Down, but never defeated, the founder of General Motors was a perpetual optimist.
You could never accuse Billy Durant of lacking vision.
His dream was to create an absolute monopoly in the automobile business with none other than himself running the show. He nearly achieved his goal on three separate occasions before ultimately losing everything but his perpetually positive outlook on life.
Unlike Henry Ford, whose company very nearly became part of the General Motors empire, the Boston, Mass.-born Durant did not start out obsessed with developing the horseless carriage. After quitting school at 16, young William worked as a laborer in a lumber yard as well as in variety of sales jobs in his adopted home of Flint, Mich.
In 1881 the 20 year-old Durant had secured the position of running the city’s waterworks department. His skill at quickly turning around the debt-ridden utility impressed Flint’s business community and Durant became much sought-after by other companies.
Four years later in 1885, Durant became a partner in the Durant-Dort Carriage Company. This enterprise proved enormously successful and would become the basis for his fledgling automobile manufacturing business.
Durant could spot a winner when he met one, and David Buick fell into that category. Buick convinced Durant that, with his mechanical skills and Durant’s sales and promotional abilities, they could successfully market one of the then-new-fangled horseless contraptions. In 1905, The Buick company was created with Durant as its head.
Unlike other early automobile companies that produced everything in their own shops, Durant kept his operation simple by subcontracting much of the Buick’s components, doing only the final assembly work in his plant. The plan worked perfectly and two years after Buick’s startup, Durant’s company became second only to Ford in car sales.
Buoyed by these results, Durant became obsessed with controlling the entire car-manufacturing industry. In 1908, flush with cash and full of ambition, Durant began buying up other fledgling auto makers that would form the backbone of his new-found General Motors empire. The first two acquisitions, Oldsmobile and Oakland (later to become Pontiac), were joined a year later by the high-end Cadillac company. In 1909, Henry Ford had agreed to sell his company to General Motors for the then princely sum of $8 million but Durant’s bankers refused to lend him the money and the deal fell through.
It was probably just as well the Ford purchase failed. Although, by 1910, General Motors controlled 22 percent of the automobile business, a recession that year created a mounting pile of debt. The banks blamed Durant for the company’s fiscal mess, and forced him to resign as its head. He did, however, remain as a member of GM’s board of directors.
That same year, Durant acquired a small car company on his own that employed Louis Chevrolet, at the time a well-known racing car driver. The Chevrolet Motor Car Company began churning out inexpensive cars (designed and engineered by Louis Chevrolet himself) that were targeted at Ford’s Motel T. After some initial startup problems, Durant’s Chevrolet venture soon turned a tidy profit.
Meanwhile, over at General Motors, the picture was not so rosy. Marketshare was steadily eroding and the company’s oncecommanding 22 percent of 1910 had evaporated to a mere five percent share by 1915. Without Durant at the helm, the future for GM looked bleak.
In the fall of that year, Durant was again back in charge of General Motors, using his own funds as well as money from the wealthy DuPont family to regain control of nearly 60 percent of GM stock.
For the next five years, General Motors’ fortunes blossomed, particularly as a transportation supplier for the United States’ involvement in World War One.
But by 1920, the economy was again in the grip of a recession, and the value of GM stock fell like a stone. Once more the banks stepped in forcing Durant from his lofty perch. This time, however, the company’s founder had seen his personal stake in General Motors virtually wiped out.
But Durant was no quitter, and, following his departure from GM, he announced his newest venture, Durant Motors. Production of his low-priced cars began in November, 1921 and were an instant sales success. Again, Durant used the assembly-only approach, with parts to create his vehicles supplied from outside sources.
True to his previous form, Durant began swallowing up other automobile companies, including the purchase of the Willys plant as well as the luxury-oriented Locomobile nameplate. He also created his own brands, such as Star, Princeton and Eagle, all in an attempt to replicate his success with General Motors.
On paper, Durant was back running an automotive empire and selling lots of cars. In reality, however, his desire for rapid expansion was creating enormous debt. By the end of the 1920s, the Durant company was in bad shape, and, by 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the company was forced into bankruptcy.
Once more, William Durant’s once-thriving operation, along with his personal fortune, had evaporated.
By his mid-70s, Durant, supported by his second wife Catherine, the thrice-failed industrialist tried his hand at some non-automotive business ventures, but without success.
After ill-health forced the sale of most of the family’s personal possessions, Durant died at age 85 in 1947.
Throughout his life, William Durant never allowed hard times or adversity get the better of him. Win or lose, he enjoyed playing the game above all else.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.