Durant, William Crapo

Founder, General Motors Company (succeeded by General Motors Corporation), 1908

Founder, Chevrolet Motor Company (became Chevrolet Division), 1911

President, Buick Motor Company, 1904-1908

President, General Motors Company, 1908-1910

President, Chevrolet Motor Company, 1911-1918

President, General Motors Corporation, 1916-1920


Founder of General Motors

William Durant

“Billy” Durant was one of the geniuses of American industry. His vision arose from an intuitive sense of the individual’s desire for freedom and mobility, an ever-optimistic expectation of economic progress, a sprightly imagination, and a relaxed charm that converted any challenge into an opportunity.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1861, Durant came west to Michigan (of which his grandfather, Henry H. Crapo, had been Governor 1865-69) in his 20s. He dabbled in the lumber center of Flint before co-founding the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, which became the nation’s leading producer of horse-drawn carts and carriages.

Impressed by his Midas touch, local investors asked him to take charge of the failing Buick Motor Company in 1904, and by 1908 he had made it the nation’s largest automobile producer, with 8,487 units manufactured that year.

On September 16, 1908 Billy incorporated the General Motors Company with Buick as its foundation, followed by Olds Motor Works, Oakland and Cadillac. He also acquired a number of parts and accessory makers. From the beginning, Durant relied primarily on clever stock manipulations to make these acquisitions.

Dropping the Reins; Taking them Back

By 1910, Durant was overextended and forced to seek relief. The automobile was still considered a fad in the financial world, and Durant could only get the capital he needed by accepting harsh terms from a bankers trust led by James J. Storrow. Durant continued as a GM director, but was removed from management.

In 1911, he founded the Chevrolet Motor Company with Buick racer Louis Chevrolet. The Chevrolet car was a popular success, but Louis disagreed with Durant’s idea of a low-price competitor to the Ford Model T, and sold his interest to Durant in 1915. Chevrolet’s success generated enough cash for Durant to gain control of more than half of the shares of General Motors by the time the bankers trust expired in 1915. Durant returned to the GM presidency, with the substantial backing of the DuPont company, whose executives took control of GM’s finances.

Expansion and Disaster

From 1917 to 1920, Durant led a massive expansion of GM, including the acquisition of Chevrolet, 60% of Fisher Brothers body company, the formation of United Motors (led by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.) and GMAC, the construction of the General Motors building (originally to have been named the Durant building) and production facilities. But a sudden, sharp downturn in auto sales in 1920 exposed Durant’s inadequate administration of what had become an enormous enterprise.

Durant’s valiant effort to support falling GM stock during the slump put him deep in debt and GM on the verge of bankruptcy. The DuPont company rescued GM, and for a second time, Durant was out. He retained a substantial amount of GM stock, which if had held, would have been worth more than $25 million and have provided aggregated income of more than $27 million by the time of his death in 1947.

"... A tragedy of American industrial history" - Alfred Sloan

Pundits predicted that Durant would stage yet another comeback at GM, but instead he began Durant Motors to emulate GM as a full-line automobile maker. Simultaneously, Durant became one of the biggest Wall Street “players” in the late 1920s, and tried almost single-handedly to restore market confidence in the face of the 1929 crash. He failed, losing his third, and last, fortune.

Durant lived the rest of his life on a GM pension arranged by Alfred Sloan and gifts from Walter P. Chrysler. He never lost his dignity and charm.

William Crapo Durant died on March 19, 1947.

Joshua Davidson--Joshdavidson 13:49, 15 December 2007 (MST)

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