FLINT, Mich. – David Dunbar Buick, creator of the Buick automobile, was generally ignored or forgotten by historians and the public for most of a century. Buick (1854-1929) was called a “dreamer,” and worse, after he lost control of his auto company and then saw his finances disappear in California oil and Florida real estate ventures. One writer said his name is remembered “only as the answer to a trivia question.”
But times change. David Buick is now being honored with not one but two life-size bronze statues, one on each side of the Atlantic Ocean. One was unveiled earlier this month and the timetable for the other is still uncertain.
Two groups, unknown to each other until recent weeks, announced plans for statues of Buick, who created the automobile that became the cornerstone of General Motors. One group is in Arbroath, Scotland, a port and fishing village where Buick was born in 1854. Two years later, his family took him to Detroit, Mich.
The other group is in Flint, Mich., 60 miles north of Detroit, where the firm that became Buick Motor Division of General Motors was headquartered for 95 years before its marketing offices were moved to Detroit in 1998. That group unveiled the first statue of David Buick in downtown Flint on Dec. 1.
Among those attending the unveiling was Douglas W. Boes of Los Angeles, Calif. (above at right), who flew to Flint and presented a small brass cannon, that was once owned by David Buick, to the Buick Gallery and Research Center of Flint’s Sloan Museum.
Boes said his grandmother, who was David Buick’s daughter Frances, told him her father used the cannon to start regattas in the 19th century when he was vice commodore of the Detroit Yacht Club. It’s one of the few pieces of personal property of David Buick’s still known to exist (the Buick Gallery does have his drafting set).
A speaker at the unveiling was Lawrence R. Gustin, a Flint native and retired Buick public relations assistant director, who wrote the first biography of Buick, “David Buick’s Marvelous Motor Car: The men and the automobile that launched General Motors” (2006, updated with Kevin Kirbitz in 2011).
Gustin called Buick “a true auto pioneer… who designed and built marvelous engines and motor cars, understood engineering theories and was tenacious in getting the Buick automobile into production.”
In both cases, the groups see a statue as a long-overdue tribute to an important auto pioneer. Growing up in Detroit, Buick became a brilliant inventor in the plumbing business and then a successful supplier of plumbing equipment. In the mid 1890s, he turned to building gasoline engines and headed a team that developed an overhead-valve engine – called “valve-in-head.” It quickly won acclaim for unusual power and reliability in the auto pioneering era. He was also in charge when two experimental Buick automobiles were built in Detroit between 1899 and 1903, and when the first 37 production Buicks were built in Flint in 1904.
In 1903, directors of the Flint Wagon Works, led by James Whiting, had purchased Buick Motor Co. and moved it to Flint. David Buick came along to manage the new factory. Whiting, who wanted the firm to build only engines for his farm customers, gave in to requests by Buick and his machinist, Walter Marr, to let them build a few cars to see if they would sell. Before they had built two dozen cars, Whiting realized automobile production was a luxury he could not afford.
So in late 1904, he turned to the irrepressible William C. “Billy” Durant, Flint’s carriage “king,” recognizing his unique abilities. With Durant promoting the car, sales immediately took off. Within four years, Durant could claim Buick was the country’s No.1 producer of automobiles. On Buick’s success, Durant founded General Motors in 1908.
Under Durant and his successors, Flint became one of the world’s leading centers of automobile manufacturing. Durant built the giant Flint Buick complex and, over the decades, it produced millions of Buicks and other GM cars, as well as World War I aircraft engines and huge amounts of World War II military hardware. In 1910, Durant lost control of GM to bankers, so he started over, creating Chevrolet Motor Co., which he would use to regain control of GM. By the 1980s, GM employment in the Flint area totaled 80,000 and the local GM payroll topped $2 billion – not including thousands of supplier jobs.
Most of those jobs and those plants have disappeared in recent years, leaving Flint area residents with memories of highly prosperous times and the reality of high unemployment.
In Flint, the Buick statue unveiled Dec. 1 is the second in a planned series honoring auto pioneers with Flint backgrounds. The first was of Louis Chevrolet, namesake of the Chevrolet automobile. His statue was unveiled in August in a small park-like setting downtown (on Saginaw Street between First and Kearsley streets) and Buick’s was placed nearby. The sculptor of both is Joe Rundell of nearby Clio.
A statue of Billy Durant is scheduled to be erected between the Louis Chevrolet and David Buick in August of 2013.
Al Hatch, chairman of “Back to the Bricks,” a vintage car show that draws huge crowds annually to downtown Flint’s brick main street, is leading the project. “Honoring Flint’s auto pioneers is long overdue – these people set America on motor-driven wheels,” said Hatch, a retired Rockwell Automation senior account manager. “It’s important to remember their contributions helped create the American middle class. And it’s good to remind folks – both local citizens and visitors – that Flint has a great automotive heritage.”
In Buick’s original home town on the North Sea in Scotland, a David Buick statue project is being promoted by the Arbroath Guildry, an organization that boosts local commerce. It announced its plans locally a few months ago.
“It seems incredible that the man who perfected the overhead-valve engine and has since lent his name to more than 40 million vehicles should be so forgotten,” said Ian Lamb, the guildry’s leader. “Buick is one of America’s oldest and most successful brands.”
The Scottish group is now debating whether to continue with its original plan to launch a worldwide fund drive for its statue or spend much less to buy a copy of the one in Flint. “We’re delighted to be in touch with the Flint group,” said Lamb. “We can’t get over our astonishment that they were working on a Buick statue at the same time we were, on our side of the Atlantic. We’re also extremely grateful for their offer to share their excellent statue design and are keeping our options open on whether to use that design or hire our own sculptor.”
The guildry, hoping to attract tourists from the United States to visit Arbroath, also plans two other statues of Arbroath natives with American historical connections: William Small, who tutored Thomas Jefferson before Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Moonlight, a brigadier general during the U.S. Civil War and a governor of the Wyoming Territory who, Lamb pointed out, “granted a misguided pardon” to the Sundance Kid.
Hatch said other likely statue subjects include one already being created by Joe Rundell, of Walter Chrysler (a president of Buick before he started Chrysler Corp.). Other possibilities include Charles Nash (a Buick and GM president before building Nash cars), Albert Champion (founder of AC Spark Plug), Charles Kettering (the famous GM engineer and namesake of Flint’s Kettering University), A.B.C. Hardy (Flint’s first automaker who later helped Durant create the Chevrolet company), James Whiting (who brought Buick to Flint), Charles Stewart Mott (axle maker, long a GM executive and Flint’s great philanthropist), Harlow Curtice (Buick general manager, GM chief executive and Time magazine Man of the Year for 1955) and Walter, Victor and Roy Reuther (whose leadership of the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strikes led to GM’s recognition of the United Auto Workers union as bargaining agent). There has also been discussion of creating statues of local non-automotive individuals in various locations around the city.
How many of the statues are eventually completed depends on fund raising – the statues are listed at about $35,000 each. The Louis Chevrolet and David Buick statues were funded by Flint-area firms in honor of their founders. All of the sculptures will likely be the work of Rundell, a retired machine repairman at Flint’s Chevrolet V-8 Engine Plant. Rundell, 72, is widely known as a skilled engraver of expensive rifles, but only recently turned to making life-size sculptures.
To learn more about Buick and other vehicles manufactured in the early 19th century, check out our Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942.