Tuesday, January 1, 2013

When better cars are built, Buick will build them. A look at 110-years of history and innovation. BUICK WEEK

If there ever were a car company that was accused of being too old fashioned, while at the same time achieving its greatest success by looking into the future, it's Buick. It is one of the best-kept secrets in the industry today, yet has one of the most colorful, eventful histories imaginable.  My first car was a Buick, and my dad has had a few over the years, so I have kind of a soft spot for the brand.  So let's take a look at the history of this storied company.

David Dunbar Buick founded the company that bears his name in 1903, and the first cars were sold to the public in 1904. Those first cars, known as the Model B, were reliable because of their durable valve-in-head engines. So bulletproof was this design that Buick's mantra, "Valve-in-head is ahead in value" served the company in advertising pieces decades later.

Buick Motor Company was actually bought by James H. Whiting while still in its infancy, and he partnered with William C. Durant to manage the struggling company. Of course, most people know Durant was a brilliant promoter, and was soon able to turn Buick into the best-selling car in America. The success of Buick was the springboard Durant needed to build General Motors, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Buick was often referred to as a "doctor's car", because it offered most of the luxury and accoutrements of comparable models from Cadillac, but the smaller price tag meant a "sensible" doctor wouldn't look as ostentatious when he showed up for a house call.

Sometimes people use the word "icon" to describe certain cars, and there really isn't much substance to back that up. That's not the case on Buicks. The waterfall grill, which began as far back as the 1940s, is still a prominent feature today. So too are the famous "Ventiports". The "Sweapspear" bodyline made popular in the 1950s, has made a return appearance on the current Lacrosse. There are so many styling elements that are so closely related to Buick--but why is that?

Much of the reason goes to automotive stylist extraordinaire Harley Earl. Buick was a favorite of the Hollywood stylist-turned-GM design director, and many of his most famous and highly regarded concept cars were built under the Buick banner. The very first concept car, the Y-Job, was an incredibly futuristic design built under the Buick banner. Earl went on to oversee the design of the 1951 LeSabre, the 1954 Wildcat, and the 1956 Centurion concept cars, among others, and not only did their features find their ways into dealer showrooms, but they also positioned Buick as a company with its finger on the pulse of the future.

As General Motors embraced the performance era of the 1960s and '70s, Buick was right there with them. The Wildcats of the mid-to-late '60s were similar in size and performance to comparable Chevelles and GTOs. The Riviera, which arrived on the scene in 1963, was one of the most stylish, desirable cars of its day. The Skylark-based GSX of the early '70s was one of the most bloodthirsty ground-pounders of the muscle car era. Even into the 1980s, the turbocharged, V6-powered Grand National and Grand National GNX was virtually unbeatable in the raw power-for-dollar department.

Buick also has a strong racing history. As early as the 1910s, Buick was regularly winning races. Back then, racing was an integral part of demonstrating a car's durability and performance, and Buick delivered on the track and off. Buick was a fixture in NASCAR events in the 1950s, when the small-bodied, big engine Century line had some success. But Buick really shined in the '80s, when the Regal won three NASCAR Championships (Darrell Waltrip in 1981 and 1982, and Bobby Allison in 1983). They continued to be competitive throughout the decade.

None of this sounds like the "old people's car" reputation that Buick is saddled with today. So where did this come from? Well, along with all these pulse-quickening rides, Buick was building some of the most perfect, period-correct boulevard cruisers on the planet. Cars like the Roadmaster and the Electra 225 personified big luxury cars for decades.

There's a risk in building cars like these, even if they're what people want. No matter how nice, how quiet, or how opulent a company builds a car, if it doesn't possess at least some of the qualities of a Porsche 911, it will be systematically crucified in the media. Never mind that it will get you from New York to Los Angeles without causing you an ounce of fatigue; if it doesn't do well in a slalom course, it is worthy of ridicule. Reviews are written by "experts" who tend to also be enthusiasts. Enthusiasts don't like big, cushy cars. These expert reviews are where people get their information. Therefore, people have reached the conclusion that soft, comfortable cars are bad.

The final big, traditional car that Buick built was the Lucerne. And here's something you probably won't read anywhere else: the Lucerne is actually a very good car. It is extremely quiet, roomy, and comfortable. In other words, it is everything people have read that they are supposed to hate about a car. It'll never overcome the old person stigma, so most of the people that will actually enjoy it are going to be senior citizens who don't buy into magazine articles.  Many former Lucerne buyers seem to be replacing their vehicles with the luxurious Enclave crossover, so at least they seem to be keeping it in the family.

Luckily, Buick realizes that if they want to stay in business, they need to build cars that the experts like. The new Lacrosse is as un-Lucerne-like as they come, with a taught, performance-oriented suspension, and confining, cockpit-like interior. It is a very well-detailed car, with beautiful chrome accents and interior lighting. Lexus is the bogey here, and Buick has nailed the Japanese automaker in every aspect except reputation. If they can get people into Buick showrooms, and do something about that "what will the neighbors think" attitude, they should be able to dominate this market segment.

The new Regal gives people even more of what they're asking for. This is a German four-cylinder car. Add a turbocharger if you want more power. If not for the stylized adaptation of David Dunbar Buick's family crest in the center of the grill, you wouldn't even know it was a Buick. This is an excellent modern car, and not many senior citizens are going to care about it.

Buick is the second-oldest American car company in existence, and survives today even when many of GM's most popular nameplates have crumbled. They have consistently addressed performance, style, and luxury, and today do battle with some very capable cars in a very competitive environment. They have a lineup that seems to appeal to the experts. And, of course, they are wildly popular in China.  Hopefully, people will trust the experts as much as they have in the past, and Buick will still be with us in another 110 years.

The slideshow below contains mostly GM promotional photos from throughout Buick's history.  Click on the dialogue balloon in the bottom left corner of the slideshow to read the captions. Or click this link for a better version of the slideshow.




2 comments:

  1. Buick is NOT the second oldest car manufacture but the oldest American car manufacture still in business!

    ReplyDelete
  2. 50 year old 1970 buick fanaticOctober 9, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    Can anybody give me info or a website about how david got to the 1970 skylark buick gsx body?

    ReplyDelete