The Greatest Cars

Buick Roadmaster

By Jack Nerad






Buick Roadmaster This morning it is very likely that you had an encounter with David Dunbar Buick's most important gift to the world, and we don't mean the Buick Roadmaster or any other Buick automobile. Truth be told, Buick's greatest contribution to our lives came in the bathroom. He patented a process for bonding porcelain to iron, creating the bathtub as we know it today. So if you took a shower this morning (and we certainly hope you did), you owe a tiny bit of gratitude to one D.D. Buick.

Of course, if you're reading this piece you are more likely an auto enthusiast than a plumbing aficionado, so it is therefore you are more likely interested in Buick's automotive adventures - or perhaps we should say misadventures. By way of quick background, Buick was born in Scotland in 1854, and emigrated to the United States with his mother and father two years later. Part of a clan originally named Buik (apparently as Scots they were so thrifty they declined to buy the "C"), David Buick eventually settled in the bustling lumber town of Detroit where he went into the plumbing trade.

With his partner William Sherwood, Buick owned and operated a successful plumbing supply business, but sparkling white bathrooms paled in comparison to the up-and-coming business of the day, the automobile. A dreamer and tinkerer, Buick became enamored of the internal combustion engine at much the same time as his fellow Detroit area neighbor, Henry Ford, did. In 1899, Buick established the imaginatively named Auto Vim and Power Company with the idea of building gasoline engines for farm and stationary use. A year later the lure of the budding automotive industry proved so strong that he decided to sell his plumbing business (for the princely sum of $100,000) and charge ahead in the car business. But the going wasn't as easy as he had hoped.

Though he and one of his key engineers, Walter L. Marr, had built a "Buick" car in 1900, the development of a car that could be manufactured in any quantity became a very expensive proposition. In an attempt to raise more money, Buick incorporated the Buick Manufacturing Company in 1901 as a successor to Auto Vim, and then in 1903 he incorporated the Buick Motor Company. The enterprises never really took hold, however, until an investor named Benjamin Briscoe Jr. sold his interest in Buick to a consortium of wagon makers based in Flint, Michigan, about 60 miles from Detroit.

By the end of 1903 Flint Wagon Works decided to move the Buick Motor Company out of Detroit to Flint with the idea of building "horseless carriages." Luckily, the new company had a good piece of technology to work with. Buick, Marr and, another engineer, Eugene Richard, had developed an overhead-valve gasoline engine that was light, powerful and reliable - three things that most gas engines of the day were not.

Production of the Buick Model B began in 1904, after a successful test run conducted by Buick's son, Thomas, and by the end of the year 37 copies had been manufactured. But more financial problems threatened the company, and its financial backers were forced to turn to one of the truly colorful business characters of the age, "The Carriage King," William C. "Billy" Durant.

Legend has it that Durant got into the carriage business by taking a flyer on a horse-drawn cart he had seen in 1886. Though he had no background in the business his uncanny sales knack was immediately apparent, and by the turn of the century he was running the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, the largest manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles in the country. On November 1, 1904 Durant became general manager of Buick Motor Company, and while David Dunbar Buick remained president, his days at the helm would soon come to an end.

Once brought into the organization, Durant dove in with his characteristic zeal. Through promotions that included cross-country drives and a heavy dose of racing (often with French driver Louis Chevrolet at the wheel), Buicks gained so much visibility that it began to challenge the still-budding Ford Motor Company for overall sales supremacy. But Durant and Buick clashed. Durant thought big, wanting to build "volume cars" on an assembly line basis, while Buick favored a more meticulous, car-by-car approach. The financiers favored Durant, and in 1906, at the age of 52, Buick was out of the company that bore his name.

After that, Buick Motors's star began to rise as quickly as its founder's began to decline. The Buick marque became the cornerstone as Durant built General Motors, only to lose it, and then to take it over again, finally to lose it once again. David Dunbar Buick fell back into near-obscurity. As his days came to an end in the late Twenties, he worked at a Detroit trade school, perhaps dreaming of the more than $10 million his holdings in Buick would have been worth had he been able to hold onto them. He died in 1929 at the age of 74. Based on the technical strength of its "valve-in-head" engine, Buick survived and prospered during the ups and downs that dogged General Motors through the Teens and into the Twenties. While Alfred P. Sloan Jr. put General Motors on an even keel, Buick was a mainstay brand, as solidly middle class as the cars emanating from Nash, Hudson, and Chrysler. By 1926, Buick production reached 260,000 vehicles -- nowhere near Ford territory, of course, but a very respectable number.

Reliability was the Buick calling card, and the brand quickly gained a reputation as "the doctor's car." A 1925 Buick made a trip around the world, visiting various Buick distributors as it went, and that same year Buicks won top marks in a series of Leningrad-to-Moscow endurance runs -- the bourgeois poster child beating all comers in Red Russia.

The onset of the Great Depression threw Buick for a loop. Sales plummeted to just 40,000 vehicles in 1933, a far cry from the quarter of a million Buicks that had rolled out of Flint in 1926. But help was on the way. GM named Harlow H. Curtice -- at 39, the youthful president of GM affliate AC Spark Plug Company -- to run Buick Motor Division.

It didn't take Curtice long to get the wheels rolling again. For the 1934 model year Buick introduced the Series 40 (later "Special"), which brought speed and performance back to the brand, and sales, spurred by an improvement in the economy, almost doubled. Following that success, Curtice asked GM design legendary Harley Earl (whose image is being used in a cynical current Buick ad campaign) to conceive a "Buick you would like to own."

Up to then, Earl had spent most of his time on the upper ranges of the GM line with Cadillac and La Salle, but the 1936 Buick model range, which included the first of the fabled Roadmasters, was a tour de force. These were cars that looked impressive and substantial but in no way clumsy or over-large. The front views are particularly inspiring with close-set headlights flanking an impressive nose and a low-set grille. The sweep of the fenders is majestic and the rear ends elegant in their simple execution of taillights, bumper and trunk lid. These aren't in-your-face cars with the flamboyance of Cadillac; instead they are understated while at the same time impossible to ignore.

Mechanically the Buicks of the era offered some interesting technical trickery. It was one of the first mass-produced vehicles to use a modern independent front suspension arrangement, and one of the first to put the shift lever on the steering column. While that might not sound like a good thing in this era of six-speed manual transmissions, you must remember that cars like the Buick Roadmaster depended upon high-torque engines like the "Fireball Valve-in-Head Dynaflash 8" to be tractable enough to pull from, say, 10 miles per hour all the way to top speed in third (the highest) gear. Instead of using an automatic transmission (then being tested at sister division Oldsmobile), the Buick driver simply got to top gear quickly and stayed there.

As the country emerged from Depression, Buick Roadmasters quickly gained a reputation as a solidly reliable family car with virtually all the luxury of a Cadillac but in a less-pretentious package. The Roadmaster nameplate became one of the longest running in automotive history, extending from the mid-Thirties through the late-Fifties then returning for a brief cameo in the 1990s.







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