Driving a Buick turned Durant into a believer
It's true that Durant was no cheerleader for motor cars in 1904. It's also true that Durant, often called a visionary, initially had less vision about the future of the automobile than some of his friends and relatives.
In 1903, directors of the Flint Wagon Works bought the small Buick Motor Co. of Detroit and moved it 60 miles north to Flint. Flint Wagon Works was a local competitor of Durant's company, Durant-Dort Carriage Co.
Wagon Works leader James Whiting saw an opportunity to sell gasoline engines to farmers. But David Dunbar Buick, a onetime plumbing supplier executive, along with his engineer, Walter Marr, wanted to build automobiles. Buick already had built two in Detroit.
Whiting agreed that the Buick folks could build a few automobiles to see whether they would sell. By mid-September 1904 they had built 16 cars. The good news was Buick had created a powerful overhead-valve engine. The bad news was Buick was practically broke.
Billy took a ride
Flint's carriage builders were close-knit, and Durant-Dort Secretary Fred Aldrich advised Whiting that Durant could properly finance Buick and get it on its feet.
Durant, who once derided automobiles as "noisy contraptions," finally got his first ride in a Buick.
It happened just after he returned to Flint from semiretirement in New York, apparently to see about Whiting's concerns with the shaky Buick business. A young Flint doctor, Herbert Hills, who had bought the first Flint Buick sold, gave Durant a ride on Sept. 4, 1904.
"We started out with Durant and me in the front seat, and Mrs. Durant (Clara, his first wife) and their daughter in the rear," Hills recalled. "We drove out East Kearsley Street, then one of the few paved streets in Flint, and Durant kept firing questions at me about how the car ran and if I liked it. We didn't talk about anything else the whole time."
Sam McLaughlin, a carriage builder, auto pioneer and contemporary of Durant's, said Marr later drove a Buick to Durant's office, but Durant refused to ride in it. So Marr taught Durant's carriage partner, Dallas Dort, how to drive it. Dort then went to Durant: "Come on out! It's great. They taught me how to drive! I've been driving a car!"
Durant replied: "I want nothing to do with it."
Durant came aboard
McLaughlin continued: "Then later, Walter and David Buick drove it up and down past Mr. Durant's house all that evening and the next day induced Mr. Durant to go out in it for a ride." McLaughlin, who was known to embellish a story from time to time, said Durant then learned Marr was not trying to sell him a Buick car, but the Buick company.
Soon Durant was testing the car, experiencing Buick's powerful, overhead-valve engine, noting public reaction — and deciding this machine could be another "self-seller" like his patented road cart, which 18 years earlier had propelled him into the carriage business.
And on Nov. 1, 1904, when he agreed to take over management of Buick if the stockholders would come up with money for expansion, Durant began the spectacular journey that would result in his creation of General Motors four years later.