At a time when Donald Trump is threatening Ford with big fines for building cars in Mexico, General Motors is stirring up the pot by announcing that next summer it will offer Americans the midsized crossover Envision—built at a plant in Yantai, China.
It’s not the fact that GM builds Buicks in China that’s notable—that’s old news—it’s the fact that it would sell those cars in the U.S. The issue is Chinese build quality, which has so far kept cars made there out of our market. Volvo is currently the only Western automaker selling Chinese-made cars in the U.S. (a stretched S60, the Inscription, that caters to chauffeur driving in China). But the economic advantages of low Chinese labor costs (despite a mighty outcry from the build-it-here United Auto Workers) are obvious—and GM (which needs an entry in the segment) must feel it can ride herd over the production line.
It’s a long, strange trip that’s gotten Buick to where it is now. GM has shed Pontiac and Oldsmobile, and Buick would probably have gone the same way were it not for the brand taking off big time in China. In 2014, the division sold 919,582 cars in China, compared to 228,963 in the U.S.
Buick proudly touted sales of “nearly 1.2 million vehicles in China, the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2014, marking the second consecutive sales record for the most Buicks sold in a single year in the brand’s 111-year history.” But without China, it wouldn’t have made 250,000.
Buick spins these figures neatly. According to spokesman Nick Richards:
Buick is ecstatic about selling more than one million vehicles a year globally. In fact, we have set all-time sales records the past two consecutive years thanks to the strength of the brand in the world’s two largest auto markets–-the U.S. and China. We’re on track to do it again this year. In the U.S., we outsell brands like Infiniti, Lincoln, Acura and Audi. In China, we enjoy a significant position of strength as the fourth largest non-domestic auto brand. The Buick Envision was designed, engineered and tested in South East Michigan as a world-class luxury crossover that will delight customers and challenge the world’s best competition in any market.
I doubt David Dunbar Buick thought much about China, one way or the other. Instead, he was obsessed with plumbing fixtures. The cars that bear this Scotsman’s name didn’t come along until he was in his mid-30s. After emigrating, Buick established the colorfully named Auto-Vim and Power Company in the very early 1900s, but soon changed the name to Buick Manufacturing. The company pioneered the overhead-valve engine, which should have positioned it well in the market.
But early carmaking was volatile, and by 1903 Buick was sold to the Flint Wagon Works in Flint, Michigan. A year later, it was in trouble again—only to be saved by the father of General Motors, William Crapo Durant, who was just starting to assemble his made-in Michigan empire. Durant revitalized the Buick business, and by 1908 the company was America’s sales leader (8,820 sold). Buick’s success allowed Durant to build GM as we know it today.
Look at these milestones in Buick history:
1923-25. After Lowell Thomas led the first motorized trip into Afghanistan in a Buick in 1923, the company got more ambitious. Even then Buick was considered a “world car”—it was the first car driven across South America in 1914. A Buick also gave a ride to Chinese president Sun Yat-sen in 1912. Kings of England rode around in them. In 1925, a Standard Six Touring was shipped to England, and despite horrendous roads it proceeded to make its way around the world—driven through Europe, shipped to Egypt and into what is now Israel, through Lebanon and then to, of all places, Baghdad. It went through the Outback in Australia, across New Zealand, and then to Hawaii.
Then the “Round the World” Buick came home. “By the time it reached New York on June 25, 1925, the car had traveled 16,499 miles through 14 countries,” Automotive News reports. The car is now lost. Patrick and Mary Brooks did a similar journey in 2000, piloting a 1949 Buick Woody Wagon. Their search for the Round the World Buick came up empty, though GM’s Heritage Center has a replica.
1933. Buicks get early independent front suspension.
1938. Harley Earl’s stunning, streamlined Buick Y-Job show car sets the standard for the company’s styling in the 1950s—a dozen years ahead of its time. Compare a picture of the Y-Job with a 1950 Special.
1939. Turn signals on production cars!
1947. The evocatively named Buick Dynaflow becomes the first automatic transmission to boast a torque converter.
1952. The king-of-the-highway Roadmaster gets power steering and, in 1952, air conditioning.
OK, let’s stop there so I can say the 1950 to 1952 Buick Roadmaster woody wagon is one of the greatest cars ever built. If you don’t believe me, go rent Julie and Julia, the biopic about master of French cooking Julia Child. That’s a ’50 Roadmaster that she and her husband use to squire around Paris. That car could have been the star, as far as I’m concerned.
1961. The compact Buick Skylark and Special introduce a 215-cubic-inch, 155-horsepower aluminum V-8 engine that goes on to be a mainstay of the British auto industry. Who knows, they may still be building that engine over there.
1963. Buick introduces the Riviera, another automotive milestone. The ’63 Riv, which for some reason I first remember seeing on a street in Cairo, Egypt, took my breath away. Gone was the fins and chrome excess of the 1950s, replaced by a cleanly styled “personal car.” Oddly, Buick got the model only after other divisions turned it down. Buick greenlighted the car as presented by stylist Ned Nickles. The Riviera was never a huge seller, and didn’t dent its intended target—the Ford Thunderbird—but it was a definite hit with the auto press.
I’m going to leave the wasteland known as the 1970s and 80s well alone. To my mind, Buick has only recently got its mojo back, and I’m very impressed with cars like the world-beating LaCrosse.
Let’s zoom forward to 1999, when Shanghai GM is opened as a joint venture. As GM describes it, "Buick was the chosen brand – largely because of its legacy in China as a prestigious automobile.” The last emperor of China, Henry Pu Yi, drove one, and so did Nixon’s pal Zhou Enlai. In 1930, one of every six cars in Shanghai was an imported Buick. The Chinese remembered.
Today, Buick has three plants in China, in Shanghai, Yantai and Shenyang. The models on sale recently include the Excelle (Verano here), Regal, LaCrosse, Encore and Enclave. Chauffeurs often drive them.
So how cool is it that a Chinese-made car will, at long last, be sold in America? Here's a short video history of Buick. As the narrator says, "It's been quite a ride for Buick!"