Billy Durant: From critic to car czar
They spewed fumes and spooked the horses — but he knew a sure thing when he saw one
The year was 1902. Two teenage girls, frightened and caked with dust, were taking their first ride in an automobile.
Author William Pelfrey recalls the moment in Billy, Alfred, and General Motors. The car was a long-forgotten French brand: Panhard. It was loud, and it sputtered as it chugged along a dirt road in Flint, Mich.
One of the girls taking that joy ride was Margery Durant, whose millionaire father was the nation's most successful seller of carriages — and no fan of the horseless variety.
William Crapo Durant scolded his daughter, who had taken the ride without his knowledge. In his view, automobiles "were noisy, dangerous contraptions that disturbed tranquility and frightened horses," wrote biographer Lawrence R. Gustin.
Yet, six years later, in 1908, Durant founded what would become the world's largest automaker.
Durant's journey from pessimist to industry patriarch boils down to one thing, said Gustin, author of Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors.
"He wasn't a car guy, but the self-seller — something that can sell itself — was a big thing to him. He saw this as something that he could sell," said Gustin.
That self-seller was a vehicle that hit the roads in 1904. Its name: Buick.
Date: Sept. 16, 1908
Place: Jersey City, N.J.
Interim directors: George E. Daniels, Benjamin Marcuse, Arthur Britton.
A month later, new officers took over: William M. Eaton, president; William Crapo Durant, vice president; and Curtis R. Hatheway, secretary
Source: GM, Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors by Lawrence R. Gustin
Durant had a talent for finding hit products. The first was in 1886. The Flint, Mich., resident was late for work one day and accepted a ride in a Coldwater road cart, a two-wheel horse cart with an innovative suspension system. Durant was so impressed with the cart's performance that he borrowed $2,000 from a bank, went into partnership with his friend Josiah Dallas Dort and bought the Coldwater operation for $1,500.
Using his new Flint Road Cart Co. — later renamed Durant-Dort Carriage Co. — as a base, Durant built his carriage business into the GM of its day. He did so by acquiring key suppliers and snapping up other cart companies, Gustin said.
"They didn't just have one road cart; they had carriages for different levels of the market," Gustin told Automotive News.
"They always competed well on price, and they could do that because they had created their own consolidation of all these different industries. They bought their own axle company, their own wheel company and their own top company, linseed oil and varnish companies."
Buick gets a champion
Durant was a brilliant salesman, but he was easily bored. With his company at the top of the carriage business, he left Flint to play the stock market in New York.
He agreed to come back to Flint after a rival cart company, Flint Wagon Works, enlisted him to manage its latest acquisition: the debt-ridden Buick Motor Co., which started building engines in 1903 and branched into automobiles the next year.
Re-energized, Durant went to work in late 1904. He negotiated relief from Buick's creditors; moved vehicle assembly from a one-story building in Flint to a more spacious site in Jackson, Mich.; and in January 1905 went to an auto show in New York and took orders for 1,108 vehicles. At that point, the factory had produced only 37, Gustin said.
Durant later set his mind to building the world's largest automobile assembly plant, and he did so in Flint. He persuaded suppliers, notably axle maker Charles Stewart Mott, to build near the massive Buick complex.
By the end of 1907, Buick had become the nation's second-largest automaker, behind Ford.
But Durant's biggest adventure lay ahead.
Historians trace the idea for what eventually became General Motors to banking giant J.P. Morgan & Co.
Morgan, writes historian Pelfry, was backing an automaking venture named Maxwell-Briscoe. Morgan sent one of the company's principals, Benjamin Briscoe, to investigate a major consolidation of automakers. It would be similar to the consolidation that formed U.S. Steel. Its working name: International Motor Car Co.
Briscoe called Billy Durant first. Eventually, Henry Ford and Ransom Olds, founder of Oldsmobile and then head of Reo Motor Car Co., joined the talks. But negotiations collapsed when Ford and Olds demanded cash instead of stock in the new venture.
Durant wasn't ready to give up.
GM is born
"Durant said: 'I like this idea of consolidation. I'm going to do it anyway,' " said Gustin. "I think he saw it as an extension of what he'd done in the carriage business."
By then, Durant already had his eye on a company he would add to the stable along with Buick: Olds Motor Works, the struggling maker of the Oldsmobile in Lansing, Mich.
The plan in place, Durant needed a name. International Motor Car Co. was no longer available. Durant's lawyers suggested an alternative: General Motors Co.
GM was incorporated on Sept. 16, 1908. Within two months, it acquired Buick and Oldsmobile.
The road ahead would be bumpy for Durant, but in his unpublished autobiography, as quoted by Pelfrey, he clearly saw the implications of what he had created.
"I had made the first step; the responsibility was mine and it was up to me to make good," Durant wrote. "My experience and success with Buick gave me the idea. I figured if I could acquire a few more companies like Buick, I would have control of the greatest industry in this country."
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