William C. Durant
|William C. Durant|
|Born||William Crapo Durant
December 8, 1861
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||March 18, 1947
New York, New York, U.S.
William Crapo "Billy" Durant (December 8, 1861 – March 18, 1947) was a leading pioneer of the United States automobile industry and the co-founder, of General Motors with Frederic L. Smith, and of Chevrolet with Louis Chevrolet, who created the system of multi-brand holding companies with different lines of cars.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Durant was the grandson 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. 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. Durant also conceived the modern system of automobile dealer franchises. 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 gas-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.
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. Durant and Samuel McLaughlin of Canada signed a 15-year contract to build Buick powertrains at cost plus; they were called McLaughlin Buicks until 1942. Durant went back to Detroit to start General Motors (GM) Holding Company at the suggestion of his partner McLaughlin, CEO of General Motors 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.
"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.
Durant had arranged an $8 million deal to buy Ford in 1910, but the bankers turned him down and the board of directors of General Motors dismissed him.
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." Durant however, drawing on his experience in the carriage business, sought to create automobiles targeted to various incomes and tastes. 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.
In 1910, Durant became financially overextended and banking interests assumed control, forcing him from management of GM. 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, starting the Chevrolet company. Before long, a disagreement between the two resulted in Durant buying out his partner in 1914. Durant went on to McLaughlin in 1915 to put Chevrolet in General Motors of 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.
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, as well as Fisher Body and Frigidaire into General Motors. In 1920, he finally lost control of GM to the DuPont interests.
While in charge of Chevrolet, Durant did acquire other companies, including Republic Motors, mainly to produce Chevrolet.
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 Bearings 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.
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, 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
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, in order 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.
After the fall of Durant Motors, Durant and his second wife lived on a small pension provided by Alfred P. Sloan on behalf of General Motors. He suffered a stroke in 1942, which left him "a semi-invalid", and managed a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan until his death in 1947. He was buried 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.
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.
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.
- Dr. Burton W. Folsom (1998-09-08). "Billy Durant and the Founding of General Motors [Mackinac Center]". Mackinac.org. Retrieved 2011-09-29.
- Yates, Brock. "10 Best Moguls", in Car and Driver, 1/88, p.46.
- Pelfrey, William. Billy, Alfred, and General Motors (New York, New York: AMACOM, 2006), p.151.
- 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.
- [dead link]
- "Full text of "The turning wheel; the story of General Motors through twenty-five years, 1908-1933"". Archive.org. Retrieved 2011-09-29.
- Quinn, James (May 31, 2009). "GM: Its rise, fall and future". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- 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.
- Billy Durant and the Founding of General Motors
- Durant, William Crapo
- William C. Durant at Find a Grave
- Durant Motors Automobile Club
- Durantcars.com at www.durantcars.com
- History of Durant
- Hear Billy Durant speak
Charles W. Nash
|President General Motors
Pierre S. du Pont