Business

The free-wheeling gambler who created conservative General Motors

The General Motors Building in 1927–the house that Durant built.

William Durant

William Durant, unlike most of the early automotive pioneers, was
not a tinkerer or a mechanic or an inventor – he was a salesman. In fact,
he was a superb salesman; he could, in the words of one associate, “charm the birds from the trees.”

Grandson of a Michigan governor and a self-made millionaire in thehorse-drawn carriage manufacturing business, Durant did not like the newautomobiles that were beginning to appear around his home town of Flint.They were noisy and smelly, he said, and they frightened the animals.

His feeling that the new machines were obnoxious was not a reactionagainst something that might threaten his Durant-Dort Carriage Co., largestmaker of horse-drawn carriages in the country. He was a success, no doubtabout it, a millionaire several times over. He did not fear innovation, hethrived on it. In fact, he drove a steam-powered Mobile car in 1902, notbecause he might want to buy one, but because he might want to sell them.He was unimpressed with it and with automobiles generally. Until, that is,he drove a car in 1904 built by David Dunbar Buick.

Buick was an innovative fellow who had made a fortune in theplumbing business, largely because he figured out how to porcelainize castiron for tubs and sinks. He began to manufacture gasoline engines in 1900and decided to design an automobile. But his business foundered. Hetinkered a lot, but he did not produce cars commercially.

The 1904 Buick that captured Durant’s imagination.

      In 1903, Benjamin and Frank Briscoe took over Buick’s business,then sold it to J.H. Whiting, owner of the Flint Wagon Works. Whitingconvinced Durant to drive the Buick car, which featured a valve-in-headengine. Durant was impressed.

In 1904, Durant reorganized Buick Motor Co. and embarked on aremarkable adventure of empire building in which he created General Motors,lost it, created Chevrolet and took GM back. He finally lost it again, buthe had a good time and he never lost heart.

After achieving success with the Buick car, Durant formed GeneralMotors in New Jersey in 1908 and it bought Buick. With breathtaking speed,Durant’s new GM acquired Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland (later to bePontiac), plus some supplier firms and a few lesser auto makers. In itsfirst year of existence, GM had put together all of its currentcar-producing divisions except Chevrolet.

Tom Buick. left, son of David Buick, and Walter Marr, Buick’s first chief engineer.

      In its first two years, Durant had brought 30 firms into GM,including 11 auto makers. Not all of Durant’s ventures were successful,however. He bought the Heany Electric Co., which was based on John AlbertHeany’s patent for an electric light bulb. General Electric sued and beforethe case was over, Heany, his lawyer and a patent office clerk wereindicted on charges of falsifying the application. Heany was laterexonerated, but the others went to jail and Durant lost faith in theinventor.

GM lost a lot of money in the Heany affair and it was undoubtedly afactor in the corporation’s weakened financial condition which led to theousting of Durant. A group of Eastern bankers agreed to bail out GM. Theyfavored dissolving the company, but Wilfred Leland talked them out of it.Instead, the bankers were to receive an enormous bloc of stock and controlof the board of directors. Durant was to resign and a five-man committeewould run GM for the duration of the loan. Durant had lost his empire.

Durant did not retire from action, however. He formed a number ofcompanies, including Chevrolet Motor Co. in partnership with LouisChevrolet. Durant met Louis and Arthur Chevrolet when they came to Americaas part of a French racing team. (Louis was the more aggressive and moresuccessful race driver of the two, so the prudent Durant hired Arthur ashis chauffeur.)

Louis Chevrolet behind the wheel of a Buick Special in his first appearance at Indianapolis in 1910, before the raceway had been paved with brick.

      Louis Chevrolet had built a high-quality car with his name on it.While Chevrolet was visiting Europe in 1913, Durant changed the design to asmaller car in an attempt to achieve high volume. The Royal Mail and theBaby Grand were the first to sport the now-famous Chevrolet “bowtie”insignia, a design motif Durant reportedly had seen in some wallpaper in aParis hotel. Chevrolet didn’t like what Durant had done. He quit thecompany.

Meanwhile, Durant’s Chevrolets were a great sales success. Thecompany grew rapidly and Durant used profits to buy up GM stock. GM,meanwhile, was coming back out of trouble under the guidance of CharlesNash, a Durant protege who had once headed Buick and now was president ofGM, and the new head of Buick, Walter P. Chrysler.

Walter P. Chrysler

By the time of the board meeting in 1916, Durant’s Chevrolet hadbought up almost half of the outstanding GM stock. Nash, unaware of that,called Durant aside before the meeting. The trust agreement with the bankswas running out and the majority of the board had agreed to renew it, Nashtold Durant. “So let’s not have any trouble.”

“There won’t be any trouble, Charlie,” Durant said. “We won’t renewthe agreement, but there won’t be any trouble. It just so happens that Iown General Motors.”

Pierre S. du Pont

Durant nominated Pierre du Pont, who was trusted by the bankers, aschairman. Chevrolet was to be merged into GM. By the following May, thedeal was complete and Durant had GM again. He met with Nash.

“Well, Charlie, you’re through,” he told his former employee who hefelt had thrown in his lot with the bankers.

Durant became president of GM for the first time. He would lose GMagain, but in early 1917, GM was strong and the future looked bright.

Upon regaining control of General Motors, Durant’s first act was tofire Nash. Nash took over the ailing Jeffery Motors (which became Nash,then Nash-Kelvinator and in 1954 merged with Hudson to form AmericanMotors). His second was to give Walter P. Chrysler a raise. Chrysler washead of Buick, a job for which Nash, no spendthrift, had paid him $50,000 ayear. Durant had heard that Chrysler was making a bid to take over Packardand he offered him $500,000 a year to continue at Buick. Chrysler stayed.

Charles Kettering

That same year, Durant made one of GM’s most importantacquisitions: United Motors Corp., a combination of parts and accessoriesmakers which included Delco, New Departure and Hyatt Roller Bearing Co. Inaddition to the products it brought into the GM fold, it also brought inDelco’s Charles Kettering and the president of Hyatt, Alfred P. Sloan Jr.

Alfred P. Sloan Jr.

Part of the deal when Durant regained GM was a division of theboard of directors — six named by Durant, six by the bankers and three tobe neutral. Pierre S. du Pont, head of the chemical giant, became chairman,nominated by Durant and trusted by all. One of the neutrals was John JacobRaskob, a close du Pont aide. In the years ahead, Johnny Raskob turned outto be Durant’s most powerful ally in his empire-building spree.

With the end of the World War I came boom times for the autobusiness. Durant began buying companies, including a 60 percent interest inFisher Body. In 1919, GM of Canada and General Motors Acceptance Corp. werecreated. Encouraged by Raskob, who was able to secure financing with duPont money and connections, Durant continued to expand GM’s empire,ignoring more cautious voices.

Durant ordered construction of the General Motors Building on WestGrand Blvd. in Detroit, to be the largest office building in the world. (Infact, it was to be called the Durant Building and it has the initial “D” atits corners near the top in the manner of Napoleon, who decreed the letter”N” be put on buildings erected in Paris during his reign.)

Irked by Durant’s management style, Chrysler quit. The action shookGM, particularly Sloan.

Car sales declined, inventories began mounting, the bond market wasweakening and GM was in a financial bind. GM’s stock price slid, despiteheavy buying by Durant with his personal fortune in an effort to prop upthe stock. He bought on margin, often only 10 percent.

Fearful that his personal failure would be tied to GM, which itselfowed $80 million to the banks, the bankers demanded that Durant resign.Raskob and du Pont came up with a proposal to buy Durant out. Forced tosell at $9.50, he had lost about $100 million of his own money.

The deal was consummated and he resigned on a Friday. Monday, GMopened at $16.50. What Durant had failed to do with his millions ofdollars, he finally did by resigning. GM was turned around.

About two months after his second and final ouster from GeneralMotors in late 1920, Durant incorporated Durant Motors. He had no car, buthe had the faith of investors and good will of dealers. Before productionbegan in 1921 of the Durant Four, he had 30,000 dealer orders. The nextyear, he brought out a low-priced car, the Star, to compete with Ford andChevrolet.

Durant was on his way again. He added nameplates — the Flint, theEagle, the Princeton and the Mason truck. To compete with Cadillac, Packardand Lincoln, he acquired Locomobile. He gobbled up supplier firms. In 1927,he announced formation of Consolidated Motors, clearly intended tochallenge GM. It would include the Star, Moon, Chandler, Gardner,Hupmobile, Jordan and Peerless. But it never became a reality, becauseDurant was again in financial trouble.

A major figure in the bull market of the ’20s, Durant had amassed a$50-million fortune by 1927, but displayed his old weakness of losinginterest in day-to-day management of his company in favor of empirebuilding and stock manipulation.

After filing for bankruptcy in 1936, Durant tried the bowling business, opening an alley in Flint in 1940.Here he poses with customers at a scoring table in 1941.

      When the crash came in ’29, Durant was hit hard. In 1933, DurantMotors went broke. He was down, but not out.

He still had a plant in Lansing and he signed a deal to build andmarket the Mathis, a small French car. But in the depths of the Depression,it never got off the ground. In 1936, William Durant filed in bankruptcy,claiming debts of $914,231 and assets of $250.

In 1940, he opened a bowling alley in Flint, the North FlintRecreation Center. Always thinking big, he had plans for 50 such centersacross the country. He suffered a massive stroke in 1942, shortly after atrip to Nevada to investigate a venture in mining cinnabar, a mercury ore.

He and his wife moved to New York, where they lived quietly,supported in part not by the General Motors he had created, but by fourlong-time associates — C.S. Mott, R.S. McLaughlin, John Thomas Smith andAlfred P. Sloan.

Durant died in that apartment March 18, 1947.

Durant and his low-priced Star, which was meant to compete with Ford and Chevrolet.

By Richard A. Wright / Special to The Detroit News