David Buick (1854-1929) is remembered for his association with the automobile industry. The Buick name, which first appeared on an automobile in 1903, remains a vital part of the General Motors (GM) production line. Unfortunately, Buick the man never became as successful as Buick the automobile. Although he was a talented mechanic and inventor, Buick's poor business decisions and his inability to maintain financial stability finally led to his failure as an automaker.
Buick was born on September 17, 1854, in Arbroath, Scotland, the son of Alexander Buick and Jane Roger. When he was two years old, the family immigrated to Detroit, Michigan. Alexander Buick died when his son was five years old, which placed an undue financial burden on the family. Buick attended elementary school, but he dropped out at the age of eleven to help his mother with the household bills. For the next few years, Buick found jobs delivering newspapers, working on a farm, and apprenticing as a machinist at the James Flower and Brothers Machine Shop, where Henry Ford also apprenticed in 1880.
When he was 15 years old, Buick got a job with the Alexander Manufacturing Company, a Detroit-based firm that made enameled iron toilet bowls and wooden closer tanks. Using the skills he had acquired as a machinist, Buick was eventually promoted to foreman of the shop. In 1878, he married Catherine Schwinck, with whom he had four children. His oldest son, Thomas D. Buick, would later work with his father in the automobile industry.
The Alexander Manufacturing Company failed in 1882 and Buick became partners with William S. Sherwood. The two assumed the company's assets to create the Buick and Sherwood Plumbing and Supply Company. Buick's later inept business deals suggest that Sherwood was the driving force behind the plumbing company's financial success, while Buick contributed to that success with his mechanical skills and numerous inventions. In fact, by the end of the 1880s, Buick had received 13 patents-all but one related to plumbing. His most popular invention created a method of bonding porcelain onto metal. At a time when indoor plumbing was rapidly increasing in popularity, this patent contributed a great deal to the viability of his company. During the late 1890s, Buick became interested in gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. In December 1899, Buick and Sherwood sold the plumbing company for $100,000 to the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. Drawn by his increasing infatuation with engines, Buick invested his share of the $100,000 in a new company that he named the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company. Buick was completely disassociated from the plumbing business by 1902.
Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company sold marine and stationary engines that were commonly used to operate farm and lumbering equipment. Buick's first projects focused on attempting to increase the power of these standard engines. He also created a new "L-head" engine design with the help of Walter L. Marr and Eugene C. Richard. The L-head engine was an unsuccessful attempt to modify a marine engine to operate a carriage. Buick was not discouraged by the failure of his new engine, although he did find himself in some financial trouble. He then turned his attention to the development of a "valve-in-head" design, hoping to create a commercially viable automobile engine.
With the development of the valve-in-head design, Buick finally had an engine that would be successful in his early car models. Although he participated in the development of the engine, Marr and Richard did much of the design work. Marr, who designed an automobile engine as early as 1898, acted as Buick's general manager until the two had a disagreement and Marr left the company. Using the knowledge he had gained from his previous work for Olds Motor Works, Richard completed the job Marr had left unfinished.
Buick's financial problems continued to grow. In April 1891, he offered to sell Marr the Buick automobile for $300. He also offered Marr an assortment of engines, designs, and parts for $1,500. His attempt to sell these items for such a small amount suggests that he was interested in finding capital to continue his research and design in any manner possible. In 1902, he reorganized his company as the Buick Manufacturing Company, thus setting a path toward the development of a commercially successful automobile.
Buick eventually convinced Benjamin and Frank Briscoe, suppliers of metal parts to Detroit's young automobile industry, to forgive the debt he owed them and advance him $650 for the automobile on which he was working. The car was successfully road tested in early 1903. Although owned by the Briscoe brothers, the metal suppliers let Buick use the car to promote his business and raise money to support its production.
Buick had little luck finding investors and, by spring of 1903, he returned to make another deal with the Briscoes. This agreement, however, would ultimately cost Buick his own business. The Briscoe brothers recapitalized Buick's company at $100,000, which now became the Buick Motor Company. As part of the deal, Buick received a loan of approximately $3,500 and became president of the company. In return, the Briscoes maintained $99,700 of the company's stock and Buick only held $300 in stock. Furthermore, Buick was given six months to repay his debt, at which time he would have the option of acquiring all the stock, but if he failed to meet this requirement, the Briscoes would assume complete control of the company.
Before the deadline of September 1903 was reached, the Briscoe brothers sold the Buick Motor Company to a group of business investors from Flint, Michigan, who were led by the president of the Flint Wagon Works, James H. Whiting. Construction of a Flint production plant began in September 1903, and the Buick Motor Company began production the following January. The once again reorganized company was incorporated on January 14, 1904, at a $75,000 capitalization. Buick became the company's secretary and also acted as general manager. As part of the reorganization, he and his son Thomas were given 1,500 shares of stock between them, but they was barred from actually owning the stock until Buick's debts, which were now owned by Whiting's group, were repaid.
By the end of May 1904, Buick had joined with Marr to create the first valve-in-head double-opposed engine. The first Model B automobile was produced in July 1904. Marr and Buick's son, Thomas, test drove the prototype to Detroit on July 9 and returned on July 12. The trip home took only three hours and 37 minutes, averaging a speed of nearly 30 miles per hour. With the success of the test drive, which was reported favorably in the Flint Journal, commercial production of the Model B began in August 1904. On August 13, 1904, Buick Motor Company made its first sale, delivering a Model B to Dr. Herbert Hills of Flint. By mid-September, 16 more Buicks had been sold. Another 11 cars were delivered by the end of the year. In all, 37 Buicks were produced and sold in 1904.
Despite this successful start, Whiting was growing increasingly nervous about his investment. Buick had borrowed a significant sum of money from Flint banks to finance the commercial production of his automobiles, but he had not developed a marketing plan to insure that sales would increase. Whiting was also feeling pressure from the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, the holder of the patent for the Selden internal combustion "road engine," which was threatening to prohibit the production of the Buick automobiles on the issue of patent rights infringement.
Whiting looked to William C. Durant to solve his problems. Durant, the president of Durant-Dort Carriage Company of Flint, was known for his marketing savvy. When Whiting first approached Durant, he was reticent about entering the automobile industry. After personally testing the Buick, however, the idea of entering the business became more appealing. Finally, on November 1, 1904, Durant recapitalized the Buick Motor Company at $300,000. He became the newly reorganized company's president, and quickly moved David Buick out of any meaningful role in the company's business. Within a year, Buick had only 110 shares of stock and was working as an engineer in the "experimental room."
Durant proved his marketing skills over the next several years. In 1905, the Buick Motor Company produced 750 automobiles. The next year, production was doubled to 1,400 cars. A new design, the Model 10, hit the market in 1908 and proved to be extremely popular. Production boomed to 8,820, which was more than Ford and Cadillac production combined. Buick never profited from this commercial success; he still owed the company money, which he never repaid. Finally, he was forced to resign in 1908, forfeiting his stock shares and receiving at least $100,000 from Durant in severance pay.
In the same year, Durant formed General Motors with an initial capital stock of $2,000, which increased to $12.5 million 12 days after its inception. Durant hoped to use GM to buy control of car companies. On October 1, 1908, Buick Motor Company became his first purchase. Although it remained an independent company for another ten years, after 1908 the Buick Motor Company was essentially controlled by its holding company, GM.
Buick used the money from his severance pay to finance an oil-company venture in California and land deals in Florida, all of which failed. Buick also failed in his attempts to create a carburetor company and an automobile company with his son Thomas. In the last years of his life, he taught mechanics classes at the Young Men's Christian Association in Detroit. He died in Detroit on March 6, 1929 at the age of 74.
American National Biography, Vol. 3, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dammann, George H., Seventy Years of Buick, Crestline Publishing, 1973.
Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The Automobile Industry, 1896-1920, edited by George S. May, Bruoccoli Clark Layman, Inc., 1990.
Weisberger, Bernard A., The Dream Maker: William C. Durant, Founder of General Motors, Little, Brown, 1979.