Curbside Classic: 1926 Buick Standard Six – Money Is Useless

(first posted 1/30/2017)     The Buick name is one of the older marques in the automotive kingdom.  A brand that has brought about a tremendous number of varied automobiles during its lifetime, an examination of its early days is something that hasn’t happened until now.  With our featured car being from 1926, and being the oldest Buick CC has discussed so far, it’s time to learn about the early days of this fabled brand.

David Dunbar Buick was born in Arbroath, in the Angus section of Scotland, in 1854.  Buick immigrated to the United States with his family when he was two years old, settling in Detroit.

Due to the death of his father three years later, Buick entered the workforce earlier than most of his contemporaries.  At age 15, Buick began working for the Alexander Manufacturing Company, a business entity that produced plumbing fixtures; Buick quickly progressed through the ranks.  Upon the demise of the company in 1882, Buick and a business partner acquired the company, renaming it Buick & Sherwood Manufacturing Company.

Buick & Sherwood was rather successful, with Buick obtaining thirteen patents during this time, one of which was for a process for annealing porcelain to steel, creating modern style bathtubs.

Buick sold his interests in the business in 1899 to fund his growing interest in automobiles.  It was at this time Buick founded the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company.  Buick’s goal was to improve upon the L-head engines that were in common use during this time.  While at Auto-Vim, Buick and business partner Walter Marr developed an overhead valve engine as well as the first Buick prototype automobile.

While Buick and his cohorts were able to definitively prove an overhead valve engine quite often made more power per cubic inch of displacement than a flathead engine, funding had evaporated by 1902.  Ben and Frank Briscoe twice helped bail out Buick’s endeavor, the second time being in 1903 when the operation was renamed to Buick Motor Car Company.

Still unable to pay his debts to the Briscoe’s, Buick saw the Buick Motor Car Company sold to Frank Whiting of Flint Wagon Works.  This was when Buick operations moved from Detroit to Flint, Michigan.

During this period Buick was selling a variety of marine, automobile, and stationary engines.

Of particular interest is this horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine.  The catalog in which these were found show Buick was making a variety of engine configurations, both portable and stationary, in an array of outputs.

These testimonials about the delightfulness of Buick engines are dated from 1901 and 1902.

In 1904, a second Buick prototype – again powered by an overhead valve engine – made a successful trip from Flint to Detroit, a distance of around 70 miles.  Upon this success, Whiting was convinced to begin production of a Buick automobile.

Buick had a Model B commercially available for 1904; while their earlier cars were chain-driven, this one from the 1904 Buick brochure appears to have a rear differential.  This car has the opposed two-cylinder, overhead valve engine rated at 15 horsepower.

William Durant became general manager of Buick in November, 1904.  This placement of Durant effectively eliminated any relevant role for David D. Buick, who subsequently left his namesake company.  Mr. Buick would later be involved in a variety of other unsuccessful business ventures, including the Lorraine and Dunbar motor cars.

David D. Buick died in 1929, penniless but not bitter, a mere three years after our feature car was produced.  In a 1928 interview, Buick had stated “…money is useless, except to give one mental security.”

Things changed rapidly for the Buick brand upon Durant becoming general manager.

Research about the featured Buick has provided an illuminating if small insight into the workings of Durant and how he was successful in generating publicity for his products.  Durant’s bold and novel approach is very well evidenced by this letter found in the 1905 Buick brochure, along with the outcome of his protestations to the automotive media.

A good marketer knows how to make the current of events flow in their direction.  The result of Durant’s letter was engine testing in the Buick laboratory, under the witness of the automotive media.  This testing yielded results exceeding the advertised power output Buick was stating in their advertising.

This shrewd maneuvering undoubtedly helped propel Buick into being the second largest volume automobile brand in the United States (behind only Ford) from 1907 to 1910, with volumes growing from 4,641 to 30,525 during those years.  It is also good to keep in mind this was during a time when the market in the United States was inundated with automotive brands; in 1903 alone, 88 companies entered the automobile business.

When Durant founded General Motors, he used Buick as the foundation for the company.  Oldsmobile, Oakland, and Cadillac entered the fold soon thereafter.

Note how both this 1908 Buick, and the 1904 shown earlier, are right-hand drive.

Under Durant, Buick unveiled the Model D (a 1905 Model C is shown) at the 1905 New York Auto Show, generating over 1,100 orders from that appearance alone.  This was a great foundation from which more success would follow.

Many advertisements of the time touted hill climbing abilities and the capability of a Buick to climb hills like a goat was seemingly toward the front of the pack.  In the early days, hill climbing was used as a barometer of performance – not unlike acceleration to 60 miles per hour being used in more contemporary times.

Two years later, Buick introduced its first four-cylinder engine and in 1910, Buick set a speed record of 115 miles per hour with its “bug-eye” racer.  Louis Chevrolet, the famous driver with a car brand named after him, is piloting the car on the left.

Not resting on any laurels, Buick introduced a six-cylinder engine in 1914.  This engine was a complement to the two differing displacements of four-cylinder engine available, the motivating force of Buicks since 1907.

This new six was rated at 55 horsepower for 1915, quite a respectable rating for the time, as seen in this unusually arranged advertisement.

An item of note is finding information for automobiles of this period can sometimes be a treasure hunt.  One source stated Buick introduced the six in 1915, but two more reliable sources (one of which is the GM Heritage Center) state the introduction was in 1914.  This six helped keep Buick in fourth place in the annual sales race for 1914 behind Ford, Willys-Overland, and Studebaker.

A second item of note is how brochures during the early 20th Century had abundant verbiage, often providing very detailed specifications about the car in question.  When was the last time a brochure mentioned demountable rims or the materials used in the fabrication of the axles?  Compare this random page from a 1914 Buick brochure to the brochures from a century later that are stuffed with glossy pictures and often skimpy on words.

Remember the earlier comment the year of six-cylinder introduction disagreeing by a year?  Similar is the case with when Buick initially offered four-wheel brakes.  The GM Heritage Center says Buick was the first volume manufacturer to begin offering four-wheel brakes by doing so in 1923.  This falls in line with other information saying of the vehicles featured at the 1923 New York Auto Show, only Duesenberg and Rickenbacker had four-wheel brakes while several other manufacturers began offering them during the course of the 1923 calendar year.

It is claimed that by the 1924 New York Auto Show, 26 of the 72 manufacturers present had the availability of four-wheel brakes either as standard equipment or as an option.  For those who find it odd that extra brakes were available only as an extra-cost option, this set a precedent of sorts as anti-lock brakes were briefly an extra-cost option after their inception.

Despite any contradictory information, one thing is certain – Buick produced its one-millionth car in 1923.

All this leads us to our featured Buick.  This grille arrived for 1924 but the grille was mostly identical for 1925 and 1926.

The goodness that is Tad Burness and his American Car Spotters Guide narrowed it down to those three years.  Scouring identified this as a 1926 model but in either Standard Six or Master Six guise.  The model year of this forlorn old Buick was deduced as there was no availability of a two-door sedan with this profile for either 1924 or 1925.  Thank goodness it has this body; a few other body styles were available for all three years and determining the precise model year for them would have been a crap shoot.

Since finding this Buick, there had been a high degree of optimism it would be a 1924 model simply because 1924 was the end of an era of sorts at Buick.  It was the last year Buick offered a four-cylinder engine for many, many years.

A four-cylinder engine powering a Buick re-emerged in 1980 to be exact.

The most fundamental differences between the Master and Special Six, apart from trim that has undoubtedly suffered on our featured car, was under the hood.  The Standard had 60 horsepower with 140 ft-lbs of torque; the Master Six increased the horsepower number by fifteen and the torque rating by thirty-eight.

Buick was doing great during this time.  Production for 1926 was nearly 267,000, making Buick the largest automobile producer in the United States after accounting for Ford and Chevrolet.

Whether or not this particular Buick is a Master or Special is simply irrelevant anymore.  It’s a static display that appears to have been sitting in this spot for years.

Normally, static displays contain a certain aura of unfortunate due to their potential often being either squandered or unrealized.  However, this isn’t the typical static display.  It’s a Buick in Chicago, produced the same year infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone was gathering momentum in his career.  One can’t help but look at this mafia black Buick and think of all the things it may have witnessed, especially if this Buick is a native of the area – after migrating from Flint, of course.

The possibilities are endless on who this Buick transported and what events it has witnessed.  Yet it’s now sitting dormant, its history likely lost in the mists of time, with its future a murky thing, and now serving simply as a street-side, life size diorama exposed to the harsh environment the Windy City serves with wild abandon.  It was just below zero degrees Fahrenheit the day these pictures were taken and the breeze was quite stiff.

Stay warm and keep your chin up, old Buick.  You won’t be forgotten.

Found January 2015, in Chicago, Illinois, at the corner of Lake Street and North Ogden, under the Green Line and directly across from the Lyon & Healy Harp factory.