1936, 1937 and 1938
- Buick’s Triumph Through Adversity -
In the mid 1930’s, American cars entered a new era. Paved roads and national highways like Route 1 and Route 66 were making long distance travel possible. Technical advances were generating faster speeds and improved performance. Styling was departing from angular “coach-work” in favor of graceful curves and “stream-lining” as newer models were perfected. These innovations advanced at a rapid pace despite the Great Depression. Competition was intense, resulting in great changes for the automotive marketplace. It is difficult for our generation to fully comprehend just how quickly the advances introduced between 1928 and 1938 took hold. In hindsight these innovations were unprecedented and truly dramatic.
1933 was a particularly disastrous year and is often recognized as the worst of the Depression. Many manufacturers were forced out of business as they failed to survive the challenges being forced upon them. Just six years earlier in 1927, Buick hit their highest sales ever, producing 250,116 vehicles in that year. By 1933 they had fallen to only 49,924 and their continued existence was in doubt. There was great concern for their future. GM’s president Alfred P. Sloan made the decision that Buick, the line that built General Motors, could not be allowed to fail. In response to the unease a new president was tasked to revive the fading division. Harlow Curtice was appointed to Buick through his success at AC Spark Plug, another division of GM. His leadership saw that firm actually grow despite the economy’s poor state. Curtice’s results for AC presented hope for Buick. No one at the time could foresee the exciting era which was soon to unfold. Not just for Buick but also General Motors as this new, dynamic leader assumed the office.
By the 1920’s Buick had gained a reputation as a doctor or bankers car. This reflected their strong presence in the middle and upper markets. Recognizing those segments were now collapsing, Harlow Curtice’s first move was to quickly introduce a smaller “40 Series” car focused on the low end market. Negotiations with their sister division, Chevrolet resulted in the smaller body required. Buick’s offering would be unique, powered by a 233 cubic inch, overhead valve, straight eight engine. The move succeeded in saving the line from closure in 1934. In the years that followed the 40 Series would realize their highest sales figures encompassing the majority of surviving Buick’s seen today. Low end market volume saved Buick from obscurity! It also created an opportunity to truly re-invigorate their entire line. The competition was taking every advantage of the industry’s growing progress as each vied for market share. Release of the 40 series literally bought the division breathing room. But that alone would not ensure their survival. It would take Curtice and his team another two years in research and development to yield revolutionary innovations at Buick. This new model was to be a dramatic departure from the past, clearly announcing the start of a new phase.
Many of the features and advances of 1936 would remain in use for decades following their debut to the public. Released on September 28th, 1935, it was Buick’s great leap forward while still in the grip of the Depression. Most significantly was the introduction of the famous 320 cubic inch, straight eight engine in their big series cars. This new design would remain in use through 1952. More power created a need for better stopping and so it was in 1936 that hydraulic braking was first employed at Buick. All steel “turret-tops” replaced the previous wood and fabric construction, enabling better safety and the “stream-lined” styling which was influencing everything from steam trains to house hold appliances.
As testament to their achievement in this year, Edward the VIII, the King England, United Kingdom and Emperor of India, personally requested a special-order, Buick “ 90L”. This car would be a one-off, Canadian manufactured, “Limited” model fit for a King! According to Bonham’s auction house, which transferred ownership of this car in 2007, the future monarch visited his local London Buick dealer, Lendrum & Hartman commenting "he did not believe anyone in Britain could build a car the way he wanted it built"! A man accustomed to the ultra-luxurious Daimler’s, performance minded Bentley’s and even the car seen by the world over as the standard of excellence Rolls Royce, made the choice for Buick over these fine automobiles. According to Bonham’s information, his car was delivered just prior to his accession to the throne and would remain his personal transportation through 1939. His reign would be short, running only eleven months in total from January 20th through December 11th of 1936. Controversy over his romance with the divorcee, Mrs. Wallis Simpson would result in his abdication. There is much that can be said about “The Duke of Windsor” which would be his new title. However it can not be disputed that he was truly a man of passion. Which we now know included a love of cars. His order to Buick also included a model 81 “Roadmaster” sedan for Mrs. Simpson as well. These historical facts speak volumes about the superb quality and construction offered in their new model.
Buick would continue to refine and improve on their line over the course of the next three years. Incorporating innovations such as aerobat carburetors, turbulator pistons, independent knee action front suspension in all models, coil springs front & rear, and even an optional “self-shifting” automatic transmission, generated a steady increase in market share. All this from the same division some feared would disappear back in 1933! It was through these continuing advances that Buick went on to capture fourth place among American production cars of 1938, producing 173,905 vehicles in what proved to be yet another recession year.
These three years stand alone in representing the division’s return to prominence as a true market leader. The design, engineering and value presented at this time had been truly progressive. Even after the next phase of advancements emerged in 1939, the innovation and features of 36-37-38 kept them popular for years to come. Their looks, performance and power are simply majestic. They reflect the dedication to excellence employed at Buick in those turbulent days prior to World War II and the boom years which followed. With this success Harlow Curtice went on to become the president of General Motors. Under his leadership GM would become the single largest corporation in the world and the first to realize a billion dollars profit in a single year during the 1950’s.
Today these same features keep these cars highly desirable among antique auto enthusiasts. Of the top four American manufacturers of 1938, including Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth, Buick is the only one with models in the 80 and 90 series which are recognized by The Classic Car Club of America. These cars embody the motto which you may recall…
“When better automobiles are built, “Buick will build them”!
It is for these reasons we suggest to you……. “Better Buy Buick!”