Sales Ad Saturday- David Buick forms Buick Motor Company
A story of a legendary pioneer of automotive history for this week's 'Sales Ad Saturday’. This week in 1903 David Buick, with the help of his friend and investor Benjamin Briscoe, incorporated the Buick Motor Company. Much like Henry Ford, Buick’s new company would represent his third attempt to form a profitable automobile company, and it is interesting that both Buick and Ford Motor Company were formed within a month of each other. The individual paths of the lives of these men thereafter could not have been more divergent.
David Buick immigrated from Scotland in 1856 at the age of two. He left school at the age of 15 in 1869, and eventually took a job with a plumbing supply manufacturer, Alexander Manufacturing. David was a creative innovator who eventually earned over a dozen plumbing-related patents to his name. Among his better-known innovations was a process for joining porcelain to cast iron, which was important in the advancement of modern bathroom fixtures. In the late 1880s, Alexander manufacturing was in trouble. Buick and a partner, William Sherwood, acquired the company. Buick and Sherwood would successfully run the business for over ten years. In the late 1890s, Buick began developing and selling his own gas-powered engine for agricultural, industrial and marine applications. Buick sold his stake in Buick Sherwood in 1899 for $100,000, investing the proceeds into his first motor company, Buick Auto Vim and Power Company.
At Buick Auto Vim, Buick and engineer Walter Marr found only limited success. Part of this could be attributed to personality conflicts between Buick and Marr, who had some difficulty working together. The short-lived company was not profitable, and what started as a venture to build engines turned into a futile attempt to build cars. The company only produced one car, which Marr bought for himself for $225 when the company was dissolved in early 1902.
Buick formed a second company, The Buick Manufacturing Company. An engineer named Eugene Richard, along with Marr, who had returned to Buick, worked to successfully perfect a usable design for a revolutionary American-produced overhead valve engine. Despite this important advancement, this second company also failed to produce more than one car, which was purchased by Briscoe. By 1903 the company was insolvent, and Buick was deeply in debt.
In early 1903, Briscoe provided Buick with a $5,000 loan, and on May 19th, 1903 Buick Motor Company was formed. Briscoe’s interest in the venture was short-lived, in September that year Briscoe sold the firm to James Whiting, the owner of the Flint Wagon Works who was looking to diversify into automobile production. Buick's operations were moved to Flint, and David Buick became an employee reporting to Whiting, no longer a majority owner of the company bearing his name. This arrangement didn’t last long either. Although the few cars they were producing were good, Whiting was no better at making money as a car maker than Buick was, and in November 1904 Billy Durant acquired controlling interest in the company from Whiting.
Buick stayed on as a board member and employee, but his days at the company were numbered. Durant and Buick were very different personalities, and Durant, a consummate salesman, had the drive and know-how to save the company and build Buick’s market share, which is exactly what he did. From 1908 on, Buick would be the reliably successful centerpiece of the conglomerate Durant would come to form, General Motors. Fifteen months after Durant acquired the company, David Buick resigned. Reports about the specifics of Buick’s departure vary, but it is believed that Buick walked away with a severance worth at least $100,000, in addition to the proceeds of the sale of his remaining shares of Buick stock. According to David Buick himself, the board had voted to pay his salary for the rest of his life, but he claimed he was only paid for three years after his departure.
After his resignation, Buick faded into relative obscurity compared to many of his contemporaries in the auto industry. He made money-losing investments in the petroleum industry in California and real estate in Florida. For a time, he was involved in a carburetor manufacturing company with his son. In the early twenties, he was involved with the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Lorraine Motors, which only produced a few hundred cars. After that, he made initial plans to bring his own car to market, the Dunbar, which never materialized. By the late 1920s, Buick was nearly penniless, living in a small apartment in downtown Detroit, and working for the Detroit School of Trades. He passed on in March of 1929 at the age of 74.