Once upon a time, General Motors dropped off a few Buicks across the Pacific in China. They loved them – a lot. Then, came the Japanese invading Manchuria, World War II, the push back of the Japanese invaders, and the rise of communism and Mao Zedong.
Mao dies, China finds a way to have communism with capitalism, and Buick returns to become the biggest nameplate in the land.
Well…not exactly. Yet, this seems to be the narrative of Buick’s current status within GM. They have become the darling of the Chinese automotive business, thanks to SAIC. SAIC and GM have teamed up to develop Buicks for China and the few markets that still sell this mid-priced brand of 116 years. Soon, everything in the Buick lineup will be dictated by designers and engineers in Shanghai, not Warren, Michigan.
One should argue that Buick is as American as apple pie. It was the "doctor's car" and the one vehicle bankers drove that balanced wealth with integrity. While it offered luxury, it also offered value. The Buick I grew up with came from that tradition of balance within the landscape of the domestic automobile.
There are a few twists in Buick’s story. First off, its namesake founder was born in Scotland. His family would make their way to America, settling in the Detroit area. David Buick first worked with horse-drawn carriages until he stumbled his way into making ones with gasoline engines. Buick began a car-making company in 1903.
Early Buicks were innovative for their time. The original two-cylinder engines featured a valve-in-head design. They were proven reliable and offered plenty of performance. Taking what they learned from the first engines, they would soon expand it to a four-cylinder motor. In the first decade of Buick, they were not only the biggest selling car brand in the country, but they also had a successful racing team that won trophies worldwide.
Eventually, David Buick would not run his own company, However, William C. Durant arrived to take Buick further by leading into putting Flint, Michigan on the map. Not for civic pride’s sake, but to use Buick as the economic engine that would lead the nation.
Durant had bigger ideas. Those ideas would eventually create a greater corporate entity called General Motors. With Buick, he would acquire and/or merge with Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Oakland. The latter would become Pontiac. By 1911, Chevrolet was born in Flint. However, all roads lead to Buick as the innovative spark for GM to become a major player in the automotive industry from its inception in 1908.
With a set of divisions in place for GM, Buick would find its own identity as a car that was luxurious, but attainable for most professionals at the time. The first Buick was sold to a doctor in 1904. It did dawn on the marketing team at the division to consider their mid-priced luxury car the choice of physicians nationwide. The sight of a Buick pulling up to your home as your family doctor sees how you are feeling today.
Buicks were also the choice of bankers. They saw their Buick as a smart financial decision – not ostentatious nor overly expensive. Just the right amount of respect and credibility for a banker to pull into his parking space with a sense of purpose.
While the early 20th Century was predominantly male-dominated, Buick did not ignore women as part of their customer base. Buicks appealed to women because they balanced luxury with value. These wonderful automobiles did play into the stereotype of the want of glamour even at its lowest trim level. It would not be a stretch that Buicks were also purchased by women professionals as they rose to knock of the glass ceiling.
The Great Depression was not kind of luxury automakers. Buick’s sales fell in the early 1930s. This was also party due to unpopular models and ideas that almost sank the division further. The lower-priced Marquette was introduced in 1930 in the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash. Its bad timing halted Marquette production after a model year.
Things did turn around for Buick as the economy began to slowly pick up steam. The Turret Top design of 1935 helped GM across the board, as well as boosting Buick’s sales. Part of this was due to the division finding its audience – professionals who were emerging from the Depression, as well as those who had to abandon their luxury cars for something more “modest.” From the mid-1930s, Buick represented something more than just modest. They were vehicles that people actually aspire to.
What really attracted customers to a Buick through the 1930s was an innovative overhead valve in-light eight-cylinder engine. The combination of an efficient engine valve and gas/exhaust distribution design that Buick developed in 1907 with an expanded set of cylinders cemented Buick’s place in the automotive market for decades to come. This engine would sustain Buick through World War II into the early 1950s.
Buick’s position as a mid-priced brand also yielded a wide model range that fits in most budgets. Series 50 customers found Buicks slightly more expensive than an upgraded Chevrolet or Ford, while luxury car buyers found Series 80 and 90 models more attainable than their Cadillac counterparts. This practice of offering a wide variety of models made Buick a popular and desirable brand before and after World War II.
For 1949, a true Post-War design was introduced. An updated version of the Buick Eight sat underneath its side-opening hood with a set of Portholes denoting the number of cylinders (times two) of the engine beyond the front fenders. Buick also adopted the latest trend in cars: a hardtop roof design. This design was designed with no hard pillar separating the door from the rear quarter glass, emulating the open air flow of a convertible. The 1949 Buick continued some design elements from previous models – such as the cascading grille – while seeing the fenders integrate with the rest of the body.
In contrast to other General Motors divisions, Buick did not adopt the high-compression V8 until the 1955 model year. Nor did it adopt the Hydramatic transmission found on contemporary Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Instead, Buick developed the Dynaflow automatic that matched perfectly with its in-line eight-cylinder engine. Some customers found this driveline to be less efficient than the Oldsmobile and Cadillac, but that never stopped Buick’s loyal customers from taking delivery of their precious cars.
To mark the division’s 50th anniversary, Buick finally introduced their first high-compression V8 engine. It would found in a dream car that was sold in limited numbers – the Skylark. This car would also serve as a vision for Buick’s future, as seen in their most successful lineup to date two years later.
The 1955 Buick followed many of GM’s design conventions found across all divisions. As was the case for years, the entry-level Special model was priced within a few dollars of a Chevrolet Bel Air. This enabled customers to truly step up in a booming economy. However, customers can also choose from other trim levels, such as the Super, Century, and Roadmaster. To own a Roadmaster was to own a Buick that is as close to a Series 62 Cadillac as possible – without paying Series 62 money.
The result was Buick’s biggest year with 738,814 units sold in 1955. This would be Buick’s biggest year until 1977.
As with most of the American automotive industry, Buick would ride through design trends while maintaining their level of cache for its customers. The late 1950s saw tailfins grow and more chrome applied to their cars. The 1959 Buick followed GM trends of lower, sleeker designs that would dictate Buick design into the 1960s.
Buick would also introduce a new size of car for 1961 with the "compact" Special, powered by a V6 engine. This new small Buick would also be the home of an all-new aluminum V8 engine that would serve the Special Skylark for a few years. That engine would eventually be sold to Land Rover, finding a home underneath its iconic British SUVs into the 1990s.
For 1963, Buick would stir the automotive market again with the introduction of its first personal luxury coupe – the Riviera. It was seen as GM’s answer to the Ford Thunderbird, offering a more modern design overall. Between Ford and Buick, a new class of desirable automobile was born.
Through the 1960s into the early 1970s, Buick’s lineup was secure. The Special grew larger into the mid-sized class, along with GM’s corporate A-Body. The Riviera also grew in both size and stature, even as it was not moved to the new front-drive personal luxury coupe platform of the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. The Riviera would remain rear-wheel-drive until 1978.
The muscle car craze would also hit Buick two-fold. The division had its own version of GM’s corporate 455 cubic-inch V8 and would place it underneath the hood of two iconic cars – the Wildcat and Skylark GS. The year 1970 would be the apex of Buick’s muscle car offerings, with the high-performance GSX and GSX Stage 1. To get one, customers would order a Skylark GS 455, then add the $1,100 package to raise the performance envelope and add more appearance and handling goodies to battle a Pontiac GTO or a Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 on the drag strip.
Sadly, all the fun would end. Buick rode through the 1970s facing the OPEC Oil Crisis and a slow economy. In response to these challenges, Buick would introduce two new additions to its lineup: The Apollo and the Skyhawk. The 1973 Apollo was a badge-engineered version of the Chevrolet Nova, with different exterior and interior pieces. This “compact” was slotted underneath the all-new Colonnade design A-Body Century and Regal.
The Skyhawk arrived in 1975 as a smaller coupe than the Apollo. Also badge-engineered, it shared the sharp coupe body of the Chevrolet Monza, which was an improved version of the poorly executed Vega. Both the Skyhawk and Apollo diversified Buick’s lineup to meet the want of a smaller vehicle, while attempting to add some mid-priced cache of the brand. Needless to say, both smaller Buicks were already penalized because they were simply a grille and badge swap from their Chevrolet brethren.
There had been smaller cars sold at Buick dealers in the past. After World War II, GM cut a deal with their German unit, Opel, to sell cars in the USA. Opels were channeled through Buick dealers, which sort of made sense. You had Kadetts, Opel GTs, 1900s (Ascona), and Mantas on display alongside LeSabres, Rivieras, and Regals.
In an interesting twist, GM decided to stop selling German Opels in the USA by 1975. They opted to sell a car that was on the Kadett platform (also shared by the Chevrolet Chevette) but built by GM-controlled Isuzu in Japan for the 1976 model year. Instead of calling them Opel Geminis, or something similar, they would opt for names such as Opel by Isuzu or the Buick Opel. Neither of them wore the Tri-Shield badge anywhere on this car.
In another response to the OPEC Oil Crisis, GM went on a downsizing binge. They first tackled the full-sized B- and C-Bodies and reduced them by an average of ten inches long. Buick’s full-sized lineup, the LeSabre, Electra, and Riviera, would undertake this first size reduction for 1977. This will be followed by the Century and Regal the next year. While they were reduced in size, all of these cars fully exhibited the luxury and aspirational feel expected from a Buick.
At this point, I must interject myself into this story. My mother’s side of the family were GM loyalists. They owned only two brands: Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. A Buick never really crossed my family’s mind.
That all changed when my father and his then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-second wife went out and bought new his-and-her 1977 Buick Electra Limited four-door sedans. His was a creamy yellow color with an almost matching velour interior, while hers was a medium blue metallic with a matching velour interior and a darker blue vinyl roof. My ever attempt at driving was in the former – attempt being the operative word. Dad thought I would be able to get his Electra out of a packed parking lot in downtown San Francisco. I don’t recall whether I had my learner’s permit or not.
It is safe to say that the first car I attempted to drive was a Buick.
Into the 1980s, Buick adapted to GM’s future product plans by switching to front-drive platforms. The Riviera was first for 1979, as it moved to a new downsized platform with the Cadillac Eldorado, Seville, and Oldsmobile Toronado. The next year saw the advent of the new X-Body and the new front-drive Skylark. Then came the new compact J-Body with the Skyhawk, and the larger A-Body Century for 1982.
Then came the 1985 Electra. This would become the most controversial move towards downsizing onto a front-drive platform. The size reduction was extreme in the outside while retaining the same amount of interior space as the larger rear-drive version it replaced. Though they did measure out as somewhat larger than the Century.
The rest of the decade saw some models shifting and realigned to meet the competition from abroad and in Southeastern Michigan. The Somerset arrived in 1985 as a coupe slotted between the Skyhawk and Century. That car would eventually replace the X-Car Skylark and would be renamed as such. The Riviera for 1986 was downsized again and put on a new unibody, front-drive platform. On that same platform came a car that was supposed to be the brand’s new symbol of the future – the 1988 Reatta. The two-seat coupe and convertible failed to capture new and loyal customers alike by being completely different than the brand’s own perception of itself.
The Reatta experience became a reflection of what Buick had become by the 1990s. The brand’s loyal customer base was aging, with reports of the average age of a Buick owner in his or her late 50s. This fact became a comic point for its competition to mock the once-great innovator of the automobile.
No discussion of Buick in the 1980s would not be complete without mentioning the word "turbocharging." While Buick was always seen as a luxury brand that was attainable for the mid-priced consumer, the spirit of the 1970 GSX continued onto its spiritual successor – the 1982 Buick Regal Grand National. The Grand National would not be possible if Buick did not attach a turbocharger to its 3.8-liter V6 engine. In 1979, that engine was found in various Buicks, including the Motor Trend Car of The Year Riviera.
Once the 1980s were underway, the turbo V6 would be a rallying point for Buick. Yet, it would serve as a counterpoint to its luxury lineup. From the Regal T-Type came the Grand National and its performance upgrades and limited production. Then, came the 1987 GNX – the ultimate expression of Buick performance in the Malaise Era. Buick amped up the engine to 276 horsepower with performance matching that of supercars of the time.
Only 547 GNXs were made. It was clear that it would become the "Grand National to end all Grand Nationals." It would also signal the end of an era for Buick and its performance efforts.
The automotive landscape was changing in the early 1990s. American automobiles were seen as lower in quality and less reliable than its Japanese counterparts. Softroading SUVs began to replace the minivan as family transportation. Buick had to adapt to these changing conditions quickly or find themselves obsolete in the new century.
While Buick added SUVs, crossovers, and minivans to their lineup in the early 2000s, the demographics did not change. They still attracted an older clientele. That was not the only problem Buick had to contend at the dawn of the 21st century. The old mid-priced market was about to fade away, with customers divvied up between mainstream and premium brands.
In the meantime, a new development that would carry Buick into the new century was taking place outside of North America. Remember when we talked about Buick’s popularity in China? The SAIC-GM joint venture was underway and it began to yield results. While decisions were being made at the Renaissance Center, consumers in China flocked to a brand that was slowly losing customers elsewhere.
The Chinese factor would play when GM was faced with a challenge to their corporate future. The global economic crisis of 2008 cut deep into the company’s pockets and balance sheets. Eventually, they had to borrow money from the Federal Government under the Troubled Asset Relief Program but would end up filing for bankruptcy to reorganize the company.
It was feared that Buick would wind up in the "Old GM" bucket – the corporate dustbin of brands and entities that the company would end up shutting down in order to survive. What saved the brand was the growing customer base and overall success in China. While Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer were flushed down the legal system’s toilet, Buick was saved.
Or, as RuPaul would say "Buick, shantay you stay!"
With or without China, there are those who question Buick’s continued existence. Granted, it serves a purpose in the “world’s largest automotive market.” But, in North America? That is where the debate continues to rage on for the past ten years.
However, we cannot deny the rich history of David Dunbar Buick’s Tri-Shield brand. The automotive legacy of an early leader and evolved into one of the most respected brands for generations. And, yet, it’s future has been questioned, while assured by a country consumer base’s appetite for this brand continue to sustain it for the time being.
After all, would you really rather have a Buick?