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From old jalopy to hot rod: how Buick helped make a star out of Seabiscuit

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Bing Crosby (right) and Charles Howard (left) pose next to Seabiscuit after his narrow win against Ligaroti in 1938. The trophy that is pictured was stolen, but recovered 60 years later.

Seabiscuit was one of the most well-known and beloved American racehorses. He was voted American horse of the year in 1938, and the famed stallion has several statues in its honor (including, for a time, one at the now-defunct Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit).

In 1999, writer Laura Hillenbrand wrote the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend chronicling the horse’s life. That book was adapted into the popular 2003 movie Seabiscuit: America's Legendary Racehorse, released over 55 years after the horse’s death. But while Seabiscuit and his legacy are widely-known, his strong ties to Detroit and the Buick brand are often forgotten.

In the early 1930s, shortly after the boom in the American auto industry, manual horsepower was all but replaced by its mechanical counterpart on American roadways. But for the Howards — the owners of Seabiscuit — cars and horses went hand-in-hand.

Charles Howard had humble beginnings as a bicycle mechanic in San Francisco. After building a reputation as a good repairman, customers began to bring their automobiles in for Charles to fix as well. According to family historian Mike Howard, this practice is what drew him to the auto industry and eventually led to his role as one of Buick’s top salesmen.

“He took a real interest in the engines. He developed a real appreciation for the potential of the automobile. And that's what galvanized him to make that trip to Detroit, to connect with Tom Buick and Willie Durrant,” said Howard.

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Charles S. Howard pictured under the Buick logo with other members of the Buick team in San Francisco.

Charles Howard worked alongside other key players in the early days of Buick to help grow the company. They advertised their cars by racing them. Howard would set up races around the country, challenging shop owners to see how their cars measured up against Buick vehicles. After Howard’s days with Buick had come to an end, his love of racing continued to play out on a different kind of track.

“He had grown up with horses at the military academy in Georgia he attended when he joined the army for the Spanish-American War,” said Howard. “After he made his fortune with Buick, I think it was only natural that he would go back into looking at horses again, and Seabiscuit was just icing on the cake for his racing career.”

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Charles Howard poses with horses Seabiscuit (left) and Kayak (right) at Santa Anita in 1940.

Charles Howard bought Seabiscuit in 1936 on the advice of horse trainer Tom Smith. Seabiscuit would go on to win the 1936 Governor’s Handicap at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, a victory that would kickstart his winning streak and launch his career. Despite Seabiscuit’s eventual success and fame, the stallion was in rough shape when he came to Charles Howard. With patience, time and hard work, Seabiscuit grew by leaps and bounds.

“Seabiscuit was abused. He was frustrated. He was held back. He couldn't reach his potential. And when Charles S. Howard and the establishment he brought to training Seabiscuit, they wanted to instill the confidence that horse rightfully deserved,” said Howard. “Seabiscuit just blossomed being owned by my great grandfather because he was allowed to be the horse that he was meant to be.”

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Anna is a senior at Michigan State University studying journalism with a concentration in international reporting.
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