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How China Saved Buick

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On: Mon, May 13, 2013 at 5:35PM | By: Teddy Field

How China Saved Buick

Back in 1899, a Scottish immigrant named David Buick decided to try his hand at building horseless carriages. At the turn of the last century, automobile manufacturing was the new boom industry. Much like the dot com boom a century later, there was a fledgling car company on every corner. And nearly all of them would eventually run out of money, and go belly-up. Just a few years after Mr. Buick started his automotive venture, it too went bankrupt, and the company was taken over by a man named Billy Durant.

Mr. Durant was a very wealthy man, having turned his small wagon/carriage business, the Flint Road Cart Company, into the world's largest horse-drawn wagon manufacturer. His wagons were sold all over the world, and he decided to replicate his success In the automobile business. The Buick Motor Company was his first automotive acquisition, and it would eventually become the cornerstone of his new car-making conglomerate called General Motors.

Durant positioned his new car company as a top-shelf luxury brand, and Buicks were soon known for their luxurious appointments, and powerful engines. Thanks to his international trade connections, Durant began exporting his fine luxury cars to China in 1912. The big, powerful Buicks were an immediate hit, and the Chinese Emperor Pu Yi, along with China's first president Sun Yat-sen, chose to be chauffeured in a Buick.

Over the decades, Buick retained its prestigious image in China, even though most Americans considered Buick to be little more than the flagship of the Bingo Brigade. As the Chinese economy started to grow, GM decided to capitalize on Buick's high-brow reputation. The Chinese loved the gaudy chrome look popularized by American cars in the 1950s. So GM opened its Shanghai Buick factory in 1999, and festooned its Chinese-market cars with a toothy chrome waterfall grille which was first used on the Buick Roadmaster in the 1940s.

Chinese customers went nuts for the bling-y American luxury cars, and Buick would go on to become China's most popular luxury car brand. China's car market would become the largest on the planet, handily eclipsing our own in terms of sales volume. As GM entered bankruptcy in 2009, many thought that Buick would get the axe since the brand's 2008 U.S. sales total was a paltry 137k units. But things were much different in China, where over 280,000 Buicks found new homes. A year later, GM introduced the luxury compact Buick Excelle, which immediately sold 100,000 copies. By 2011, the Excelle had become the best-selling passenger car in the Chinese market. With sales of 254,000 units, Buick's little luxury car had single-handedly outsold the entire brand's U.S. sales of 177k units.

Today, Buick's Chinese office has a lot more say in global product development. When it came time to redesign the Buick LaCrosse, the Shanghai design team specified that the signature waterfall grille be given more prominence in the design. This wound up giving the car a much more upscale appearance, and the premium materials wrapped around flowing lines of the Chinese-influenced interior, helped to make the 2014 Buick LaCrosse one of the most luxurious Buick's in recent memory. GM intended this car to compete with the Lexus ES, and the Chinese office helped make it possible.

And you remember that wildly popular Buick Excelle that we mentioned earlier? Well, we know it as the Buick Verano, and it's the first car sold in the U.S. to be designed specifically for China. Even though U.S. Buick sales are still far from what they once were (180k in 2012), over 700k Chinese customers bought a new Buick last year. This storied American car brand is definitely enjoying a renaissance—just not in this country. Bingo, anyone?

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