Led by a new design theme, Buick seeks to remake its image

By John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News
Buick's sleek two-plus-two concept coupe, the Avista, was unveiled in 2016. It influenced the grille and headlight designs of Buick’s current vehicles.

America’s premium automotive companies are struggling to find their footing in today’s crowded luxury market, hemmed in by the dominant German makes and the relatively new and aggressive Asian brands.

Against this backdrop, one of Detroit’s longest-lived nameplates, Buick, is remaking itself with a new effort based largely on a fresh design theme.

Buick survived the drastic culling of brands at GM brought on by the 2008 recession and the parent company’s bankruptcy, mainly because of its popularity in the booming Chinese market. Buick’s success in China has continued but now the venerable marque wants to raise its profile in the U.S. as well, with a major, design-led wave of new products.

During a rare behind-the-scenes tour of Buick’s design studios in Warren, I cast eyes on a slew of sketches of potential newcomers to the brand’s lineup, plus a fairly radical full-size model concept car that is providing much of the inspiration for the new vehicles.

While I cannot share full descriptions of the concept and sketches I saw at the Warren design facility, it’s clear from all the activity that Buick is ready to take another big step toward redefining its market image.

Buick’s long heritage has been both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, Buick was seen as an old school brand with little relevancy to younger buyers. However, moves made some years ago to introduce new crossover vehicles and spice up sedan models with more modern designs has helped put Buick back on the radar. 

The brand’s rich legacy of innovative design and engineering firsts does give Buick a historical legitimacy that rival Asian nameplates can only dream of. What’s more, vehicles like the 1938 Y Job -- the world’s first concept car -- and the 1951 Le Sabre concept, not only established Buick’s reputation as a groundbreaking auto company, but also continue to inspire its designers to this day.

Bob Boniface, Buick director of design, explains inspirational design elements from ground-breaking 1938 Buick Y Job concept, right, and the 1951 Buick Le Sabre concept.

Harley Earl, the legendary GM designer behind the Y Job and Le Sabre, essentially used Buick “as his playpen for experimentation,” says the brand’s current director of design, Bob Boniface. “The Le Sabre had a huge impact,” notes Boniface. “It influenced Italian coachbuilders at the time and introduced numerous design features, like tailfins, that later become commonplace.”

Fast forward to 2016, when Buick unveiled the Avista concept, a sleek and sensuous two-plus-two coupe. Boniface credits the Avista with influencing the grille and headlight designs of Buick’s current vehicle designs, notably on the successful Enclave crossover. 

Now, however, Boniface’s talented and youthful team of designers is readying a new generation of Buicks, taking cues from a brand new concept that may or may not be shown in public. This concept is more a car than a crossover in design, but key features, like a completely new grille design, will be seen on the forthcoming generation of Buick crossovers. “The concept may never been seen,” adds Boniface, “but it is a rallying point and has created a lot of optimism.”

Overall, the design team’s guiding tenets are “sculptural beauty, a sense of well being and spirited, efficient, performance,” says Rob Cameron, design manager, Buick exteriors. “The focus is on form-based shape, where shape and volume is defined by surfaces, versus lines.”

Cameron adds that the use of “easter eggs” - hidden or surprise design features - is not part of the plan. “Other brands favor these quirky elements, but not us.”

Michelle Killen, design manager, Buick color and trim, analyzes trends to pick colors and materials for future vehicles.

On the interior design front, Buick is striving to produce cabins that are a step beyond mainstream premium brand rivals in terms of quality, materials and sophistication. Michelle Killen, Buick color and trim design manager, says that part of the challenge of a vehicle’s long gestation period is predicting what colors, materials, textures and patterns will be in vogue in three or four years’ time. “My area is very much a global business, working with suppliers that analyze color trends around the world,” says Killen. “I am working with my counterparts in China, Korea and Europe.”

For Boniface, the future of Buick design is “as a brand that is facing forward, but using our heritage.

“Design is the great differentiator; marketing knows that and we are relied upon, especially as we move towards the era of autonomous vehicles,” says Boniface. “Should that vehicle look like a toaster, that comes and picks you up, drops you off and parks itself? Or should that car have emotional appeal? Absolutely. And that’s what we can do.”

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at