Buick, Where Did You Go?

This post is dedicated to my “twin cousin” John Sundwick, who passed away at his home in Flint, on Feb. 14. During a critical period of our shared childhood, we lived a mere four blocks from each other in Flint. He wasn’t the “car guy,” I was. But we both grew up together in that auto town, and he stayed! RIP, John.

In the beginning, there was Buick. Yes, the oldest still extant (for now, see below) automobile nameplate in North America is the car that started General Motors in Flint, Michigan. David Dunbar Buick was a plumber who found himself captivated by internal combustion engines around 1899, and with engineer Walter Marr, established the Buick Motor Company in Flint in 1903. Although he preferred stationary engines for powering machinery, one of his partners, William C. Durant, pressured him into making cars. A fortune accumulated in the carriage trade, with J. Dallas Dort, of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company (also in Flint) allowed Durant to buy out Buick in 1904. By 1908, Buick became the lynchpin of Durant’s ultimate dream – the mega-corporation he named General Motors.

Those first few years of Buick saw Durant tirelessly promoting the automobile as a high-quality, innovative example of the newest technology. It worked. From 1908 onward, Buick began outselling its many startup competitors, and Durant could activate his plan to acquire other fledgling automobile brands: Cadillac, Oakland, and Oldsmobile (Chevrolet came later). By 1910, Buick was the best-selling automobile brand in America.

Henry Ford was Durant’s closest competitor. Ford had a different concept in mind for his giant River Rouge assembly operation: build a reliable car for the masses. Simple, affordable, what people needed. The emerging GM strategy, led by marketing genius Alfred P. Sloan, who became CEO after events forced Durant and the original partners out, is now known as “market segmentation.” Sloan’s strategy was not so much to give the public what they needed for mobility (Ford’s approach) but to give them what they DESIRED! He would offer his customers dizzying variety of models, styles, nameplates – all at micro-adjusted price differentials. Those differentials spurred a secondary sociological effect: status-seeking. Hence, Cadillac, occupying the exalted peak of the price pyramid, was a car only for the wealthy, Chevrolet (now Ford’s prime competitor) would occupy the base, outcompeting Ford in price and “value.” In the middle between these extremes sat the bulk of the GM brands: Buick was just a notch below Cadillac, approachable by the upwardly mobile and wannabe successes; Oldsmobile was a notch below Buick – perhaps aimed at the older, more affluent working class – while Pontiac (successor to Oakland, which never fit the model) would become the conservative choice for consumers seeking something just a little better than a Chevy. Something for everyone. And each brand had its own dealer network, its own engineering, its own marketing departments. They became General Motors “Divisions.”

The strategy was wildly successful. GM skyrocketed to the top of the U.S. auto industry during the prosperous ‘20s. Accurately assessing the role of the strategy in GM’s success, Sloan gave all brands except Chevrolet companion makes in the late ‘20s to further slice those price differentials. Chevy was fine just where it was – doing quite well against Ford’s Model A (Chevys had six-cylinder engines, Ford only four). The other mass market manufacturers followed similar strategies to GM – Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Chrysler all had lower cost companion brands. And these 1920s marketing innovations managed to survive the Great Depression – providing further evidence that market segmentation worked, carrying auto makers through genuinely tough times.

Buick marched confidently into the ‘30s, despite losing its unnecessary companion brand, Marquette, after only three model years. Buick’s market share continued to grow – “medium-priced” cars seemed to be all the rage, as long as they were good-looking, powerful, and reliable. Buick in the 1930s epitomized all three qualities. They were big cars, but nobody worried – even in markets outside North America. As early as 1930, the local government of Shanghai, China documented one of every six cars on Shanghai streets was a Buick. The emerging bourgeoisie of Republican China, and its political leaders, all preferred Buicks.

Zhou En-Lai’s Buick at his Shanghai residence

Even Zhou En-Lai drove a 1941 Roadmaster sedan, preserved at the museum which was his Shanghai residence. This seemed to create multi-generational loyalty patterns in the Chinese auto market which survive today. In recent years, fully 80% of Buick’s total sales have been in China,

now the world’s largest automobile market. Buick is the car for the bureaucratically well-connected and the upwardly mobile. The median age of Buick buyers in China is 35.

In the late 1920s, a personality from Hollywood named  Harley J. Earl arrived at GM. Sloan created a job and a shop for him in the corporation – he became the auto industry’s first “styling chief.” Earl’s father ran a business customizing cars of movie stars. It was Harley Earl at General Motors that brought us pontoon fenders, long hoods (especially on Buicks), then later, tail fins and chrome! His was the postwar bling look in American automobile design. The two-tone paint schemes of the 1950s, the Cadillac fins, all that Buick chrome (and portholes!) were Earl’s creative juices at work. He favored working with Cadillac, but Buick general managers insisted he mold Buick in his image.

Harley Earl behind wheel of his Y-Job

He invented the idea of the “concept car” –another marketing tool to trot around the country for shows and photo-ops, testing “public acceptance” of new designs. The first concept car was his Buick “Y-Job” of 1939. Streamlined, advanced bodywork, hidden headlights, Buick’s trademark waterfall grille – all wrapped up in a two-seat sports car! The hiatus in civilian auto production during the war was just what GM needed, whetting public appetite for even more radical styling. Earl became a symbol of postwar American prosperity, and “free world” dominance.

As the flamboyance of the ‘50s began to wear thin over the following two decades (Earl retired in 1958), Buick still retained its market share, by now a well-established icon on the American automotive landscape. Many of us began to use “Buick” as a verbal symbol for anything big and flashy – for instance, the scene from Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, where he attempts to rescue Diane Keaton from the spider in her bathtub, “there’s a spider the size of a Buick in your bathtub!” he exclaims.

But rumblings were emerging in the GM board room. It turns out the market segmentation model was extremely costly to maintain year after year. Could it be the public was catching on to the scam, finally? Despite some memorable Buick models in the ‘60s (Riviera and Skylark GS stand out for me), the big car mystique was beginning to fade. Japanese imports and smaller American cars were the growth segment in the market. Were American car buyers growing up? The old folks still liked their big cars – they weren’t dead yet — but Buick had difficulty appealing to the younger generation. Its own smaller offerings just didn’t have the ability to stand out in an increasingly crowded market segment. Even an outstanding muscle car from Buick, the 1970 Skylark GSX, while getting rave reviews in the automotive press, was just too understated and quiet to appeal to the cohort salivating over GTOs and Malibus. And the 1980s brought increasing structural problems to GM’s assembly operations. Quality was declining, except at the flagship “Buick City” covering the Northeast side of Flint, Michigan. Where it all began! Buick LeSabres continued to be built there into the 1990s. In 1989, J.D. Power rated LeSabre the most reliable car on the road in America! Trouble was: only old people bought them, then kept them for ten years or more! It was not a money maker following the rules set decades earlier by Alfred P. Sloan. Buick City was closed, then the entire site razed – it’s now a vacant toxic cleanup site — with no money forthcoming for conversion to green space, or even new industrial redevelopment. General Motors abandoned its birthplace in the 1990s and 2000s. Flint was no longer profitable to the corporation. Its population dispersed – dropping from some 200k in the late 1970s to 80k today. And many of those 80k citizens are jobless.

As GM’s overall production quality problems became more widely known to American auto buyers able to choose from many higher quality Japanese and German imports, market share for all GM brands began to decline. Oldsmobile was axed in 2004, but that was not enough to stave off ultimate bankruptcy for the General in 2009. Reorganization brought the death of Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer brands, and Saab in Sweden. The new GM was leaner, with only mainstay Chevrolet augmented by GMC (trucks remained a money maker), Cadillac — and Buick — remaining. Why Buick? Not Pontiac? Not small, import-based, Saturn? It was apparently felt that Buick could continue with a limited range of models built on the same assembly lines as Chevrolets, reducing costs, and taking over the captive imports, made by Opel, previously found in Saturn’s lineup. Then there was the growing Chinese market, by the 2020s, the world’s largest. Buick was too valuable there to let go. We may well see the brand disappear from the North American market soon, however. For the 2023 model year, there are only three SUVs sold here with the Buick triple crest badge – and only one, the large Enclave, is actually manufactured in the United States. Two smaller models originate in Asia. Everything else called a Buick is reserved for the China market.

Yes, there are plans for Buick – even here in the U.S. — claims General Motors. The 2024 model year is supposed to see the EV known by the revived name “Electra,” to be sold as a Buick. And there are still concept cars bearing the Buick insignia – the latest is an EV called “Wildcat” (another 1960s revival). But will we ever see them in showrooms? Will there even be any Buick showrooms? Most now also sell GMC-branded vehicles. For all intents and purposes, the answer to the question “where did Buick go?” seems to be … China! An analogy for the entire U.S. manufacturing economy?

— William Sundwick

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