The Greats of Chevrolet Before They Were Famous: William C. Durant

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William C. Durant, pictured here with an early Chevrolet. Image: myAutoWorld

Mr. William Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors Company, is probably one of the most important players in Chevrolet history. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in December of 1861, Durant grew up long before horseless carriages. At the age of 10, his parents separated, and he moved  to Flint, Michigan, with his mother. After dropping out of high school, Durant went to work fat his grandfather’s lumberyard, where he was a mill hand before moving into sales. As he got older, he left his grandfather’s lumber company, and went on to become the director of one of Michigan’s leading banks, selling cigars and real estate, and then settling into a career in insurance. By the mid 1800’s, Durant was the head of one of the biggest insurance agencies in the area.

In 1985, he became friends with a man named Josiah Dallas Dort, and the two founded the Flint Road Car Company. Durant was impressed with another friend’s spring-suspension road cart, so he bought the patent and manufacturing rights for the cart for $2,000. As business partners, Durant handled sales and promotions for the company, while Dort looked after the administrative and manufacturing details. They sold 4,000 carts their first year in business.

Under Durant’s leadership, the Flint Road Car Company expanded after its first year, with several subsidiary companies producing components for vehicles and pull carts. In 1895, the Flint Road Car Company was renamed Durant-Dort Carriage Company, and by 1900, the company was the largest manufacturer of horse-drawn carts in the US. Durant was a multi-millionaire by this time.

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Durant (in the light colored cap) in a Buick Model F on the 1906 Glidden Tour. Image: GM Heritage Center

In 1904, Durant took charge of the then-fledgling Buick Motor Car Company. Failing at the time, Buick quickly turned around under Durant’s leadership, and the help of money and resources used from Durant-Dort. By 1908, Buick was the largest automobile producer in the United States, with 8,487 vehicles produced that year.

Oddly enough, Durant was not initially a fan of horseless vehicles, dubbing them noisy, smelly, and dangerous.

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Image: mLive

Durant began envisioning a larger automobile company for himself, and in September of 1908, he succeeded by founding General Motors. According to the GM Heritage Center, Durant also brought on a number of parts manufacturers and accessory makers under the GM banner.

Though he was the head of Buick starting in 1904, Durant continued on with the company he co-founded back in 1895, and in 1906, Durant and Dort saw their most successful year, with 56,000 vehicles produced. By this time, Durant and Dort also held ownership of several other entities, including a wheel company, Flint Axle Works, Flint Varnish Works, lumber mills, and other vehicle assembly plants in Georgia, Michigan, and even Canada. The Durant-Dort Carriage Company remained in business until 1917.

By 1910, Durant had gotten himself in a financial bind that resulted in banking interests taking control of GM, and him losing his management position with the company he had founded. In response, Durant set out to create another company, starting with William H. Little’s Little Motorcar Company. Deciding rather quickly that this wasn’t the way to go, Durant partnered with Buick racecar driver Louis Chevrolet, and created the Chevrolet company. When Louis Chevrolet and Durant cut ties in 1914 after a disagreement, Durant bought out Louis, and obtained control of the Chevrolet company.

Durant then moved to get Chevrolet into Canada, which caused stock in the company to skyrocket. With the money he made from this move, Durant was able to again secure his position with GM in 1915, and then buy enough GM shares to regain control of the company in 1916.

By 1917, Durant combined Chevrolet with the GM, and acquired 60-percent of the Fisher Brothers Body company. Unfortunately, auto sales took a sharp downturn in 1920, leaving Durant once again in a bind. The DuPont company, which had backed GM and taken over the company’s finances upon Durant’s return in 1916, rescued GM from bankruptcy, saving the company, but once again knocking Durant from his position of power.

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Durant with his wife Catherine. Image: Britannica

Durant then established the Durant Motors company in 1920, just weeks after leaving GM. Durant Motors was reasonably successful and remained intact until 1933.

Though Durant was a major player on Wall Street in the 1920s and helped try, to restore confidence in the market after the crash of 1929, he failed and lost yet another fortune. In 1936 he claimed bankruptcy.

Durant died in 1947, five years after suffering a debilitating stroke. He was living on a GM pension, and gifts from Walter Chrysler.

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The Durant showroom in 1929. Image: myAutoWorld

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
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