Buick City, once an automotive metropolis, finds new life
Flint’s Buick City once made quality automobiles that delighted thousands of customers, but the massive Michigan site hasn’t delivered much of anything since the plant closed in 1999 and the 413-acre property was vacated by General Motors in 2010. That inactivity is about to change.
On June 5, 2023, state and GM officials broke ground on the Flint Commerce Center industrial park, a $300 million redevelopment project that will bring new life to the Buick City site, much like the $66 million warehouse development that is currently under construction at the former AMC headquarters property in Detroit. Upon completion, the Flint Commerce Center will include 10 buildings, with a total footprint of 3.5 million square feet, and could provide up to 3000 new jobs.
Ashley Capital, the real estate firm that is redeveloping the site, has purchased 20 acres and expects to acquire 330 more this summer from Flint’s Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust. Also known as RACER, the trust was formed to clean up and sell off old GM properties after the automaker filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Construction of the first Flint Commerce Center building is expected to be completed in 2024.
For more than a century—dating back to the Flint Wagon Works in the early 1900s—the Buick City site was a source of automotive pride in Flint, a city located about 60 miles north of the Motor City. Buick, founded in Detroit by David Dunbar Buick in 1903, was originally financed by Buick’s friend and fellow automobile enthusiast Benjamin Briscoe, who sold his controlling interest to James H. Whiting the same year. Whiting moved operations to Flint, keeping David Buick as manager. The Associated Press called the first Buick automobile built at the site “little more than a buggy frame bolted to a 21-horsepower engine and a steering wheel, with a love seat stuck on top.”
When Whiting ran out of money in 1904, he invited William C. Durant to become a controlling investor. The move would change automotive history. In 1908, Durant merged Buick and several other automakers to form General Motors. Buick soon became the biggest-selling automobile brand in the U.S., known for innovations like the overhead valve (OHV) engine, which Buick called a “valve-in-head” engine.
In addition to Durant, noteworthy names from the Buick family tree include Charles W. Nash, founder of what would became AMC; Walter P. Chrysler, founder of Chrysler Corporation; and Harlow H. Curtice, GM president from 1953–58. In addition, Louis Chevrolet, cofounder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, gained fame as a Buick race team driver.
Buick continued its rise in the 1920s, with production reaching more than 260,000 units in 1926. The Flint facility continued to grow to keep up with consumer demand. Buick’s strong reputation and financial position helped the automaker survive the Great Depression and the stoppage of civilian auto production during World War II. The first all-new Buick was the redesigned Roadmaster, which received the all-new Dynaflow automatic transmission in 1948.
By 1950, Buick was producing 550,000 vehicles annually. Five years later, production rose to 745,000 units. Sales continued to rise through the 1960s and hit a record 821,165 for the 1973 model year, just before the oil embargo took its toll on the luxury car market. A bright spot during the period was Buick’s first front-wheel-drive automobile, the 1979 Riviera S Type, which featured a turbocharged V-6 engine and earned Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year award.
After major factory renovations were completed in the 1980s, the Flint complex was dubbed “Buick City.” As GM’s answer to Toyota and its eponymous Japanese city, Buick City placed a heavy emphasis on quality, and the automaker’s star rose again.
In 1989, independent market research firm J.D. Power and Associates named Buick City No. 1 in North America and No. 2 in the world in quality rankings. The same year, the Buick LeSabre was ranked as No. 1 in North America and No. 2 in the world among 154 domestic and imported models. Buick immediately began advertising itself as “the new symbol for quality in America.”
The 1990s brought the upscale Buick Park Avenue and Park Avenue Ultra and also marked the return of the popular Roadmaster name. For the 1991 model year, Buick led all automakers in market share improvement and sales volume improvement in the U.S. market. The Park Avenue, Roadmaster, and Le Sabre all won major awards in ’91 and ’92.
Buick couldn’t maintain its lofty market position, however. By 1997 the automaker’s share of the car and truck market was down from a high of nearly 40 percent to 30.7 percent. In 1997, GM announced that it planned to close Buick City. The following summer, two worker strikes erupted at GM parts plants in Flint, virtually closing the automaker’s North American operations.
Buick City, which according to the Automotive News employed nearly 30,000 workers at its peak in the 1950s, produced its last vehicle on June 29, 1999.
Today, Buicks are built at several locations in the U.S., including Detroit, as well as in China (Envision) and South Korea (Encore GX). Buick reported sales of 38,138 vehicles in the first quarter of 2023, compared to 19,146 in the first quarter of 2022—a 100 percent year-over-year increase but still a far cry from its heyday in Flint.
Regardless, the redevelopment of the Buick City property shines the spotlight on what once was and what may yet be.
“This can be a lighthouse of hope for the northern portions of our city down the poverty corridor of Genesee County,” says Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley. “This is a great day for our families.”