High Society Buick.

There has long been an almost obsessive and cult-like affection for 1930’s and 1940’s Buick’s in the United Kingdom. I myself became fascinated with the marque as a teenager, mystified by the many stories of aristocratic and celebrity ownership of these wonderful cars. Without doubt, the rich and famous have always aspired to Buick ownership on our small island, ….but why? With a choice of so many stylish and finely engineered home-grown British marques like Rolls Royce, Bentley, Daimler, Alvis and Jaguar to name but a few, why did the Buick marque become such a figure of High Society in Britain? I found this somewhat curious until I bought my very first 37 Buick Century in my early Twenties. At this point I immersed myself in a restoration project and began to research the history of Buick in the UK. My fascination intensified, and I was hooked! Now I’ve owned and restored so many Buicks from the period, my knowledge is often called upon by owners from around the globe and my experience was further recognised by the US Government in 2014 with the awarding of an H1B Specialist Knowledge Visa.

Talking about cars, as we do, people often ask me.... “but why Buick’s”? The answer I give is an intriguing lesson from history which may go some way to explain not only my interest, but how Buick became so interwoven with British high society.

To understand this, we have to go back to the 1800’s. The industrial revolution exploded in England off the back of abundant coal reserves and subsequent iron smelting, this led to the establishment of pioneering engineering workshops and engineering talent all over this land. David Dunbar Buick, born in Arbroath, Scotland UK obviously carried the engineering genes of this industrial-entrepreneurial climate when his family relocated to Detroit in the USA when he was 2 years old. Buick, as history has documented, grew to be a very talented engineer over the years, though initially his talents were revealed in his family’s plumbing business. Amongst his many engineering ‘firsts’, the enamelled cast-iron bathtubs which would become ubiquitous in bringing temperature-retaining hygienic bathing to the people of the Western world, was in-fact the result of an industrial technique developed and perfected by Buick!

As a young man living and working in Detroit, Buick was soon captivated by this fascinating new invention known as the ‘internal combustion engine’ and quickly immersed himself in engine innovation and development forming the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1890. It was only a matter of time before this talented inventor would be swept up by the euphoria and excitement of the booming new self- propelled transportation device that cam to be known as ‘the motor car’, and by 1902 the company had evolved to become the Buick Manufacturing Company. Buick worked tirelessly and obsessively in this revolutionary new industry but it was a bumpy business road with serious financial difficulties over the course of time. Despite this, Buick is credited with one of the most significant advances in internal combustion engine design…. namely the ‘over-head valve’ or in Buick marketing speak, the Buick ‘Valve-in-Head Fireball’ design. This may not mean a lot to non-engineering enthusiasts, but it was a revolutionary development of the original side-valve birth of the pioneer engines. Buick’s invention was in-fact a milestone achievement in engine design that has facilitated over 100 years of advancement in horsepower and performance capabilities. Bravo again Mr Buick!

Today, Buick is recognised as the oldest marque incorporated into what was to become General Motors USA. Unfortunately, Buick himself was to be remembered as a poor businessman who eventually died a penniless drunk on the streets of Detroit. A very sad and un-befitting demise of a true genius, but w Buick left us a legacy of a marque that would continue to debut engineering ‘firsts’ and ground-breaking performance. Under GM ownership, Buick products continued to be synonomous for quality and performance. The first Straight inline 8 cylinder overhead valve engine (Fireball) available to the American public and the first automatic transmission offered by GM was in the 1938 Buick, to name but a few. Even into the 1950’s, Buicks’ eagerly-awaited first V8 engine (with-held until it’s Golden Anniversary year of 1953), yet again set a new industry benchmark for compression ratio and power. (See the pictures of the wonderful 53 Matador Red Super Riviera Coupe in the archive section…. what a car!).

So now we know a Brit was actually the Founding Father of Buick. But our story of the British affinity for Buick takes an unexpected upturn in the mid 1930’s.

Enter one David Saxe-Coburg Windsor, eldest Son of King George V and heir to the throne of England. David, future King Edward VII or ‘the playboy heir’ as he was to become known, was spending increasing amounts of time overseas and was particularly taken by the high society life and fashion of New York City. At this time, he not only met his true love Wallace Simpson, but he also fell in love with some of the wonderful styles and engineering capabilities of an American Automobile. Buick. So impressed was he, that two 1936 Buick Roadmasters were shipped to London at the Prince’s request. Now this may not sound like such a big deal, but the Royal House of Windsor under the strict direction of King George, could only be seen in public image to sport the best of British motor-cars, which was recognised as Daimler at the time and not Rolls Royce as many believe. David however, was a rebel through and through and point blank refused to conform to his Fathers dictating. He caused huge upset in the Royal household with his behaviour and his ‘fancy’ acquisitions. Ever popular in the public-eye, David became as well known for his Buicks as he did his love affair with Wallace. The people of London and the UK loved David, and the public love affair with Buick had begun.

In London, car dealers Lendrum and Hartman of Albermarle Street, Mayfair W1 were quick to pick up on the public demand for these stylish and powerful Straight Eight powered American ‘Buick’ cars. Highly fashionable and stylish, the ‘Century’ Series 60 model could crack 100 miles per hour in standard form and had hydraulic brakes too (at this time, rod-operated brakes were the norm). A Buick product represented real manufacturing quality. Ownership of a Buick spelled exclusivity, 8 cylinder performance, and style. Not only that, a Buick was literally ‘fit for a King!’ This was just an amazing automobile to own in the context of 1930’s British motoring. A tax loophole was exploited to import cars from Canada being part of the British Empire in ‘knock-down-form’ (part-assembled) and the cars were easily converted to Right Hand Drive. Genius! In the UK Buicks were final assembled on the outskirts of West London at Kew, and the British public would drool over these outstanding motor-cars of the day. Compared to British offerings, Buicks’ had their own very distinct stand-out style and the performance to boot. Come 1937, a young GM designer by the name of Harley Earl would re-style a 36 Buick to produce what is arguably one of the finest looking and best proportioned stylish American cars of all time. This exploded demand and large numbers of right hand drive Buicks were sold in the UK right through 1939, until the outbreak of World War II restricted transatlantic shipment of goods to those of munitions and necessities only.

In the UK, Buick products of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s have always been very highly regarded by both high society, car enthusiasts and engineers alike. As a young aspiring engineer, my Father was sold on Buick’s way back in the late 1940’s and is still flying the flag to this day. Talking with my good friends Andrew and Suzanna Goldsmith over a few glasses of red wine one day whilst I was living in Bordeaux, South West France, I was sharing my family’s passion for Buicks only for Andy to suddenly pipe up… “my Dad always drove Buicks!”

And there I rest my case for Buicks standing in British Society. Sir Walter Goldsmith was a retired Army Major of the British Empire. He too had an appreciation for the finer things in life and was a keen Buick owner, as well as a recognised portrait artist, an avid restorer, and historian. In 1959 he aquired the beautiful moated Salisbury Hall in the Buckinghamshire countryside and restored it to it’s former glory. He researched the buildings history and established that Winston Churchill had spent his early childhood years there being raised by his Grandmother. During World War II, aircraft makers De-Havilland had secretly developed the twin Merlin-engined Mosquito bomber in a barn behind the house, an aircraft that made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in war. Walter eventually opened a tribute aircraft museum at Salisbury Hall and would often be seen in a Buick whilst in residence. Indeed a man of incredible substance and incredibly good taste.

When you see a 1930’s or 1940’s Buick in an old movie or maybe at a car show, just take a moment to study the build quality and stand back and take in the incredible styling. What an incredibly fine product of it’s day. A product so fine that it was indeed very highly regarded in British High Society.

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