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Who started General Motors?

Most car people do not know much about this man.

Everyone knows of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. That’s also true for Walter Chrysler starting his car Company. Charles Nash did the same- but who started General Motors?

His name is William Crapo Durant.

Of all of the auto pioneers this is the man I would most like to have a sit down with. I have read every book written about him including one written not long ago about a Doctor Edwin Campbell in Port Perry Ontario who joined up with this man as an advisor and confidante. The book’s title is “Durant’s Right- Hand man.”

Billy Durant was born December 8, 1861 in Boston. He quit school at sixteen as he wanted to get out in the work world. His first job was at a Lumber yard but soon found out his greatest skill was being a salesman. Billy was a slight-built man, always neat and tidy in appearance and would devote the time and vigour to make whatever he wanted to accomplish, work.

He started selling cigars successfully but got lured to Flint Michigan to run the City’s waterworks and get it out of debt which he managed to do in eight months. The people of Flint soon recognized him as a man who accomplished things and he was held in high regard by its citizens.

His first wife was Clara Pitt Durant and they had a son Clifford and a daughter Margery. His second wife was Catherine Lederer Durant.

In 1885 he and his close friend, Dallas Dort visited a wagon works factory in Flint and thought it was so interesting they floated a loan and bought the factory together. It was to become known as the Durant-Dort Wagon Works and they produced a top rated two wheel carriage. It was so successful that they became the largest producers of carriages which made them both quite wealthy.

Interestingly- Dallas Dort went on to start his own car company and built a car which was called The Dort and in time he teamed up with Bill Gray from Chatham, Ontario who also wanted to build a car and soon the Gray-Dort car became a reality here.

Durant also was constantly being pressured to look at the coming car manufacturing business as carriages would soon be outdated. Billy had no interest till a local Flint person took him for a ride in his new Buick.

In 1903 He met with David Dunbar Buick and on June 7, 1905 they formed the Buick Motor Car Company as partners.

Shortly thereafter Billy bought out David Buick as he wanted complete control. It would be boom or bust but under his leadership.

On Sept. 16. 1908, Billy formed The General Motors Company, with the bankers on his side, by buying up several existing car manufacturers.

They were- Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Oakland (later to become Pontiac), Ewing, Marquette, Reliance, Sheridan, Elmore, Welch, Cartercar, Reliance truck- soon to be GMC, and Reliable Truck.

His reasoning was if one of those companies had something that might become popular, maybe like the Cartercar which was friction drive, then he would have it to produce.

Little known is that Henry Ford agreed to sell out to Durant for $8,000,000. However, Durant could not convince his bankers and the deal fell through. Just imagine what it would have been like if Billy had pulled this deal off!

In 1908, Col. Sam McLaughlin, also a master Carriage builder, with an invitation from his friend Durant, went to Flint to look at these new Buicks and purchased a Model F, 2 cylinder Roadster and drove it back to Flint. Shortly after they made an agreement for Buick to supply engines and other parts to put in a car of McLaughlin’s design. These cars were known as McLaughlin-Buicks through 1942.

In 1918 General Motors of Canada was formed and along with the McLaughlin-Buick line they were able to add Chevrolet also.

By 1910, GM was in a financial bind what with Billy’s vast purchases which also included supplier companies like AC Delco, Harrison Radiator, Champion Spark Plug and several more.

The Company’s directors voted Billy out of the office of President but let him stay on as a trustee.

Billy kept himself rich though as he was a master handler of the stock market. It was said he had several telephones on his desk and a stock market ticker tape machine working at all times.

Late in 1910 Billy was introduced to a French race car driver by the name of Louis Chevrolet and on Nov. 6, 1911 The Chevrolet Motor Car Company was formed with Billy as President. Mr. Chevrolet and Billy did not agree on the type of car they were to build. Louis wanted a big luxurious car and Billy, seeing Henry Ford’s success with the Model T wanted to build an affordable car for the masses, so soon after Mr. Chevrolet signed off and the Chevrolet car, under Durant became very successful.

By 1915 GM was faltering and Billy was now selling new Chevrolets for $490.00 which was tough competition for GM. Billy had secretly been trading Chevrolet shares for GM shares for some time and when it was time to elect a new GM President, Billy Durant walked into the shareholders meeting with people behind him carrying baskets full of GM shares and had them dumped on the front desk and announced, “have all the meetings you want boys but I again own General Motors”. This was in October of 1916.

An interesting note is that several people who worked with Durant at GM became quite successful, eventually owning their own car Companies. Walter Chrysler was President at one point and when he left, he bought out the failing Maxwell Motor car Company and then formed The Chrysler Corporation. Charles Nash of course, also a top GM executive went on to start the Nash Motor Company.

GM was a major supplier during the years of WW1 which helped keep the company in a sound financial position but Durant was leery of what he felt was coming.

By 1920 everything was in a financial mess. GM shares fell 35% in one month. Durant felt obliged to buy back shares from friends that he had convinced to purchase them and ended up losing his own personal fortune. On Dec. 1, 1920, Durant left GM for good.

However, never one to give up, with help from friends and the wealthy Dupont family, on Jan. 12, 1921 he created Durant Motors and soon had the Durant 4 car on the market for sale in both the USA and Canada, and by 1922 was selling a smaller car called the Star. They were good cars and generated decent profits for the Company.

On Oct. 24, 1929 the stock market crashed sparking the great depression. By 1933 Durant Motors filed for bankruptcy and Billy lost all of his own personal fortunes again.

Durant tried four other ventures in his declining years but they were unsuccessful and his health was failing.

A group of four GM executives, among them Alfred Sloan, Charles Mott and “boss” Kettering that Billy Durant had made very rich men while at GM, formed a group that supplied him with an income for his last years.

Billy started at one time thinking of building a string of bowling alleys in Flint but instead ended up flipping hamburgers in one of them.

He died March 18, 1947, the same year as Henry Ford.

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