Buick is currently the oldest active North American automotive maker (Autocar, the truck-maker, is the oldest motor vehicle brand) and among the oldest automobile brands in the world. It originated as the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899, an independent internal combustion engine and motor-car manufacturer, and was later incorporated as the Buick Motor Company on May 19, 1903, by Scottish born David Dunbar Buick in Detroit, Michigan. Later that year, the company was taken over by James H. Whiting (1842–1919), who moved it to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and brought in William C. Durant in 1904 to manage his new acquisition. He teamed up with R S McLaughlin in Canada in 1907 with a 15-year contract for motors. In 1908 GM Holding was founded. Buick sold his stock for a small sum upon departure, and died in modest circumstances 25 years later.
Between 1899 and 1902, two prototype vehicles were built in Detroit, Michigan by Walter Lorenzo Marr. Some documentation exists of the 1901 or 1902 prototype with tiller steering similar to the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. In mid-1904, another prototype was constructed for an endurance run, which convinced James H. Whiting to authorize production of the first models offered to the public. The architecture of this prototype was the basis for the Model B.
The first Buick made for sale, the 1904 Model B, was built in Flint, Michigan. There were 37 Buicks made that year, none of which survive. There are, however, two replicas in existence: the 1904 endurance car, at the Buick Gallery & Research Center in Flint, and a Model B assembled by an enthusiast in California for the division's 100th anniversary. Both of these vehicles use various parts from Buicks of that early era, as well as fabricated parts. These vehicles were each constructed with the two known surviving 1904 engines.
The power train and chassis architecture introduced on the Model B was continued through the 1909 Model F. The early success of Buick is attributed in part to the valve-in-head, or overhead valve (OHV), engine patented by Eugene Richard and developed by David Dunbar Buick. The Model F had a two-cylinder engine, an 87-inch wheelbase and weighed 1,800 lbs. The creation of General Motors is attributed in part to the success of Buick, so it can be said Marr and Richard's designs directly led to GM.
The basic design of the 1904 Buick was optimally engineered even by today's standards. The flat-twin engine is inherently balanced, with torque presented to the chassis in a longitudinal manner, actually cancelling front end lift, rather than producing undesirable lateral motion. The engine was mounted amidships, now considered the optimal location.
Durant was a natural promoter, and Buick soon became the largest car maker in America. Using the profits from this, Durant embarked on a series of corporate acquisitions, calling the new megacorporation General Motors. At first, the manufacturers comprising General Motors competed against each other, but Durant ended that. He wanted each General Motors division to target one class of buyer, and in his new scheme, Buick was near the top — only the Cadillac brand had more prestige, a ranking that Buick occupies currently in the General Motors lineup. To save on resources, Buick vehicles shared a common platform, called the GM A platform, that was shared with Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile and Cadillac. The ideal Buick customer is comfortably well off, possibly not quite rich enough to afford a Cadillac, nor desiring the ostentation of one, but definitely in the market for a car above the norm.
At first, Buick followed the likes of Napier in automobile racing, winning the first-ever race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1911, Buick introduced its first closed-body car, four years ahead of Ford. In 1929, as part of General Motors' companion make program, Buick Motor Division launched the Marquette sister brand, designed to bridge the price gap between Buick and Oldsmobile; however, Marquette was discontinued in 1930. All Buick, Marquette, Viking, and Oldsmobile products shared the newly introduced GM B platform starting in 1926. Buick debuted two major achievements for the 1931 model year, the OHV Buick Straight-8 engine and a synchromesh transmission in all models but the Series 50. The Eight was offered in three displacements, the 220 cubic inch (bore 2 7/8 in. stroke 4.25 in.), was available in the Series 50 with 77 brake HP. The Series 60 engine was a 272 cu. in. unit (bore 3 1/16 in., stroke 5 in.) giving 90 brake HP. The Series 80 and Series 90 used a 344 cu. in. version (bore 3 5/16 in., stroke 5 in.) for 104 brake HP. Automatic vacuum-operated spark advance was another new feature replacing the steering column mounted spark lever although an emergency lever was now dash mounted. Buick scored another first in 1939, when it became the first company to introduce turn signals. All 1939 models also had a steering column mounted shift lever.
In the 1930s Buicks were popular with the British royal family, particularly Edward VIII. He imported and used a Canadian built McLaughlin-Buick that were GMs top brand in Canada, Cadillac not having caught on there. George VI used one for a coast to coast royal tour of Canada in 1939.