David Buick: The forgotten man of a burgeoning empire
David Buick's name has appeared on 40 million motor vehicles over 105 years. And some of those cars had quite notable owners — political leaders, movie stars, adventurers, sultans, kings of England and the last emperor of China.
More important, Buick built the automobile that provided the stage for Billy Durant as he created what became the world's largest automaker, General Motors.
Admittedly, there were reasons for David Buick's obscurity. He disliked making public appearances and sometimes displayed a curt, sharp-edged personality. He was "a hard man to do business with," said Detroit politician John C. Lodge.
A private man
Buick was seldom available for interviews. He wrote little that survived. His family preserved few of his photographs and personal effects. Then there was the money problem: He lost much of his fortune in a shady oil deal in California and was nearly broke when he died in 1929.
In his last years he was too poor to afford a telephone, let alone an automobile. By then, 2 million Buicks had been produced, and the brand was highly valued. But the only job David Buick could find in his last years was as a low-paid instructor in a Detroit trade school.
More has been learned recently about the slight, 5-foot-51/2-inch native of Scotland. He attracted a few mechanical stars to work for him, and he knew much more about how to design and manufacture engines than was previously thought.
David Buick was never a big success after he left the plumbing supplies business around 1900. But he was tenacious enough to follow his dream, which was to get his automobile into production. He did that just long enough to attract Durant, the promotional wizard from Flint, Mich.
Buick was born Sept. 17, 1854, in the fishing village of Arbroath, Scotland, on the North Sea. Two years later he moved to Detroit with his parents.
Buick quit school at 11, worked on a farm until he was 15 and then entered the plumbing business. He became an expert brass finisher, then an inventor of plumbing devices and, eventually, president of Buick & Sherwood, a prosperous plumbing supply house.
Walter Marr's role
By the late 1890s he had started manufacturing gasoline engines and engine parts. In 1899, the Motor Vehicle Review reported that he and partner William Sherwood were "experimenting with motor carriages" and planned to get into that business.
Buick sold the plumbing business in 1899, soon parted ways with Sherwood and created Buick Auto-Vim & Power Co. in downtown Detroit. A key move was hiring machinist Walter Marr, who in 1900 became his engines manager.
Marr was a major component of David Buick's success. Marr ran a bicycle shop in Saginaw, Mich., and moved it to Detroit in 1896. In 1898 he built his first motor vehicle.
A year later, after his bike shop folded, Marr found a job at Detroit Shipbuilding Co. He was working on a marine engine when David Buick, who raced sailboats, walked by on the dock, admired Marr's work and hired him.
By early 1901, Marr had built the first Buick automobile, but he and David Buick argued and parted that spring.
Buick hired French-born engineer Eugene Richard, who patented a powerful and efficient overhead-valve engine (later called "Valve-in-Head") for Buick.
In 1902-03, David Buick built the second Buick automobile, which went to his new financial angel, Detroit businessman Benjamin Briscoe. At Briscoe's urging, David incorporated Buick Motor Co. on May 19, 1903.
Within months David sold Buick Motor to directors of Flint Wagon Works in Flint, Mich., which was headed by James Whiting. Whiting financed the purchase with $10,000 borrowed from a Flint bank and insisted that David Buick move to Flint and continue to manage the company.
With Marr back at his side, David Buick turned out 16 cars with the powerful overhead-valve engine in the summer of 1904. But although the car got a great review from the first writer to take a test ride, Whiting could see the Buick operation was about to fold because of high costs.
Enter Billy Durant
That's when he pleaded with Durant, a rival Flint carriage leader, to take over Buick. Durant, a skilled salesman and promoter, was reluctant, but he quickly became enthusiastic about the car's performance. Within four years Durant built up the tiny firm and used it as the foundation when he created GM.
Records are inconclusive, but it appears that David Buick stayed with the Buick company until 1909 — several years after his big role in the creation of GM was over. After Durant took over and quickly built a huge enterprise, David began to fade out.
As Durant told an interviewer: "David Buick was a likable fellow. But he was a dreamer, and he couldn't be practical. ... We did everything we could at the plant to make it easy for him. We arranged for his son, Tom, to be on the payroll and to try to keep his father settled. But after some years, he just drifted away."
It's said that Durant gave Buick $100,000 when he left, even though he was not legally required to do so. Tom Buick complained that his father was treated unfairly, but David himself never seemed bitter, said his grandson, David Dunbar Buick II.
David moved to California to head his newly formed Buick Oil Co., which was briefly successful before lawsuits over stock deals destroyed it. What money Buick salvaged from oil he soon lost in other poor investments, including Florida land deals.
By the mid-1920s, he was back in Detroit. Interviewed in 1928 by young news reporter Bruce Catton (later a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian), David Buick, then 73, noted: "I'm not after charity or pity. But it's kind of hard for a man my age to be uncertain about the future. I've got to have a job."
Catton wrote: "This man whose name is world famous, but whose purse is thin, is neither discouraged nor unhappy. His eyes, that have seen the company he founded go on to greatness without him, are bright and cheerful. He does not seem defeated.
"The giants of the automobile world are true giants that cannot be crushed; and David Buick, if you will, is one of them."
Maybe not crushed, but certainly destitute, David Buick, 74, died of cancer in Detroit on March 5, 1929.
While the press and public lamented his financial situation when he died, David Buick's legacy is large. His name is cast in bronze on a Michigan historical marker at GM headquarters in downtown Detroit and on a plaque at his birthplace in Scotland. He is honored in the Automotive Hall of Fame. Millions of cars have borne his name over more than a century.
And Buick's automobile was the foundation for a corporation that became the world's largest seller of automobiles.