William C. Durant

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For the historian William James Durant, see Will Durant.
William C. Durant
WilliamCDurant.jpg
Fifth Period Study Hall
Born William Crapo Durant
(1861-12-08)December 8, 1861
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died March 18, 1947(1947-03-18) (aged 85)
New York, New York, U.S.
Occupation Business
Spouse(s) Clara Miller Pitt
Children Margery Pitt Durant
Russell Clifford Durant

William Crapo "Billy" Durant (December 8, 1861 – March 18, 1947) was a leading pioneer of the United States automobile industry, who created the system of multi-brand holding companies with different lines of cars; and the co-founder of General Motors with Frederic L. Smith, and of Chevrolet with Louis Chevrolet. He also founded Frigidaire.

Biography[edit]

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Durant was the son of William Clark Durant and Rebecca Folger Crapo, who was born to a wealthy Massachusetts family of French descent, she being the daughter of Michigan governor Henry H. Crapo. William dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather's lumberyard, but by 1885 he had partnered with Josiah Dort to create the Coldwater Road Cart Company. He started out as a cigar salesman in Flint, Michigan, and eventually moved to selling carriages. He founded the Flint Road Cart Company in 1886, eventually transforming $2,000 in start-up capital into a $2 million business with sales around the world.[1] By 1890 the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, based in Flint, Michigan, had become a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles, which ultimately became number one in the world.[2] Durant also conceived the modern system of automobile dealer franchises.[2] When approached to become general manager of Buick in 1904, he made a similar success and was soon president of this horseless-vehicle company. In 1908 he arranged the incorporation by proxies of General Motors and quickly thereafter sold stock, and with the proceeds acquired Oldsmobile. The acquisitions of Oakland, Cadillac, and parts companies followed in short order.

Originally, Durant was highly skeptical of cars, thinking that they were stinky, loud, and dangerous, to a point where he would not let his daughter ride in one. By 1900, there was significant public outcry for government regulation of gasoline-powered horseless carriages. Durant heard this outcry, and rather than relying on government regulations to improve their safety, saw an opportunity to build a successful company by improving on the safety of these new machines. In order to accomplish this, he sought out the purchase of Buick, a local car company with few sales and large debts.[1]

General Motors[edit]

Durant, center, chatting with President Hinz of the Lowell, Massachusetts, Automobile Club in 1909

In 1904, Durant began realizing his vision of building the car industry. Starting from virtually nothing, he used his sales skills to enter Buick (which had only built 37 cars to date) into a New York auto show, returning with orders for 1,108 cars.[1] Durant and Samuel McLaughlin of Canada signed a 15-year contract to build Buick powertrains at cost plus; they were called McLaughlin until 1942. Durant went back to Detroit to start General Motors Holding Company at the suggestion of his partner McLaughlin, CEO of McLaughlin Car Company of Canada (founded November 20, 1907). Durant founded General Motors Holding Company on September 16, 1908, with $500,000 in Buick stock that Durant traded McLaughlin for $500,000 of McLaughlin stock, making McLaughlin one of General Motors' biggest shareholders.The Chevrolet Motor Company of Canada started in 1915.

On October 26, 1909 General Motors Holding acquired the Cartercar Company, founded four years earlier in Jackson, Michigan by Byron J. Carter. In explaining the reason he purchased Cartercar, Durant said:

"They say I shouldn't have bought Cartercar. Well, how was anyone to know that Carter wasn't to be the thing? It had the friction drive and no other car had it. How could I tell what these engineers would say next?" By the time Durant had regained control of General Motors in 1915, the GM board had already decided to discontinue the Cartercar, largely because sales never approached the 1000-2000 annually that Durant had predicted. The GM board decided to use the factory instead to produce the Oakland.[3]

Durant had arranged an $8 million deal to buy Ford in 1909, but the bankers turned him down and the board of directors of General Motors dismissed him.[4]

Both Durant and rival Henry Ford foresaw the automobile becoming a mass market item. Ford followed the course of the basic Model N, and had said "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."[5] Durant however, drawing on his experience in the carriage business, sought to create automobiles targeted to various incomes and tastes.[6] This brought about his plans to merge Buick with various other companies to serve this purpose. He purchased Cadillac, and in 1908 formed General Motors by consolidating 13 car companies and 10 parts-and-accessories manufacturers.[1]

Chevrolet[edit]

In 1910, Durant became financially overextended and banking interests assumed control, forcing him from management of GM Holding. He immediately set out to create another "GM," starting with the Little car, named after its founder, William H. Little. His initial intention was to compete with the Ford Model T, then beginning to show its impending popularity. Unsatisfied with this approach, however, he abandoned it and went into partnership with Louis Chevrolet in 1911, after obtaining a loan of $52,935.25 on September 30,1910 in Canada cosigned by R S McLaughlin, starting the Chevrolet company. Before long, a disagreement with Louis Chevrolet resulted in Durant buying out his partner in 1914.[2] Durant went to McLaughlin in 1915 to put Chevrolet in Canada and with the shares being bought up at 5 to one and 7 to one McLaughlin and Durant with other share holders had enough stock to reclaim Durant's old job. McLaughlin had no problem with his friend back at the helm. McLaughlin went on building Chevrolet and built his Buicks in Canada without conflict to his Buick contract. General Motors Corporation was started at this time with Durant putting Pierre du Pont in charge, with McLaughlin Director and Vice-President of the newly incorporated General Motors Corporation in 1918.

Nevertheless, the venture was so successful for Durant that he was able to buy enough shares in GM to regain control, becoming its president in 1916. During his presidency from 1916–1920, Durant brought the Chevrolet product line into the corporation in 1919, as well as Fisher Body and Frigidaire.[1] In 1920, he finally lost control of GM to the DuPont and McLaughlin share holders paying out $21,000,000.00 back to his friends.

While in charge of Chevrolet, Durant acquired other companies, including Republic Motors, mainly to produce Chevrolet.

Vertical integration[edit]

Drawing on his experience in the carriage making business twenty years earlier, Durant also assembled a collection of parts and components manufacturers into a new entity called United Motors Company, making Alfred P. Sloan of Hyatt Roller Bearing Company the president. It was made up of Hyatt Roller Bearing, New Departure Manufacturing, Dayton Engineering Laboratories (later Delco Electronics Corporation), Harrison Radiator Corporation, Remy Electric, Jaxon Steel Products and Perlman Rim. In 1918 United Motors was sold to General Motors for $44,065,000. Sloan rose to president of GM in the 1920s, going on to build the company into the world's largest automaker.[7][8]

Durant Motors[edit]

William C. Durant and wife aboard the RMS Majestic. Between 1926 and 1929.

In 1921, Durant established a new company, Durant Motors, initially with one brand. Within two years, it had a variety of marques, including the Durant, Star (also called Rugby), Flint, and Eagle,[2] rivalling the range offered by General Motors. Part of the new empire included a factory in Leaside, Ontario for Canadian production.

As he had with General Motors, Durant acquired a range of companies whose cars were aimed at different markets. The cheapest brand was the Star, aimed at the person who would otherwise buy the obsolescent Model T, while the Durant cars were mid-market, the Princeton line (designed, prototyped, and marketed but never produced) competed with Packard and Cadillac, and the ultra-luxurious Locomobile was the top of the line. However, he was unable to duplicate his former success, and the financial woes of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression proved fatal as the company failed in 1933.

Wall Street and later years[edit]

The mausoleum of William C. Durant

In the 1920s, Durant became a major "player" on Wall Street and on Black Tuesday joined with members of the Rockefeller family and other financial giants to buy large quantities of stocks, against the advice of friends,[2] to demonstrate to the public their confidence in the stock market. His effort proved costly and failed to stop the market slide. By 1936, the 75-year-old Durant was bankrupt.[2]

After the fall of Durant Motors, Durant and his second wife lived on a small pension provided by R.S McLaughlin, Mr Marr and Dupont as arranged by Alfred P. Sloan at $10,000.00 a year on behalf of General Motors. He suffered a stroke in 1942, which left him "a semi-invalid",[2] and managed a bowling alley, slinging hamburgers in Flint, Michigan until his death in 1947. He was interred in a private mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. Durant was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1996.

Durant Park in Lansing, Michigan is named after him.

Durant's Castle[edit]

During the late 1920s Durant's son, Russell Clifford (Cliff) Durant and his third wife, Lea Gapsky Durant, started construction on a personal castle and private airstrip in Roscommon, Michigan, along the south branch of the Au Sable River. The fifty-four room mansion burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances on February 6, 1931. The Durants never inhabited it. Arson was suspected, allegedly at the hands of trade unionists, whom Durant had refused to recognize.[9]

After Lea's mysterious disappearance in 1934, and Cliff's death in 1937, Cliff's fourth wife, Charlotte Phillips Durant, sold the land to George W. Mason, an automotive executive. Upon his death it was bequeathed to the State of Michigan as a nature preserve, The Mason Tract. All that remains of the castle and private airstrip are the old foundation works. Today, a canoe landing and short history of the castle are on the site.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Dr. Burton W. Folsom (1998-09-08). "Billy Durant and the Founding of General Motors [Mackinac Center]". Mackinac.org. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Yates, Brock. "10 Best Moguls", in Car and Driver, 1/88, p.46.
  3. ^ Pelfrey, William. Billy, Alfred, and General Motors (New York, New York: AMACOM, 2006), p.151.
  4. ^ "Happy 100th Birthday, General Motors". Motor Trend. August 2008. 
  5. ^ Ford, Henry; Crowther, Samuel (1922), My Life and Work, Garden City, New York, USA: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. Various republications, including ISBN 9781406500189. Original is public domain in U.S. Also available at Google Books.  Chapter IV.
  6. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, pp. 18, 26-7, Random House, New York, NY. ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4.
  7. ^ [1][dead link]
  8. ^ "Full text of "The turning wheel; the story of General Motors through twenty-five years, 1908-1933"". Archive.org. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  9. ^ Quinn, James (May 31, 2009). "GM: Its rise, fall and future". The Daily Telegraph (London). 

Further reading[edit]

  • Pelfrey, William (2007). Billy, Alfred and General Motors. Amacom Publishing. 
  • Madsen, Axel (2000). The Deal Maker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors. Wiley Publishing. 
  • Gustin, Lawrence (2008). Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-03302-7. 

External links[edit]

Business positions
Preceded by
Charles W. Nash
President General Motors
1916–1920
Succeeded by
Pierre S. du Pont