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David Dunbar Buick

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David Dunbar Buick (September 17, 1854 - March 5, 1929), founder of the Buick Motor Company, was born at 26 Green Street, Arbroath, Scotland. The original house no longer exists, having been cleared to make way for council houses. Despite his personal success, and that of the Buick company, later acquired by General Motors, David Buick died in relative obscurity and near poverty, still working at age 74.

In 1994, General Motors placed a plaque on a house in the area of Green Street, to commemorate Buick's birthplace.

During the 1990s, the council named a small cul-de-sac Buick Rigg in his memory.

David Dunbar Buick

When David Buick was only two years old, his father Alexander, a joiner, took the family to America, and settled in Detroit, Michigan, which was then a lumber town. His father's death, just three years after making the move, meant his mother had to support the family, and she went to work in a candy butcher's.

Buick's working life began in the plumbing industry, where his inventive talents led to him developing a successful and profitable process for bonding porcelain enamel to cast iron fixtures, which is still in use today. This process alone would probably have guaranteed him a secure future, but his inventive nature meant he was fascinated by the new automobile, and was keen to exercise his talents in that direction. He was to fund this interest by selling his share in the plumbing business for some $100,000. This represented a huge amount at the time, just prior to 1900. The move was also prompted by his business partners, who had demanded he either devote his attention to the their business (rather than automobiles), or leave.

His aim had been to set up a business delivering agricultural and stationary engines, through the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company which he started in 1899. This intent was diverted as he began to work on petrol engines for use in cars, and by 1902 he had developed the first successful engine which placed the valve gear in the head of the engine, rather than the side, and proved to be more efficient than the older design. The Buick Manufacturing Company was established to sell the new engine, and the car which he was also working on. But, by only 1903, his over spending and poor business management meant he had again to borrow more money, and set up the Buick Motor Company. In turn, this company was sold to recover losses, and everything was moved 115 miles east to the Flint Wagon Works of Flint, Michigan, premises of the new buyer and owner, James Whiting.

By 1906, although president of a company producing quality cars which were selling, he was also in disagreement with his business partners, and was effectively forced to sell his stock to them for $100,000 and leave the company. This was one of his worst decisions, as the value of his stock would have grown to $10 million in only a few years, and become a huge fortune after the Buick company was acquired by, and became part of General Motor.

According to GM:

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.

- Buick, David Dunbar - Generations of GM.[1]

Buick returned to Detroit, but is said to have invested his settlement poorly, failing to return to the car industry with any of his developments, including a new carburettor, and another car.

After a series of low paying jobs, he became an inspector at the Detroit School of Trades, and said to have been unable to afford telephone, and owning one of 'his' cars would only have been a dream. David Buick died of colon cancer, impoverished and forgotten, in Harper Hospital, Detroit, on March 5, 1929. Although 74 years old, he was still working as an inspector at Detroit's trade school in the weeks before his death. His wife died some years later and his son Thomas died in 1943.

According to GM:

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.”

- Buick, David Dunbar - Generations of GM.[2]


1 Buick, David Dunbar - Generations of GM Retrieved August 16, 2013.

2 Buick, David Dunbar - Generations of GM Retrieved August 16, 2013.

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