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All Over the Map: Buick Rainier SUV named by noted GM designer

In addition to the street, the beer, and the baseball team, there was once an SUV named for the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic mountain.

The Buick Rainier was sold for the model years of 2004-2007. All told, about 60,000 vehicles bearing this mountainous moniker were made by General Motors.

In an old internal video designed to help Buick salespeople compete against an SUV made by Mercury called the Mountaineer, the Buick Rainier was described as being within the “Refined Utility” segment. This meant an interior heavy on leather and wood, and lots of luxury options.

To help launch the new vehicle, GM also hired a high profile celebrity to further establish the Rainier’s bona fides in that “Refined Utility” segment.

Tiger Woods, in less controversial days of 15 years ago, appeared in print and TV ads for the Buick Rainier. He also took part in a promotional campaign called “Tiger Trap” that involved dozens of amateur golfers competing alongside the golfing legend to win – you guessed it – a brand-new Buick Rainier.

Controversy over McKinley/Denali is similar to Mount Rainier’s own story

Like Tiger Woods’ off-course shenanigans, calling the Northwest’s tallest peak “Rainier” has also generated a fair amount of controversy. It was Captain George Vancouver who, in 1792, named the mountain for his friend, Admiral Peter Rainier. Others contend that Native Americans called the mountain “Tacoma,” and officials in Seattle and Tacoma fought bitterly over the name for decades.

And while Captain Vancouver is well-known for naming the mountain and plenty of other things around here, the man behind naming the Buick Rainier has been fairly anonymous for nearly 20 years.

Now, thanks to the General Motors Archives in Sterling Heights, Michigan and an archivist there named Christo Datini, the story can be revealed for the very first time.

Bill Davis was in charge of the design team for what was called the “GMT360,” an SUV platform used for several General Motors brands. While on vacation sometime around 2002, Davis and his wife made their first visit to Seattle to see their daughter who was living here at the time.

Davis, 74 and retired from GM for fifteen years, says the weather in Seattle was good, which made for a memorable – and inspiring – moment.

“On a very rare clear day, we saw Mount Rainier,” Davis wrote in an email earlier this week. “I will never forget the size and beauty.”

The day they flew home from Seattle to Michigan was cloudy, but their jetliner flew right by the cone of Rainier sticking up above the clouds. Images of the mountain stuck with him.

A few weeks later, Bill Davis was at work when the marketing team stopped by his design studio.

“The marketing team was looking for a name for Buick’s first SUV,” Davis wrote. “When asked, I offered ‘Rainier,’ remembering most Buick product names at that time started with ‘R.’”

As in Roadmaster, Riviera, Regal … Rainier!

‘Galloping Gertie’ name is shrouded in mystery

Davis says it’s rare for a name to emerge organically – that is, independent of focus groups or other market research, and without hiring highly-paid brand consultants –  but that’s exactly how the Buick Rainier came to be.

“It was just that easy and simple,” Davis wrote.

Bill Davis did some other pretty cool things at GM during his 35-year career there. He named the Chevy Sonoma pickups, and he designed the huge bird decoration that graced the hood of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – think “Smokey and The Bandit – in the 1970s and 1980s.

And while it was tempting to ask the General Motors archivist, we can confidently state that the Buick Special was not named for the silver-wrapped, entry-level hamburger at Dick’s Drive-In.

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