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Who Remembers David Dunbar Buick?

Who Remembers David Dunbar Buick?

Paraphrased from the Sept. 15, 1974 Arbroath, Scotland Sunday Post; reprinted with permission from Torque Tube magazine of the 1937-1938 Buick Club

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  A remarkable Scotsman was born in Arbroath, Scotland 120 years ago.  He was a man who deserved fame and fortune, yet died in poverty and is virtually unknown in his native land.  He was David Dunbar Buick, born September 17, 1854 at 26 Green Street, Arbroath.

D. D. Buick  Do you recognize the name?  You should.  David started the company that grew into the General Motors Corporation of America, the mightiest car-making empire in the world.  Over 17,000,000 cars bearing his name and crest have rolled off production lines, yet he was involved in making only 120 of them.

  His father, Alexander Buick, a joiner, emigrated to America with his wife and son when David was two years old.  As a young man, David settled in Detroit, where he started manufacturing plumbing materials.  He made a tiny fortune after he invented a process for heat-binding porcelain to wrought iron to make white bath tubs -- a much sought-after status symbol in those days.

  Around the turn of the century, David saw his first motor car.  He became obsessed with cars and, in 1902, he organized Buick Manufacturing Company to make them.  But his advanced designs invariably left the firm over-spent.  He borrowed $5,000 from a friend, Ben Briscoe, who didn't doubt David's ability as a craftsman but was wary of his business abilities.  When Briscoe heard that a firm at Flint, 115 miles from Detroit, was thinking of starting car production, he persuaded David to team up with them.  The firm was impressed with David's car.  They borrowed $10,000 from a local bank to settle the Buick debts.  The Buick plant was shifted lock, stock and starting crank to Flint.  But the deal left Buick with little say in the firm.  In effect, he signed away his future.  Still, the firm completed 16 cars in 1903 and 34 in 1904, all experimental machines at $1,200 each.

  At this point, William C. Durant came onto the scene.  A brilliant business man, he'd already made a fortune in the carriage industry.  On November 1, 1904, Durant became general manager of the Buick Motor Co. with Buick as president.

  Durant, who would later create General Motors, was a go-getter.  Like Ford, he knew the industry's future lay in speeding up production and cutting assembly costs.  But Buick was a craftsman who regarded each car as a unique invention.  One of the two had to go.  It was David Buick.  In 1906, aged 52, he severed his last link with the firm and returned to Detroit with his wife and son.

  The company went from strength to strength.  In 1908, Durant acquired Oldsmobile and Cadillac to form General Motors.  Chevrolet joined in 1918.  Britain's Vauxhall was acquired in 1926, and Germany's Opel some years later.  Buick production reached 100,000 cars a year in 1923.  Today there is a 300-acre complex employing 20,000 people and producing 350,000 cars a year.

  But David Buick died of colon cancer, impoverished and forgotten, in Harper Hospital, Detroit, on March 5, 1929.  Until a few weeks earlier, though 74, he was still working as an inspector at Detroit's trade school.  His wife died some years later and his son Thomas died in 1943.

  Ben Briscoe wrote sadly in 1921 that had David been able to keep his shares in the firm, they would have been worth more than $10,000,000 at that time.  Their value today would be almost incalculable.

  The house where David Buick was born no longer stands.  It was demolished years ago to make way for new council houses.  But as the birthplace of a man who greatly influenced transport, its setting is appropriately close to the burgh's new four-lane throughway, Burnside Drive.  Arbroath could do worse than rename it Buick Way, as a tribute to Scotland's most remarkable forgotten son.