lifetime it was consistently Buick’s best-selling full-size car, and lasted all the way to 2005, when it was finally discontinued. The Electra wasn’t as durable, having been discontinued back in 1990.
1960s, 70s, and 80s
1961 saw the reintroduction of the Special, now as Buick’s compact line. The following year it became the first American volume-production V6-powered car. Road & Track described the V6 as “practical,” noting that it “sounds and performs like the aluminum V8 [used in the 1961 Special] in most respects.” The Special was Motor Trend’s car of the year in 1962. The Special also featured the return of the Skylark name as an option package. Since about 43,000 of the roughly 154,000 Specials sold in 1962 were Special Skylarks, the Skylark became its own line. The Special was produced until 1970, while the Buick Skylark lasted until 1998. The Special name was used for an option package on the Century in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s. In 1968, the Skylark, like other mid-size GM cars, adopted a policy of having a slightly shorter wheelbase for coupes than sedans. In the 1970’s the Skylark became the entry level Buick compact (replacing the Special). It continued on in this role until 1991, when it was discontinued following the end of the previous year.
Shortly after, the Skylark became its own line, in 1963, Buick released its personal luxury sedan, the Riviera. The Riviera name, like the Skylark name, was originally used to denote a package for other models, particularly the Roadmaster and Electra 225. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buick felt it needed a car to compete with the combination of luxury and performance offered by the Ford Thunderbird. Unusually for GM, the Riviera was built with its own unique body shell. Italian designer Sergio Pininfarina, famous for designing Ferrari bodies, declared that the Riviera “one of the most beautiful American cars ever built.”
The Riviera wasn’t all about looks, though. Motor Trend ran the car from zero to sixty miles per hour in under eight seconds and put it through a standing quarter mile in about sixteen. This was marginally faster than a contemporary Porsche 911. The Riviera was redesigned in 1971 with a long sloping fastback with a huge rear window. Now the car not only was as big as a boat (nearly as long as the deuce and a quarter), but to many, the rear end had the appearance of a boat-tail. A more conventional design was adopted in 1974, but the model continued to be popular. In 1979, it was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year and, in 1983, it was used as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. In the late 1980s the Riviera moved away from performance towards a more standard approach. It featured the first ever automotive touchscreen controls in 1986, before its production ended in 1999.
As the Riviera was focusing more on looks than performance in the 1970s and 1980s, the Buick Regal entered as a mid-size personal luxury car and started to develop performance power. The Regal began as a package for the Century offering wood grain trim and optional corduroy upholstery. It became a distinct model in 1978, with a facelift that made it much more aerodynamic. This made the car viable in NASCAR. Richard Petty won the 1981 Daytona 500 in one. In 1981 and 1982 the majority of NASCAR races were won by Regal drivers. Buick therefore won the Manufacturer’s cup in both of those years. Buick released the Regal Grand National (named after the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series) to capitalize on its NASCAR success. As conventional wisdom put it, “what wins on Sunday sells on Monday.” In 1987, Buick had a small number of Grand Nationals modified by McLaren Performance Technologies into GNXs. When Car and Driver wrote of the car’s aggressive performance, menacing looks, and all black paint job, the magazine’s headline read “Lord Vader, your car is ready.” The grille did bear a more than passing resemblance to the Star Wars villain’s helmet. In addition to the Regal, another company milestone in the 1970s was the introduction of the GSX high performance package for the first time on the Gran Sport 455, a popular vehicle with muscle car enthusiasts.
The market for personal luxury cars like the Riviera and Regal was dwindling, though, and in 1988, the Regal was offered without a serious performance option. Neither a V8 nor a turbocharged V6 (as was used in the Grand Nationals) was offered. In the late 1990s, the Regal shifted towards being a family sedan, although in 1997, the supercharged Regal GS was offered. Buick advertised it as the “car for the supercharged family.” In more recent years, the Regal has been positioned more to sell to newer buyers. About two fifths of Buick Regal buyers today have not previously owned a GM vehicle.
1990s, 2000s, and Today
By the 1990s, the Buick product line was becoming crowded. The Century and Regal were by then both mid-size luxury sedans and the LeSabre was joined in the full-size market by the Buick Park Avenue. The Park Avenue was originally a front wheel drive sub-model of the Electra and the nameplate was introduced back in the 1970’s, but it became its own model starting in 1991. It featured surprisingly good acceleration for its size, the return of the dollar grin grille, and more rounded lines than the Buick’s preceding it. Those features would pave the way for the Buick’s that would follow, even if the Park Avenue was not to last past 2005.
In the 2000s, the brand finally decided to simplify its product range. In 2005, the Buick LaCrosse replaced the Regal and Century (although the Regal would return in 2009), while the Buick Lucerne replaced the Park Avenue and Lesabre the following year. The Lucerne featured a return-to-form set of Ventiports, three to a side for V6 models and four to a side for V8’s. It served as Buick’s flagship model until it was discontinued in 2011. With the Lucerne gone, the LaCrosse became Buick’s flagship model, and with standard features like remote start, satellite radio, and dual-zone climate control, it is intended to compete with import luxury models. In 2011, the Buick Verano became Buick’s first compact car since the Skylark was discontinued in 1997.
Ten years earlier, the Buick Rendezvous filled a much longer gap in the company’s history. It was Buick’s first truck since 1923, and its first ever SUV. It was designed to combine the large seating and cargo capacity of a minivan, the ride and handling of a luxury car and the styling and all wheel drive of a sport utility vehicle. It was aggressively priced below competing models as well. The Buick Rendezvous was a badly needed success for the brand, as by this time, its aging customer base had declined. The vehicle managed to bring in many younger buyers – a segment with which Buick had been struggling to attract - to Buick dealerships who otherwise would not have even considered buying a Buick. In 2004 a more traditional SUV, the Buick Rainier debuted. Both the Rainier and the Rendezvous would eventually be replaced by the Buick Enclave, which features a sleek, rounded body and a streamlined version of Ventiports. In 2012, the Buick Encore mini crossover was released as well.
Through many twists and turns, Buick has remained a highly stylish brand and it has consistently pushed the envelope of automotive design. While some features like delta wings and the boat-tail did not last, others like dollar grin and Ventiports, with some updating, remain iconic today. Buick’s aren’t just pretty packages though, as they’ve always come with high performance to match their good looks. And, despite GM’s massive financial problems during this period, which saw them go through and emerge from an Chapter 11 reorganization in 2009, GM has designated Buick as a core brand and that continues today with GM’s ascent back to the top.