Buick City, once an automotive metropolis, finds new life

A high-angle view of the Buick Motor Division manufacturing plant, spanning an area over 300 acres in Flint, Michigan, circa 1955. FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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.

Buick City Property Aerial Flint Michigan
Jason Damman/racertrust.org

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.

Buick and Weston Mott Shift Change 1910 flint michigan
Buick and Weston-Mott factories, Flint, Michigan, 1910. Flickr/Don Harrison/Guy A. Gaines

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.

GMC Buick Plant 1960
Flickr/Don Harrison

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 Fenced
Flickr/Mike McManaman

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.”




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    Leo Goossen also worked there and on a recommendation from Walter P. Chrysler, obtained employment from Harry A. Miller in LA. The rest is history. I worked at Buick City around 1994-1997, way in the back at the Labor Time Garage, and in the Admin Building across the street from the plant. I loved it there.

    I enjoy seeing these stories where the old automaker plants/campuses are being redeveloped and bringing jobs back to the Michigan towns where they once ruled the economy. It’s sad that they probably would never house the thriving industry that built them, but better this sort of revival than just falling down into ruins.

    They found new life… Is it aliens?!? Perhaps another species arose from the depths of the Flint river.

    GM and govt. working together… lovely. At least they didn’t sell it to China or a Chinese controlled company, yet.

    Mr Grubenmann,
    At least they didn’t sell it to China? Why do you think China would buy it in the shape it’s in? What makes you think that’s part of the deal? Fix up first then they’ll buy it? Lmao

    If China ever wants Buick, the government will just kick GM out of China and run the plant without GM’s involvement. I doubt that GM is under any illusions that they are in China at the WHIM of the current government. There is no guarantee that today’s economic policies will be consistent for 100 years or more. It’s a dictatorship for certain. It’s absolutely not Communist any more and hasn’t been for 10 or 20 years at least. Maybe 30 years. “Outside” companies doing business in China know the risks. They understand they could be on the way home tomorrow because of some destabilizing event. And they understand they might have little or no warning.

    Very interesting story! But the article talks of Buick first front wheel drive 1979 Riviera. IIRC the first front wheel drive Riviera was sold in 1966 along with a FWD Cadillac Eldordo. While serving my tool & die apprenticeship at H&H Tool & Die in Dayton, Ohio I drove the company Riv many times taking first article production stampings for customer approval.

    No, the other FWD vehicle that shared platforms with the Cadillac Eldorado was the Oldsmobile Toronado. And actually, the Toronado came out first, in 1966. The Eldo was introduced in 1967.

    I worked as a lot boy at Andy Butti Oldsmobile/GMC in Carson City, Nevada one summer in the late ’60s. The normal runaround vehicle for parts runs, etc. was a Jeep CJ, but occasionally when one of the more “elite” customers needed to be shuttled somewhere, I got to use Andy’s Toronado. It was a super fun car to drive, and quite plush, but it was nowhere near as fancy as a Riviera, which was about four notches of cool above, IMHO.

    My comment is awaiting moderation? Why?
    Please explain what part needs moderation? Nearly if not everything I said was actually a question just wanting more information about what’s going on. The only moderation I could possibly think of doing is removing “China” from my Query. If that’s all then let everyone that I’ve offended know I will remove my references if someone tells me that’s what needs to be moderated. Holy Cow can’t anyone take a joke any more? Before I’m asked to moderate this comment notice my first comment I ended with lol which means look Lois & Lucy
    You won’t believe this but this comment is not allowed because I’m commenting on a comment with permission from the comment. Jeez us H. Christie and I’m not talking about a ex governor but the Lord hi judge of us all. Believe it or not he has the finally say so on comments. Lmao again
    I just another another “I can’t comment on unapproved comments. This is getting to be hilarious if weren’t so pathetic bye you all see later reptile after while another reptile

    Nice redevelopment effort. Sorry for Flint, but as the song says, “those (union) jobs are gone, boys, and they ain’t coming back”. Plan on $18/hr warehouse work.

    As the past/current owner of 5 really nice Buicks, those modern-day sales numbers are really sad – as is the fact that Buick makes no passenger cars now.

    One correction to make: As I understand it, Louis Chevrolet was not a co-founder of Chevrolet, but rather Billy Durant tapped him to design a car to compete with Ford and use it to regain control of GM which he founded but was thrown out. And he was able to regain control of GM using Chevrolet. Chevrolet was a heck of a driver but Durant did not like the car Chevrolet designed so rejected it and designed his own car but kept Chevrolet’s name. Louis Chevrolet went back to driving race cars, Ford race cars to be exact. I cannot dispute he later raced Buicks.

    No, Louis and his brother Arthur, along with Billy Durant and two other investors, started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company. The brothers designed the engines and the cars. However, they came to disagree with Durant on what kind of cars to build. Durant wanted cheap cars to compete with the Model T. There were other disagreements as well ending with Chevrolet selling his portion of the company to Durant in 1915.

    It wasn’t mentioned but the Buick City plant was open for tours of the public unlike most other auto manufacturing plants in the US. Visited there myself sometime in the late ’80s.

    The Buick Park Avenue was actually introduced in 1978 with the new GM bodies. Newly married in June 1982 my wife and I bought our first car together for our newly blended family. It was a fully loaded Park Avenue 4 dr. It was silver with a moon roof, padded roof, power steering, brakes, windows, seats, locks, trunk release, antenna, alarm system, cruise control, temperature control AC, wire wheel covers and best of all, the Diesel engine. With all six of us and the dog on board it got 29 mpg at 70 mph while running the AC. Loved that car!

    I’ve heard that 75% of the GM Diesel cars are still on the road. The rest made it safely home and later converted to gasoline.

    Yup! Right on figures. I had an ’80 that had repeat visits to the dealer, like monthly. Finally, on it’s last visit, while running rough it literally blew the heads off the engine in the dealer service drive. Blown head gaskets led to coolant in the cylinders and boom! Fluids everywhere, steam and terrible noises, quite a show. All while idling in the service drive, at 10 months old and less than 12K. They rebuilt the engine, transmission, cooling system and more, taking 2 months. I negotiated a trade with the help of the GM zone rep, and my new car (with a gas engine) arrived while I was still driving the loaner. Awesome experimental engine, too bad they actually produced and sold them.

    It was 1973 I was 18 and I bought a lightly used LaSaber convertible red on red with a white top
    Some of the best years of my life!
    Thanks to Buick and the people that made this wonderful automobile.

    If you want us to believe your story about owning a LeSabre, you should at least spell the name of the car correctly, including the 2 capital letters. (this announcement brought to you by the Satirical Grammer Police) Everybody knows the proper name of their favorite cars and the name of the factory paint color (If still original).

    It is sad about Buick production #’s and no cars being produced. But it seems other manufacturers are doing the same. I wanted to buy a new Lincoln MKZ. Nope can’t order not being produced. I’m thinking the auto industry is radically changing.
    But I will tell you my Dad was a Buick dealer for years. When they would have a preview of the new cars coming for what ever year. Many dealers did not like what they built. But we had to sell X amount of them to get a popular model, like the Buick, LeSabre that sold very well . I remember Buick Skyhawk’s we had a two and a half’s year supply of them on our lot. Anyway it was interesting times back in the Wray. I’m sure this generation of car dealers have there stories too! Leave you with this old statement. “ wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick “

    The redevelopment of Buick City may be heralded with great fanfare, but “the proof is in the pudding” as the old saying goes. If they build it, will any tenants show up?

    I used to work in Plant #36, Engine Plant. August 1965 to November 1994. Then I transferred to a GM Plant in Tuscaloosa, AL, and retired August 1998.

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