Buick, David Dunbar

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David Dunbar Buick

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Automobile pioneer David Dunbar Buick, founder and namesake of the Buick Motor Company, was born on September 17, 1854 in Arboath, Scotland. When he was 2 years old, his family crossed the Atlantic Ocean looking for opportunity. They eventually settled in the ever-growing metropolis of Detroit. When Buick was five years old, his father Alexander died leaving him and his widowed mother alone. This event ensured that young David would have to grow up quickly.

At the age of 15, Buick became an apprentice at Alexander Manufacturing Company in Detroit, an enterprise that built plumbing fixtures. Buick quickly moved up the ranks, eventually settling into the position of foreman. During this same time period, he also developed his skills as an apprentice brass finisher at James Flower & Brothers Machine Shop. The Flower brothers manufactured all kinds of brass and iron articles and had once employed another of Detroit’s great industrialists and automobile pioneers: Henry Ford.

When the Alexander Manufacturing Company failed in 1882, David Buick and his colleague William Sherwood took over the plumbing business and renamed it the Buick & Sherwood Manufacturing Company. This business prospered and over the course of the 1880s, Buick was credited with at least 13 patents including those for a lawn sprinkler, bathtubs, and a flushing device. His most important invention in this field was a method for fixing enamel to cast iron that allowed for development of modern porcelain bathtubs and plumbing fixtures.

Around 1895, David Buick developed an interest in automobiles and the gasoline internal combustion engine. This interest led him to sell the profitable Buick & Sherwood Manufacturing Company in 1899 to the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company of Pittsburg for the sum of $100,000. With his half of the sale, Buick started the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in order to further his quest to improve upon conventional L-head internal combustion engine design. It was at Auto-Vim that Buick and fellow engineer Walter Marr developed the valve-in-head (or overhead valve) engine and the first prototype Buick motor car.

Over the course of the next few years, David Buick, along with Walter Marr and Eugene C. Richard, continued to tinker with the valve-in-head engine design. Their engine was superior to the conventional L- or T-head engines because it allowed the engine to breathe more efficiently. This increased efficiency produced a greater horsepower to cubic inch of displacement ratio.

Despite Buick’s engineering successes, his funding soon ran dry. In 1902, he approached Ben and Frank Briscoe, fellow enthusiasts in the burgeoning automobile field, for additional financial backing. The Briscoes helped to bail out Buick twice and the second time resulted in the creation of the Buick Motor Car Company on May 19, 1903 in an unusual stock sharing arrangement. When Buick was unable to repay his debt to the Briscoes, they sold the Buick Motor Company to James Whiting, a director of the Flint Wagon Works. This sale prompted the Buick operations move from Detroit to Flint, Michigan.

With finances shored up, David Buick continued his attempts to perfect the valve-in-head engine and install it into a prototype vehicle. On May 27, 1904, Buick announced the completion of his two-cylinder, valve-in-head engine. He and Walter Marr installed the engine into a second Buick prototype. The successful trip of this vehicle from Flint to Detroit in July of 1904 convinced new Buick President James Whiting to put the Buick into production.

Buick and Marr
On November 1, 1904, William Durant signed on as general manager and director of the Buick Motor Car with the knowledge that he would have full control of the operation. Once Durant had consolidated his control of the company, David Buick found himself without a role in the future of the Buick motor car other than as a director of the company. By 1908, Buick had retired from his namesake company. A string of failed business ventures awaited him upon his departure.

Initially, David Buick moved west to California to try his hand in the oil business. Later, he dabbled in real estate in Florida. He was involved in at least two other automobile enterprises, the Lorraine Motors Corporation and the Dunbar car, which was to be produced by a group of East Coast promoters who had organized the David Dunbar Buick Corporation. Neither of these concerns was successful. Buick also served as an instructor at the Detroit School of Trades in 1928.

David Dunbar Buick died penniless on March 3, 1929 at Harper Hospital in Detroit. But his obituary maintains that he was not bitter over his lost fortune nor was he envious of those who gained fame because of his contributions to the advancement of the automobile. Buick told an interviewer in 1928 that “Success consists in looking ahead and forgetting the past. I just got a few bad breaks. Anyway, money is useless, except to give one mental security.” He was laid to rest at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.


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