William Crapo "Billy" Durant (December 8, 1861–March 18, 1947) was a leading pioneer of the United States automobile industry, the founder of General Motors and Chevrolet who created the system of multi-brand holding companies with different lines of cars.
A French American born in Boston, Massachusetts, he 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. 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 they were smelly, noisy, and dangerous, to the point where he refused to 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 executing his vision of building the car industry, starting from virtually nothing. He utilized his sales skills and entered the Buick (which had built only 37 cars to date) in a New York auto show. He returned from that show with orders for 1,108 cars.
Both Durant and rival Henry Ford saw the automobile becoming a mass market item. Ford followed the course of the basic Model T, 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 thirteen car companies and ten 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 entrepreneurs resulted in Durant buying out his partner's share of the company.
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 Chevrolets.
Drawing on his experience in the carriage making business twenty years earlier, he 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. In 1918 United Motors was sold to General Motors for $44,065,000. 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 Penman Rim. Sloan rose to president of GM in the 1920s, going on to build the company into the world's largest automaker.
In 1921 he established a new Durant Motors company, initially with one brand. Within two years, it had a variety of cars including the Durant, Star and Flint which rivaled 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 Ford, 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 192 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 in order to demonstrate to the public their confidence in the stock market. His effort proved costly and failed to stop the market slide.
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 managed a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan until his death in 1947. He was interred in a private mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, NY.
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 started construction on his own personal castle in northern Michigan, along the banks of the Au Sable River. Just before he moved in, however, the castle burned to the ground. This event was suspected to have been an act of arson, allegedly by the hands of the fledgling UAW, which Durant had refused to acknowledge as a union.
- My Life and Work - Henry Ford - Chapter IV
- Durant, William Crapo
- Durant Motors Automobile Club
- Durantcars.com at www.durantcars.com
- History of Durant
Charles W. Nash
|President General Motors
1916 – 1920
Pierre S. du Pont