Thursday, July 29, 2021

William Crapo “Billy” Durant: Founder of General Motors

Durant, grandson of lumber baron and Michigan Gov. Henry Crapo, was born in Boston in 1861 but raised in Flint.

Durant worked at his grandfather’s Crapo Lumber Company. His flamboyant personality and skill at socializing made him a natural salesman.

In 1886, he rode in a friend’s carriage and was so impressed with the ride that he used a $2,000 bank loan to travel to the factory in Coldwater, Mich., where he acquired the production rights. He and partner Josiah Dallas Dort launched the Flint Road Cart Co. in Flint.

He developed his tiny road cart company which eventually was renamed the Durant-Dort Carriage Company into the nation’s largest during the 1890s; later he moved into the automobile industry by acquiring control of the Buick Motor Company, a struggling business which Durant transformed into the number one producer by 1908 with $2 million in sales.

In 1904, he invested in the Buick brand a local car company with great potential but plagued with struggling production and heavy debt. Using Durant-Dort resources and his own salesmanship, Buick became one of the country’s most successful car companies.

Durant purchased Olds Motor Works, the first automobile company in Michigan and then Cadillac from Henry Leland, who previously reorganized the Henry Ford Company when Henry Ford resigned. Cadillac produced automobiles similar to Henry Ford’s Model A using methods of mass production Ford left behind.

In 1908, these companies became General Motors. Over time, Durant added the Cartercar and Elmore to GM. They never reached Durant’s sales projections and by 1911, GM was losing money. It took the ingenuity of a MIT graduate named Alfred P. Sloan to bring long term financial stability to General Motors beginning in the 1920s. A group of investors believed Durant was reckless in his acquisition splurge, and ousted him.

Durant was undeterred. With investments from friends and a partnership with racer and self-taught automobile engineer Louis Chevrolet, he began work on the Chevrolet Series C Classic Six and the well positioned Royal Mail Roadster. Durant traded much of his Chevrolet stock for GM stock until he had controlling interest in both companies. By 1916, he was running GM again.

In 1920 Durant built a factory in Lansing to assemble Durant and Star automobiles. The company is the largest American automobile manufacturer and one of the world's largest automobile manufacturers. At its peak, GM had a 50% market share in the United States and was the world's largest automaker from 1931 through 2007.

Durant died in 1947 in New York at age 85.
William Crapo “Billy” Durant: Founder of General Motors

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