Once upon a time, Buick knew how to build cars and how to sell them.

But that’s really not the case today.

The recent J. D. Powers survey ranking a three year old Buick Century as equaling the reliability of a three year old Lexus was a somewhat sad commentary on the Buick brand. By producing a rather boring and simple car for multiple years, they have finally worked out the bugs in the car.
 
My dad bought Buicks. He was a doctor and in his day Buick was still the “doctor’s car.”
 
It got that reputation early on, because it was reliable. Doctors needed reliability because, in the early years of the twentieth century, most doctors were country doctors. When the telephone rang at two in the morning to tell the doctor that Mrs. Smith had gone into labor, the doctor needed a car that would get him to the Smith farm.
 
Doctors drove Buicks.
 
And then there was the Cadillac factor.
 
Even into the fifties, doctors drove Buicks because they thought Cadillac’s were too flashy, too ostentatious. Doctors weren’t paid by insurance companies. They were paid by their patients. Doctors thought that if they drove a Cadillac, patients would figure they had so much money that they didn’t need to be paid. A Buick was a way of having it almost as good, but without having it too good.
 
And that counted, in those days.
 
But Buicks were also subtle hot rods.
 
The first General Motors car to get the high compression V-8 was Oldsmobile, which in the early fifties was something of the experimental brand at General Motors. Cadillac came second, but it was closely followed by Buick.
 
But Buick had a somewhat different approach. They favored torque over horsepower, and developed an engine that they used through 1966, one that still has the nickname “nailhead.” That was a reference to the small size of the valves. 
 
The engine was ideally designed, however, to be coupled with the “DynaFlow” transmission. The DynaFlow didn’t have perceptible shift points. Unlike the HydraMatic used at Olds and Cadillac or the inferior PowerGlide from Chevrolet, the DynaFlow used the torque converter and planetary gearsets to provide acceleration which emphasized being smooth. The transmission was a success because the engine developed torque at unusually low r.p.m.s. 
 
Despite the disadvantage which this approach created in comparison to the HydraMatic and, especially, the TorqueFlite transmission Chrysler used, Buick developed a car specifically designed for the customer seeking more performance at a lower price.
 
In this, it can be considered the father of the muscle car.
 
Buick made a big engine and a small engine. The big engine went into the Roadmaster, which was a big car. The small engine went into the Century, which shared its body with Pontiac and Oldsmobile.
 
So, Buick created the Super.
 
They put the Roadmaster engine in the small body.
 
A decade later, John DeLorean would put the big Pontiac engine in the small Pontiac body and create the GTO. He was plagiarizing a concept Buick did first.
 
Buick also had the best salesman in General Motors history: Harlow Curtice. He moved Buick into the number three spot in sales, and was rewarded with the presidency of General Motors. Management kept having to hold him back. At one point, he created a Buick that competed with Cadillac’s limousine line. Cadillac complained, and top management stopped him. But he was always looking to sell cars, and always had a special understanding of the Buick brand.
 
Today, the Buick is the dowager’s car.
 
The J. D. Powers story is really nothing about which Buick should brag, though they undoubtedly will. It means only that they’ve managed to figure out how to build one car over a decade of experience.
 
But there was a time that Buick was special.
 
They’re trying to recapture it today, but they still don’t get it.
 
Let’s start with portholes.
 
For reasons which are somewhat shrouded in time, but appear to have a lot to do with Harley Earl having seen Allards in England ==
 
STOP:
 
Gotta check that you’re with me here:
 
Harley Earl: the head of design at GM between about 1928 and 1958. The father of the Corvette. If he didn’t like it, they didn’t sell it.
 
Allard: an English car that was designed by an Englishman who wanted Detroit V-8s to make the thing faster than anything England could produce in the immediate post WWII era. The Cadillac Allards are the ones most sought by collectors today, but he started with Ford Flatheads. Story goes that he wanted the new high compression Chrysler V-8 and was on his way to Detroit on the Queen Mary when he ran into a relatively highly placed Cadillac executive over dinner. They got to talking and by the time the ship docked in New York, a deal for the new high compression Cadillac V-8 was a done deal.
 
BACK TO THE MAIN THEME:
 
Allards, for some reason, had portholes, and Earl thought they were unique and inventive and adopted them for Buick.
 
While Harley Earl was in charge of GM design, and especially when Harlow Curtice was president of GM, Buick was the favored child at General Motors. It was Buick that picked up most of the design themes of Earl’s first real dream car, the “Y Job” of the thirties. It was Buick that fronted the money for the creation of his next ultimate dream car, the “LeSabre” of the fifties. And, though it is often forgotten, the LeSabre had a twin: the Wildcat. Buick could come up with the money to finance these fantasy cars because Harlowe Curtice ran the company and was, at heart, a Buick man.
 
So Buicks got portholes. They didn’t really have a rational reason for being on the car. Perhaps they were throwbacks to the outside pipes of the Duesenberg SJ – themselves an artistic invention of Gordon M. Buehrig, who also designed the Cord and later contributed to the classic Lincoln Mark II, and which had no real functional purpose but sure made a powerful statement – but they became the signature of the car.
 
The Roadmaster had four portholes. The Century and the Super had three. For a few extra dollars, you could have four. Three was better than a Chevy or a Pontiac, but it was only an intermediate stop to four.
 
But Buick wasn’t done.
 
In the 1960’s, General Motors somewhat languished. Fearful that Chevrolet would be split off from the company because GM had 50% of the market share, GM elevated the so-called “bean counters” to top management, displacing the salesmen. The goal of GM’s top management became avoiding an anti-trust lawsuit, and that goal only got bigger when a Democrat, John Kennedy, was elected President of the United States and promptly picked the president of Ford Motor Company, Robert McNamara, as his secretary of defense. There was a message in there: the previous president, Dwight Eisenhower, had selected the present of General Motors as his defense secretary.
 
So, GM retreated.
 
They knew they were not being part of the new “economy car” market and, worse, when the threat from foreign economy cars became too substantial to ignore, the introduction of the Corvair and Falcon drove Studebaker out of business and almost destroyed American Motors. That was not what GM’s lawyers wanted to hear. That the Corvair was a dog turned out to be GM’s salvation, because it was outsold by the Falcon, which made Ford’s sales numbers competitive. That Ford made no money on the Falcon was not GM’s concern.
 
But we digress again.
 
We were talking about Buick.
 
Back in the day, the mid-1960’s, the successor to Harley Earl as czar of GM’s styling section decided that the General needed to compete in the personal luxury market which Ford had established by turning the Thunderbird into a four seat car in 1958.
 
The ‘Bird had been Ford’s weak answer to the Corvette. The Corvette had been Harley Earl’s brainchild and, in those days, Ford figured it had to match GM model for model. It outsold the Corvette, ten to one. By any rational standard, it would have continued the theme. But it didn’t.
 
It changed the market. 
 
(This would be about where GM is today, with reference to the German auto manufacturers, but that would be getting ahead of our story. But we digress, again.)
 
It created the four seat Thunderbird.
 
And it created an entirely new market.
 
They sold.
 
One could make the case that the original idea for this car came from the first Chyrsler 300 of 1955.
 
But that would be specious.
 
The original 300 was neither new nor novel.
 
It was just an extension of the Buick Super, albeit at a premium price. That lesson, of course, was learned at Ford, which led to the Thunderbird.
 
But Buick wasn’t brain dead in those days.
 
Harley Earl’s successor as czar of GM design was Bill Mitchell and he’d been impressed with the classic look of the Rolls-Royce.
 
So he created a personal luxury car for Cadillac that would emulate the best that Rolls had to offer, though in a more stylish package.
 
It was the perfect addition to the Cadillac line. The car that would compete with the Thunderbird, and would expand the Cadillac market. It was designed for Cadillac.
 
But they didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
 
But the people running Buick got wind of it, and they went after it. It was a hard sell to GM’s top brass, because Cadillac had refused it. But Buick put on a show (having Mitchell in their corner didn’t hurt) and the result was the Buick Riviera.
 
Three years later, Cadillac introduced the Eldorado to compete in the same market and Oldsmobile got the Toronado.
 
Buick and Bill Mitchell got the laugh. The Riviera continued to outsell everyone, including the Thunderbird.
 
Those were the days.
 
But those winning cars only existed because product oriented managers ran the Buick division and were willing to fight for the products they believed would sell.
 
In the years after, those people became anathema at General Motors.
 
The last of the breed was a guy named Jim Perkins. He was the last general manager at Chevrolet, or GM, to have real power. He hid money in his budget to fund the alpha car that became the C5 Corvette, at a time when the brass wanted to kill the model.
 
GM still hasn’t figured out who their friends are, and still hasn’t figured out that the decentralized management model created by Alfred Sloan in the 1920’s is the model on which their competition has built its own management structures. It still continues to operate in the vapid world in which cost cutting is considered the secret to success.
 
Their two Detroit compatriots have just hired outsiders whose only credentials are their backgrounds in cost cutting. Mulally and Chryler’s new boss, Nardelli, have no clue about how to build a car that anyone will want.
 
To them, as to GM’s management for the past thirty years, cars are a commodity.
 
They’re not.
 
They’re part of the American dream.
 
A dream the Germans and the Japanese understand and will fulfill.
 
The commodity cars will be sold by the Chinese. They’re not imaginative, don’t understand quality or cars, but have lots of cheap labor because they remain a completely uncivilized nation, one desperately seeking to become a power. That they pollute more than any other country on earth, suppress freedom in their people, and remain a country of slave laborers will not matter.
 
They’ll beat the price of the Koreans, and in commodities the lowest price wins.
 
But, in cars, the best will always be treasured and sought after, and wanted – and that means the brands that now are winning, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, will continue to win, at least for the next two decades.
 
Buick now builds their premier car in the Chinese market, where General Motors predicts it will sell 1,000,000 cars this year. They primarily offer Buick as their brand in China, though others have a toehold.
 
They sold 60,000 Cadillac CTS’s each year over the last several. Worldwide.
 
So, where would you put your money?
 
The most beautiful Buick in years, the new Riviera, was the show car first exhibited in Shanghai. Worse, it was designed by the stylists in Shanghai.
 
But, we’ll never see it here.
 
Because the splendor that was Buick, indeed the splendor that was GM, long ago lost its desire to win.

What do you think?
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1 comments:

tango  (372) posted on 08.9.2007

I wonder about you sometimes Ralph. Such eloquence, such style...but far too often you put that eloquently styled foot of yours in the mouth with statments like "They’re not imaginative, don’t understand quality or cars, but have lots of cheap labor because they remain a completely uncivilized nation, one desperately seeking to become a power." Not true. Come on man...you were talking about Buicks...how does attacking the Chinese people help your article? You got so sidelined that you failed to even mention the fact that Buick is on an upturn with at least one product that people are clamouring for. The Enclave. The first of many. Why not encourage the infant automotive industry to do better, which it ultimately will? I recall many statements like yours being made about Hyundai and the Koreans. Words and shoes make for a rather tastey dish.

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