If you've seen the movie Sea Biscuit you may have noticed a batch of mint-condition, vintage Buicks of the '20s, '30s and '40s.
The movie didn't make a big deal about the Buick connection, but there's a story behind it.
Charles S. Howard, who purchased Sea Biscuit for $8,000 in 1936 while he was in Saratoga Springs, NY, looking for a yearling for his friend, Bing Crosby, at one time was one of Buick's largest distributors. He controlled sales through dealers in eight Western states and Hawaii.
Horse racing experts thought Howard was crazy for buying Sea Biscuit. The horse had short legs and knobby knees and had lost every race he ran in 1935 and '36. But on the day Howard first saw him, the “small, homely horse,” as Howard described him, had won a pair of races.
Howard hired trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard, and together the trio took the underdog to the top, crowned by a four-length victory over the “unbeatable,” Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938 at Saratoga.
War Admiral's owner Samuel Riddle pooh-poohed Howard's challenge, insisting a “West Coast Horse” (Howard was from San Francisco) didn't belong on the same track with War Admiral.
He finally relented and the little horse that couldn't went on to worldwide popularity. It's said that 30,000 fans filled the stands that day, with one out of three Americans listening on the radio. This was during the Great Depression. Sea Biscuit gave the nation a big morale boost.
By the time Sea Biscuit retired in 1940 he had amassed $437,730 in winnings, making him the top money winner of his era.
Not that Charles Howard needed the money. He had long since become a multi-millionaire as a Buick distributor and owner of his own dealerships.
Born in Marietta, GA, in 1880, Howard reportedly arrived in San Francisco with 20 cents in his pocket in 1903. He initially worked repairing bicycles.
Spotting cars just starting to appear on the city's streets, he became fascinated with the idea of getting into the automobile business. This was cemented when, during a visit to his father's piano manufacturing plant in New York City, he got involved with a Pope Toledo dealership nearby.
In 1904, he met William Durant, founder of General Motors Corp., who hired him as a Buick field man. The next year he became a Buick dealer in San Francisco and sold 85 cars that year. Legend has it he took some horses in trade.
Anxious to build a national dealer network fast, Durant offered territorial distributorships. Howard won Buick rights in the West.
Distributors had full responsibility over the dealerships because they had exclusive rights to the cars. Howard eventually bought trainloads of Buicks shipped from the factory in Flint, MI. He reportedly received 2% on every car sale and 3% on all parts.
Durant saw it as a win-win deal. Buick gave up control over its franchises, but it still made big money, as did Howard and Buick's other distributors.
Howard soon adopted his own tag line: “The Howard Automobile Co. …Largest Distributor of Automobiles in the World.” By 1941 that was indeed the case as his dealer group sold 30,000 cars, a big number in those days.
By 1925, Buick had 13 distributors nationwide. Under pressure from GM to gain direct control over its franchises, most of the distributors sold out during the 1930s. Buick took over Howard's dealers in 1947, leaving him in control of only his own outlets. By then, that included Pontiac and Oldsmobile stores. He died in 1950.
(Special thanks to Larry Gustin and Terry Dunham, co-authors of “The Buick: A Complete History” published by Automobile Quarterly).