To get back in the race for GM, Durant found a racer
As Durant wrote later in notes for an unfinished autobiography, "If I ever expected to regain control of General Motors, which I certainly intended to do, I should have another company of my own."
And he knew just the man to help: Louis Chevrolet.
The association with Chevrolet began in 1907, when Durant invited the Swiss-born driver from France to join the Buick racing team. After leaving the team in 1909, Chevrolet began developing a six-cylinder touring auto with funding from Durant.
Durant saw an opportunity to use the new car — and Chevrolet's racing fame — to help regain control of GM.
"He was planning his comeback," Chevrolet later recalled, "and he told me, 'We're going to need a car.' " On Nov. 3, 1911, Chevrolet Motor Car Co. was incorporated. The course back to GM was set, the vehicle chosen.
In reality, it would take more than one car and more than one company. While Chevrolet labored on his touring car, Durant established Little Motor Car Co., which would be the cornerstone of the operation; and Mason Motor Co., which would supply engines to both new automakers.
2 cars, no winner
The first offering from Little — the Little Four, a two-passenger roadster — was introduced in the summer of 1912.
The car was priced from $690 — $100 more than its Model T equivalent. The Little Four's four-cylinder engine proved to be underpowered compared to the Ford. The Little was inexpensive but poorly built, and Durant predicted accurately that the car would be "driven to its death in 25,000 miles."
Meanwhile, Chevrolet continued tinkering in his Detroit workshop, laboring to perfect the auto that would bear his name. After a delayed launch, his touring car went on sale in late 1912 to an underwhelming reception.
The Classic Six, as it was called, was well-built but proved to be too heavy, too big — and, at $2,150, too expensive. Sales languished.
So Durant had the unenviable problem of marketing one car that was built to last but wouldn't sell and another that was selling but wouldn't last. His solution was to combine the best aspects of each car and try again.
The Little was discontinued in 1913. Mason Motor was absorbed, and all energy was focused on Chevrolet. But by year end, Louis Chevrolet and Durant had parted ways. There was still no car, and the money was running out.
Success and failure
Just as the situation seemed darkest, 1914 dawned with new hope. The Chevrolet engineers had developed two four-cylinder models for the new season: the Baby Grand, a touring car; and the Royal Mail, a roadster. Each wore a new emblem designed by Durant himself: a pair of parallelograms, one vertical and one horizontal, intersecting to resemble a bow tie.
Larger, more powerful and more stylish than the Model T, both cars were hugely successful.
The two new models made possible Durant's next salvo across Ford's bow, this time with a car whose name was a dig at his rival. The car was called the Chevrolet 490 — and $490 was the price of the 1914 Model T.
When it reached the market in June 1915, the 490 cost $550, but it had a lot for the money — valve-in-head engine, electric starter and headlights.
Durant said the 490 was so desirable that "a little child can sell it," and that became the 490's advertising theme.
And sell it did. Just four days after the 490 went on sale, Chevrolet dealers had 46,611 orders secured by cash deposits. By the end of 1915, Chevy had built 13,605 copies of the new model.
With the coffers filling and Chevrolet's stock soaring, Durant had the war chest he needed to reclaim his prize. Exchanging Chevy stock for GM stock, Durant became GM's majority shareholder by May 1916. One month later, he was GM's president.
In 1918, Durant folded Chevrolet into GM. He had won the battle, but eventually, Durant would lose the war.
By 1920, he found himself permanently exiled from the company he had started 12 years earlier. GM and Chevrolet would roll on without Durant, reaching heights he had dreamed of while others doubted.