BUICK - THE AUSTRALIAN STORY
Story by Eric North - BCCA Historian
Little is known about the number of Buick imports prior to World War I, as they were imported by local agents such as McIntosh & Sons Ltd of Sydney, Dalgety & Co. of Melbourne and Howard Motor & Cycle Co. Ltd of Brisbane, who no longer exist, however by the number of these vehicles which still exist, the number must have been significant by the standards of the time. Buicks were priced at ?395 for the double seater" and ?365 for the "single seater" in Nov. of 1915, by May of the following year prices had risen to ?425 and ?410 for the "touring car" and "runabout".
With the outbreak of war in 1914 and the subsequent restriction of space on cargo ships the Australian Government, in 1917, placed an embargo on the importation of motor car bodies. In 1917 about 15,000 cars were imported into Australia, approximately 10,000 of these were Model T Fords, 2,300 Dodges, 1,500 Buicks other marques making up the other 1,200 units. At this time only the Ford distributors had a local body building operation and only about 10% of their vehicles were fitted with local bodies and the premium was about ?125. Small local "carriage builders" also imported chassis units onto which they built their own bodies.
When the embargo became law in August 1917, Adelaide Dodge importer Mr. S.A..Cheney approached the local firm of Holden & Frost, saddlers and leather merchants, with the idea of manufacturing bodies for Dodge and Buick chassis. Although the company had no experience in this type of manufacturing they had a reputation for enterprise and innovation, quality and reliability. Cheney suggested to them that about 5000 bodies per year would be needed and that ?5 per body profit could be expected. The expected capital outlay would be ?50,000.
Mr H.J. Holden and his son Edward (later Sir Edward) embraced the concept from the beginning and Mr. H.J.Holden arranged for the ?50,000 to be advanced by the Bank of Adelaide, and also purchased controlling interest in local coach builder Frederick T. Hack. Three weeks later a body was shown on a Dodge chassis at the Adelaide Motor Show and contracts for supply to other Dodge and Buick distributors had been arranged. The price of a tourer body including delivery was ?57/10/0. Cheney's predictions were very close and in fact Holden made ?24,000 profit in its first year of production, suggesting that probably more than 1500 Buicks had been fitted with Holden & Frost bodies. The motor body division of Holden and Frost was, in 1918, divorced from the other sections of the business and reformed as the Holden Motor Body Builders Ltd. (H.M.B.B.) and continued to operate from the old Frederick Hack premises at the corner of King William and Halifax Streets, Adelaide until it moved to new premises at Woodville an outer Adelaide suburb in 1924.
This coincided with an agreement reached with General Motors Overseas to produce all the bodies for their vehicles in Australia. By this time production had risen to 22,000 bodies per year, about half for G.M. products.
In the period 1922-23 Buick CKD kits were imported from Canada, 3637 in 1922 and 3184 in 1923, from 1924 to 1930 small numbers of presumably complete cars came in from Canada and most of the chassis units came in from the U.S.A. No indicative figures for 1925 and 1926 are available, but it is probably safe to assume numbers were around the 3000 mark for each year. Holden body numbers indicate total Buick body production (presumably for calendar years not model years) 1927- 2857, 1928 - 2651, 1929 - 865 plus 768 Marquettes, 1930 - 517 . Registrations for 1930 indicated 1230 Buicks and 542 Marquettes. Strangely the available figures indicate 238 Master Tourers and 1347 Master Sedans produced in the 1931-33 period and no 8/50s at all produced, in spite of the fact that a number of these cars exist today. It is also interesting to note that a least one 1931 8/90 Victoria coupe was handcrafted by Holden and plated "Custom body by Holden"
H.M.B.B. became so adapt at improvisation and small run manufacture that they consistently produced new model bodies from American production drawings without seeing the new model chassis. The bodies were in production by the time the first chassis arrived from America and it was normal for the Australian release of a new model to almost coincide with the American release.
G.M.A's structure from 1926
|Head Office||Temple Court, Collins St, Melbourne|
|Sydney||Carrington Rd, Marrickville|
|Melbourne||City Rd, South Melbourne|
H.M.B.B. located at Woodville, Adelaide remained the contract body supplier to G.M.A. until 1931 when they were purchased outright by G.M.A.
General Motors set up an Australian operation in 1926 and opened assembly plants in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. Bodies were purchased from Holden Motor Body Builders. These bodies were not necessarily similar in construction or concept to their U.S.A. counterparts, for example in 1929 roadster bodies were mounted on light six chassis, a combination not available elsewhere. It was also in 1929 that sedan construction exceeded open cars for the first time in Australia (this trend had occurred many years earlier in the U.S.A.)
Total production of the model 29-24 roadsters is unknown, however research through H.M.B.B. factory records indicate that the maximum built would not exceed 184. Thirteen, in various states of restoration are known to survive today. Only one of these is outside Australia, and it is in New Zealand.
In 1928 H.M.B.B. introduced the rectangular "lion" symbol body badge. All Holden built Buicks had this badge fitted to the left cowl. In 1939 it changed to the oval shaped badge.
During the veteran and vintage years G.M.A. sold small numbers of chassis to other body builders. A.E.Agate of Sydney built this two seat roadster with boot (trunk) to special order in 1926. It is typical of the transport chosen by doctors at the time.
The depression period hit the Australian motor industry very hard, production dropped to all time lows and Holden Motor Body Builders were forced to amalgamate with General Motors in 1930, thus forming General Motors Holdens Ltd. Edward Holden was chairman of the company. G.M.H. turned a profit in 1933, the first time since 1929, so when new Managing Director. Lawrence Hartnett arrived in March of 1934, the recovery had begun.
Under Hartnett's rule the organisation prospered along with the Australian motoring and industrial scene. Late in 1934 the Buick 8/40 series was introduced in Australia and showed many distinctive features not seen on the U.S.A. models. The rear quarter light was much larger, leather upholstery with centre drop down armrest in the rear seat ( a feature of all subsequent Holden Bodied Buick Sedans) , clock and twin side mounted spares were standard equipment and the price was set at ?495. Models available were sedan, coupe, roadster and for 1935 a tourer was listed, overall Buick body production for 1934 was 941 including 223- 8/501s.
There was little change in 1935 models except, as previously said, an 8/40 tourer was added, of which 24 were made, 8/50 production dropped to 78, plus one coupe. This was the last year a convertible body of any sort was mounted on Buick chassis by Holden. However 1935 saw a new innovation in the Chevrolet range, a "Sloper" coupe, this was a combination of a two door sedan and the, yet to be invented, station wagon or perhaps "hatchback". The rear seat folded down to provide a loading platform, an ideal arrangement for travelling salesmen. This body style was included in the 1936 Buick line-up.
Hartnett was extremely dissapointed with G.M. because they would not let him manufacture "Turret Top" (All steel) bodies on G.M. cars for the 1936 model year, in spite of the fact that he argued that G.M.H. had already been building them on Chrysler vehicles for a year. Hence the 1936 Buicks were a traditional wooden frame body with fabric roof insert and front doors hinged from the centre pillar. The 1936 brochure shows the "Roadmaster" sedan and coupe models (8/40) "Century" sedan and coupe and "Special" eight passenger sedan (8/90) with Fisher body. Again all models featured leather upholstery. Total Holden production is shown as 1835
For 1937 Buick marketed a full model line-up for the only time in the 1930s, but now model designations were in line with U.S.A. models, however body styles again varied from that available in the homeland, but now all featured all steel "turret tops". The "sloper" coupe was available in the Special and Century lines, but aside from that the sedan had different bumpers, the shape of rear quarter and boot (trunk) was different, and rear windows were a different shape. When questioned by this writer about these differences, Hartnett (at that time Sir. Lawrence) would not give any plausable explanation, avoiding the question with a silly remark to the effect that "we got paper patterns from America, they came by ship, through the tropics and paper is hydrascopic". Obviously he really meant that he wanted to show his own or his engineer's individuality. 8/80 and 8/90 models shown in the catalog do not mention the availability of limousines, however the existance of one 8/80 limousine is known. Again all models featured leather upholstery, the Special and Century in a very fancy pattern with the front squabs raised slightly behind the driver and passenger. Holden's Buick production for 1937 is shown as the highest in the1930's at 2431.
As in the U.S.A. the 1938 models were similar to the 1937's, however the 8/60 coupe was dropped and the catalogue did not mention the long wheelbase models, however Holden figures show four 8/80's and four 8/90's being produced. Holden body production was 1844. Again all models featured leather upholstery, in a more conservative pattern.
The Premier of Victoria the Hon, A.A.Dunstan had as his official car a 1938-8/90, the chassis of which was imported from Canada by Preston Motors of Melbourne and had a body constructed by Martin & King. It is known that Martin & King built bodies on Buick chassis for the Victorian Electricity Commission in this era.
Buicks for 1939 featured all new body styles and again Holden bodies showed significant differences, two rear windows, rather than one in Fisher bodies. More obvious was the entirely different boot shape and door handles incorporated in the body mould, a feature not available in Fisher body cars until the 1940 Super & Roadmaster series and not until 1941 in Special & Century models. Local catalogues now only listed the Special and Century sedan, the "sloper" coupe was gone from the Buick line (although it continued in the Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile lines). Holden body production was 1538. An 8/90 was displayed at the Melbourne Motor Show.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 car sales dropped, Holden's Buick production was down to 475-8/40's and 68-8/60's, all sedans, however their figures also show 176-8/40's being made in 1941. These are believed to all be carry over 1940 models and probably supplied to the military. Again as in 1939 all featured leather upholstery.
No 1941 or 1942 Buicks were bodied by Holden, but some have been privately imported into the country at varoius times as have many earlier cars. Over the years Buick chassis were also suppled to many other small coach builders and bodied to the owners individual requirements, some with very interesting results.
With the war over, Holden was unable to obtain the necessary chassis to build bodies on and it was not until December of 1946 that the first Buicks rolled off the line. Only 8/40 chassis were bodied by Holden, but now they were identical to their Fisher body counterparts. Upholstery was either leather or Cord, still with the pull down centre armrest on the back seat. Holden production of 1946 and1947's is thought to be around 2000 and basically arrived on the market a year late, i.e 1946 models were sold in 1947 and1947 models in1948. Some Super and Roadmaster models were Dealer and privately imported at that time.
Buicks of this era were popular with Government Departments and Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies used a1947 Buick along with a Bentley for official use into the 1960's. The story goes that he liked the old Buick so much that when it was replaced in 1958 by a new Roadmaster Limited, he ordered the new car banished and the old one returned. However the old car had already been sold, so a similar car was conscripted from the P.M.G. fleet and refurbished. The1958 was passed down to his deputy Jack McEwan.
Holden stopped Buick body production in 1948 when capacity was needed to produce the new Holden car. General Motors no longer imported Buicks, but left that to individual dealers like Preston Motors in Melbourne and Stack & Co in Sydney. The number of these imports is not known accurately but is thought to be in the region of 100 to 150 cars per year until 1952.
Buick stopped production of right hand drive cars in 1953 so imports from that time all had to be converted, this was (and is) a costly proposition, however small numbers of Buick have continued to come into the country as new and used cars.
The first Holden, model 48/215, released in 1948 showed it's GM heritage with body design mirroring shapes and features similar to Buick's 1939/40 styling, although more compact in size. The Holden Commodore of today still uses a refined version of the rugged Buick 3.8 litre, V6 engine but with rear wheel drive.