Irv White Buick
IRV WHITE BUICK
Irv White Buick was a Buick dealer in Los Angeles that lasted from 1957 to 1989. He sold Citroën SM’s in the early 1970's. He did not offer other Citroën models, just the SM. We probably would not spend that much time talking about Irv White since he was a Citroën dealer for only a few years and only offered one model. However, a famous personality in the Citroën community emerged from Irv White Buick, and as such, we have chosen to take an in-depth look at Irv White’s dealership. Who was this personality? Read on and find out…
To understand how Irv White got his start in the Buick business, we need to go back to 1905 and discuss a man named Charles S. Howard. We will then follow a confusing pathway of successive Buick dealerships until we reach Irv White and his foray into the world of the Citroën SM.
CHARLES S. HOWARD (SR.)
Charles S. Howard was an iconic figure in the early days of the automotive age. He was born in 1877 in Marietta, Georgia. He moved to San Francisco and in 1903 started a bicycle repair shop. Almost immediately, he began repairing cars. He saw an opportunity and is reported to have arranged an in-person meeting with William Durant, the owner of the Buick Automobile Company. Within two years, at the age of 28, he started up a Buick dealership in downtown San Francisco. The year was 1905.
His original business location was on Golden Gate Avenue, but he moved to several different buildings up and down this street in the first few years. He named his business, Howard Automobile Company.
For the first year of operation, it is written that he had trouble selling cars and it took a disaster to finally point his career in a successful direction. What was the disaster? It was the earthquake that hit San Francisco on April 18, 1906. It turns out that many of the horses in San Francisco were either killed or injured in the earthquake. And many of those that survived were too frightened to be useful with rescue operations. However, it is reported* that Charles S. Howard used a handful of Buicks (that he had been trying to sell) as ambulances to carry injured people to rescue ships that were docked in the bay. It was a coup for Charles S. Howard…and the automobile.
* The book SEABISCUIT: An American Legend, Witten by Laura Hillenbrand contains a great history of Charles S. Howard and discusses his early days in San Francisco.
Brittanica.com, photo by Arnold Genthe
SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE, 1906
We read that Charles S. Howard’s own business on Golden Gate Avenue was damaged in the earthquake. Nevertheless, he thrived in the years that followed. In 1913, Charles S. Howard moved his business to a new, custom-built building at the intersection of Van Ness and California in San Francisco. This handsome building is still there and is currently a Honda Dealer (photos below).
CHARLES S. HOWARD AT THE WHEEL OF A BUICK
San Francisco Call, August 1910
San Francisco Call, May 1913
Google Street View, 2021
HOWARD AUTOMOBILE COMPANY’S BUICK DEALERSHIP, FROM 1913 to 1950, TODAY A HONDA DEALERSHIP
By the 1920’s Charles S. Howard had expanded his Buick dealerships to multiple locations in the San Francisco Bay area as well into a bewildering number of locations in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times, December 1925
ONE OF CHARLES S. HOWARD’S BUILDINGS ON FIGUEROA STREET IN L.A.
By the time he moved into Los Angeles, Charles S. Howard was a leading distributor of automobiles in California, and was becoming a very wealthy man.
Charles S. Howard ran his Buick empire from 1905 until 1950 when he had a heart attack and died. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at US$10,000,000 - a pretty big number for 1950. Unfortunately, immediately after his death, family members seemed to fall into several years of divorces, court actions, and greedy squabbles about the estate.
His automotive empire largely came to an end with his death. His main L.A. location at 6660 Sunset Boulevard was sold to his long-time employee and business manager, Phill Hall. (Phill Hall went on to run a Buick and Oldsmobile dealership under his own name in L.A. for many years.)
One of his sons, whom we will discuss in the next section, continued to operate a Buick dealership in L.A.
The year 1950 also marked the end of the Howard Automobile Company’s footprint in San Francisco. According to a 1950 article in the L.A. Evening Citizen newspaper, he had been planning to move out of San Francisco anyway, but his death cemented it. The main remnants of his empire were now in L.A.
Incidentally, Charles S. Howard Sr. was the owner of the famous race horse, Seabiscuit. (Charles S. Howard and his prize-winning horse Seabiscuit were the subject of several books, including one by Laura Hillenbrand, and a well-known movie starring Jeff Bridges.)
ROBERT S. HOWARD
Charles S. Howard Sr. had several sons that went into the automobile business. One of these sons was named, Robert S. Howard.
In 1945, with help from his wealthy father, Robert started his own Buick dealership in L.A. named, Robert S. Howard Buick. Robert’s business was initially located at 9222 Wilshire Boulevard. By 1947, he had moved the business to a stylish art deco building that was brand new when Robert S. Howard moved in. It was located at 9231 W. Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills (photos later).
Robert S. Howard was also involved with horses and horse racing, undoubtedly influenced by his father. Regrettably, Robert was involved in a scandal in 1948 associated with horse doping and other horse racing violations.
Back to the car business.... So why are we discussing the Howard automotive empire? Well, it is because a certain man got a job at Robert S. Howard’s Buick dealership, soon snagging the service manager position. Who was this man? It was Irv White!
Los Angeles Times, July 1950
IRV WHITE (THIRD FROM LEFT) SNAGS A JOB AS SERVICE MANAGER AT RICHARD S. HOWARD’S BUICK DEALER
After his famous father died, Robert S. Howard continued to run his Buick dealership at 9231 W. Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills, at least for a few more years…
In early 1952, Robert S. Howard sold his Buick dealership to a man named, William A. Wallace. As part of the sale, the business name was changed from Robert S. Howard Buick to Wallace Buick.
Wallace bought the ‘entire’ business from Robert S. Howard and kept the same art deco building at 9231 W. Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. An address across the street is also cited (9224 W. Olympic Boulevard), that we think was used as a used car lot. Wallace apparently kept many of the employees as well, including service manager, Irv White.
“ROBERT S. HOWARD BUICK” BECOMES “WALLACE BUICK” IN 1952
Los Angeles Times, Jan, 1952
William A. Wallace did not keep the Buick dealership long. In the fall of 1954, after only 2 years, he sold it to a man named Spencer Honig (another auto dealership magnate in L.A.). Honig kept the business at the same location, but renamed it, Beverly Buick. It looks like Irv White continued to act as service manager during Honig’s ownership of the business.
SPENCER HONIG SIGNS TO PURCHASE WALLACE’S BUICK DEALERSHIP
Los Angeles Times, Jan, 1952
Who was Irv White? There has been precious little written about him, but we do know that Irv White was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on March 4, 1917. We know that he married a woman named Zelda and had several children. We know that he moved to California and started working at Robert S. Howard’s Buick dealership in the 1940’s. We know that he became service manager there by the time he was about 30 years old. We also know that he retained his service manager role, even though the Buick dealership had changed ownership several times.
Finally, we know that in the fall of 1957, Irv White stepped up and bought the entire business from Spencer Honig. Irv White now had his own Buick dealership!
Los Angeles Times, Oct, 1957
IRV WHITE FINALLY HAS HIS OWN BUICK DEALERSHIP
Initially, Irv White kept the business name of Beverly Buick (often seen as Irv White Beverly Buick), but not long after, the name was simplified to Irv White Buick.
BEVERLY BUICK IN 1954, UNDER SPENCER HONIG’S OWNERSHIP
Google Street View 2021
9231 W. OLYMPIC BOULEVARD IN BEVERLY HILLS -
HOME OF ROBERT S. HOWARD BUICK, WALLACE BUICK, BEVERLY BUICK, THEN IRV WHITE BEVERLY BUICK - NOW A MEDICAL CENTER
Irv White also used the property across the street at 9224 W. Olympic Boulevard that had been used by his predecessor(s).
Irv White stayed in the streamlined art deco building at 9231 W. Olympic boulevard for several years, but in the middle of 1960, he moved his business a few miles away to 250 S. La Brea Avenue, the location where he would stay until his retirement, nearly three decades later.
The building at 250 S. La Brea is no longer there, having been replaced with a Ralph’s Grocery store. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any period photos of this building.
IRV WHITE BILLBOARD, AFTER MOVE TO LA 250 S. BREA AVENUE
Before we get to Irv White’s association with Citroën, lets summarize the winding road it took for Irv White to end up with his own Buick dealership.
It started with Charles S. Howard. Remember him? He was the guy who used his unsold Buicks as ambulances following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, later becoming a very wealthy Buick distributor for California. As the years passed, his empire grew from San Francisco into Los Angeles. His dealerships were operated by a number of people, including his long-time colleague Phill Hall, several of his sons, and others.
Charles S. Howard’s empire was big, with many tentacles. It became hard to follow. We ended up having to create a flowchart to understand how Irv White ended up with his Buick dealership. Here is what we came up with:
There are many other branches for Charles S. Howard’s empire; this is just the one that leads to Irv White.
German manufacturer Opel allied with Buick for a while in the 1960’s and 1970’s with models such as the Kadett, Manta, and GT. As such, Irv White put his big toe in the European car waters with Opels. However, he never seemed to put much effort into it and barely advertised them at all. He was mostly a Buick guy.
IRV WHITE’S ASSOCIATION WITH CITROEN
With very little fanfare, Irv White started advertising the Citroën SM in 1972. We could find no flashy newspaper articles where Irv White announced his new offering. Instead, small ads simply started showing up in the L.A. newspapers. In fact, Irv White didn’t seem to be big into advertising at all, even for Buicks.
The first ad that we could find for a Citroën SM at Irv White Buick was in the L.A. Times on May 20, 1972.
Los Angeles Times, May 1972
FIRST ADVERTISEMENT WE CAN FIND FOR AN SM AT IRV WHITE
Why did Citroën choose a Buick Dealership to be a distributor for the SM instead of an existing dealer in L.A., such as Challenger Motors? Citroën USA guru Richard Bonfond points out that for the SM, Citroën management wanted glossy, fancy, modern dealerships and showrooms to match the status they wanted for the SM. This is something that not all of the Citroën dealerships of the era could offer. How exactly did they end up hooking up with Irv White? We don’t know. But Irv White apparently had what they were looking for… What was in it for Irv White? Perhaps he saw dollar signs?
As we all know, the SM was only sold for 2-3 years in the USA, so by the end of 1973, Irv White’s experiment selling new Citroëns had ended. They advertised used SM’s for the next few years and performed maintenance, but SM’s faded away from Irv White’s business pretty quickly. Note that at about the same time, Opel pulled out of North America. Irv White went back to only selling Buicks.
Irv White continued to operate his Buick dealership until 1989 when he retired and closed the doors for good. The company fixtures, tools, etc. were auctioned off in December of that year. This brought to an end one of the last remaining tentacles from Charles S. Howard’s Buick empire that started in 1905.
Irv White died at the age of 98 in 2016.
We stumbled across an estate sale notice from Irv White's house and we found this photo. It seems that Citroëns must have actually meant something to Irv White since he kept several Citroën models throughout his life.
FROM OF IRV WHITE'S ESTATE
While Irv White did not have a long relationship himself with Citroën, he is responsible for launching the career of a lasting and memorable personality in the world of Citroëns. Who? It was Jerry Hathaway! Jerry was hired by Irv White in the mid-1960’s (1965 we believe) as a Buick mechanic.
It has been reported that Jerry’s main job was performing wheel alignments of Buicks, which probably pretty boring. Then suddenly in 1972, Citroën SM’s started showing up at Irv White Buick. Jerry is said to have taken an immediate liking to the SM, while the other mechanics at the dealership were intimidated by its complexity and its general non-Buickness.
Photo provided by Greg Long
Photo provided by Greg Long
Photo provided by Greg Long
JERRY HATHAWAY CONGRATULATING A NEW SM CUSTOMER -
WE BELIEVE THAT THESE PHOTOS WERE TAKEN AT IRV WHITE BUICK IN 1973
(INCIDENTALLY, THE CUSTOMER WAS ACTOR BOB CUMMINGS...)
Jerry gravitated more and more to the SM at Irv White Buick and eventually decided to set out on his own. He parted ways with Irv White and in 1976 started up SM World, initially from 7640 Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys. (There are reports that after Jerry left Irv White, he tried to bring the SM repair business into a Lancia dealer in LA. But this didn't work and so he started up his own company.)
There were several moves and downsizing efforts for Jerry’s SM business in the subsequent decades, but SM World remained an important and active asset for the SM community until September 4, 2021 when Jerry sadly passed away. Much has been written about Jerry and his influence in the Citroën SM community, so we will not go into it here. This is after all, an article about Irv White Buick.
JERRY HATHAWAY WITH JAY LENO IN 2019
SM WORLD's NEW OWNER
The fate of SM World had been a question mark since Jerry Hathaway passed away in September of 2021. But fortune has reigned on SM owners in North America. A man named Jean-Francois Martin has purchased the property, tools, and parts supply from the estate.
Jean-Francois is a relative new-comer to the world of Citroëns but he is highly motivated and a fast learner and has been maintaining many Citroëns from his business called, MARRS (Martin Automotive Repair and Racing Services), in Santa Clarita, California.
Jean-Francois has moved MARRS to Jerry Hathaway's last location, also in Santa Clarita. He became operational in May, 2022. SM parts sales and service have thus resumed.
The bit we really love about this story is the long string of seemingly unrelated events and coincidences that it took for Jean-Francois Martin to end up owning SM World. Had there not been a devastating earthquake in 1906 in San Francisco, Charles S. Howard would not have ended up as the west cost distributor for Buick. If Charles S. Howard had not been a Buick magnate in L.A., his son would never have had his own Buick dealership. Had Charles S. Howard's son not owned a Buick dealership in L.A., he would not have hired Irv White as service manager. Had Irv White not been a Buick service manager, he would never have owned that particular Buick dealership. Had Irv White not owned that Buick dealership, he would never have hired Jerry Hathaway. Had Jerry Hathaway not been able to keep SM world open for 40+ years, there would be no business to buy.
This chain of seemingly disconnected events allowed Jean-Francois Martin the ability to end up owning SM World, 116 years after that earthquake started it all off!
Irv White Buick operated out of the following locations in Los Angeles:
9231 W. Olympic Boulevard (1957-1960) Showroom
This building is still there and is now a medical facility.
Google Street View 2022
9224 W. Olympic Boulevard (1957-1960) Used Car Lot
This parking lot was across the street from the showroom, above.
250 S. La Brea Ave (1960-1989)
This building no longer exists and is now a grocery store.
Google Maps, 2021`