Who Was David Buick?

David Buick, whose cars helped make General Motors, died too poor to afford a telephone, let alone one of the cars that bore his name.

In 1928 Bruce Catton, a young newspaper reporter who would later gain fame as a Civil War historian, was talking to "a thin, bent little man" working behind the information desk at the Detroit School of Trades. The forgotten 74-year old man had a story to tell. The man who built the cars that would be the cornerstone for the world's largest industrial corporation couldn't afford to keep a telephone in his home, let alone buy one of the automobiles that bore his name.

David Dunbar Buick was born in Scotland in 1854 but came to Detroit with his parents when he was only two. His father died three years later and his mother worked in a candy store to support the family. At age 15 Buick went to work for the Alexander Manufacturing Company, a Detroit fabricator of plumbing fixtures.

In 1882 Buick and an old schoolmate, William Sherwood, took over the business when it failed. Over the next several years Buick & Sherwood, with David Buick as president, became successful. Buick himself is credited with many inventions, including improvements to bathtubs, water closets, flushing devices and a lawn sprinkler. His most notable achievement was a method for bonding enamel to cast iron making possible the colorful bathroom and kitchen fixtures of today.

With this promising start Buick could probably have become wealthy in the plumbing business. But David Buick was more interested in making things than making money. Like many tinkerers of the late 19th century he became fascinated with the new gasoline internal combustion engines.

His growing obsession with engine experimenting created a rift in an already tenuous business partnership. Sherwood finally delivered the ultimatum, "Dave, either get down to work or get out." So in 1899, at age 45, Buick sold the company for $100,000. He used his share to form the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company to manufacture gasoline engines.

Initially he set out to build marine and stationary engines. The origins of the first Buick automobile are unknown. It was either built by Buick or Walter Lorenzo Marr, a gifted machinist hired by Buick. At any rate Buick, strapped for cash, sold the first car to Marr in August 1901 for $225.



The next year the company became the Buick Manufacturing Company and developed the "valve-in-head" engine which would become the standard in the industry for its power and efficiency. In 1903 the Buick Motor Company was organized, but under terms that would haunt David Buick forever.

The firm was capitalized with $100,000 in stock - $99,700 for Benjamin Briscoe and $300 for David Buick. Buick was president and he could gain control of all the stock if he repaid Briscoe $3500 he owed him within four months. If he couldn't repay the loan Buick would forfeit all interest in the company. All Briscoe wanted out of the new company was his money back.

Prior to the deadline, Buick sold the company to Flint Wagon Works, who were seeking a way into auto manufacturing, to meet his obligation with Briscoe. But Buick became entangled in a worse bargain with the new owners. The Buick Motor Company moved north to Flint with David Buick becoming secretary of the new car works. He was allotted 1500 shares but would not receive the stock until his dividends paid off his personal debts.

Buick cars were in production in 1904 when carriage-maker William Durant took over. Buick's role in the business declined rapidly until he finally lost the manager's title to Durant in early 1906. At the end of 1908 Buick sold his stock to Durant for $100,000, stock that would soon be worth $115,000,000.

Thereafter Buick was plagued by bad business deals. A questionable oil venture in California and speculative land deals in Florida went bust. He reentered the auto business after the age of 65 to try and make his patented carburetors. He designed a car in 1923 but produced only a single prototype.

When Catton found him in 1928 Buick was impoverished and subsisting on menial jobs. Still, in the interview he professed no bitterness nor regrets over his career. Buick died a year later from pneumonia he contracted after an operation on a cancerous bowel obstruction.

In 1937, after years of being the forgotten man in Buick history, General Motors adopted the genuine ancestral crest used by the ancient Buick family for its cars. To date the Buick name has been stamped on over twenty-five million cars.

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