Entrepreneur extraordinaire, charismatic salesman, risk taker, gambler.
Durant-Dort Carriage Company co-founder and General Motors founder William “Billy” Crapo Durant was all of these. His business savvy and personality helped move the world from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. Along the way, he established a business model for automakers – vehicles and price points for different lifestyles and incomes – that continues.
Durant, grandson of lumber baron and Michigan Gov. Henry Crapo, was born in Boston in 1861 but raised in Flint. There were few signs in his youth of his success to come. His parents had divorced and he was a high school dropout, but he 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. The company eventually was renamed the Durant-Dort Carriage Company and became one of the world’s largest producers of carriages, with $2 million in sales at the turn of the 20th century.
By then, gas-powered, horseless carriages were hitting the roads. At first, Durant thought cars were dirty and dangerous. But he saw opportunity. In 1904, he assumed management of Buick, 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.
Like his competitor Henry Ford, Durant believed cars had mass appeal. But while Ford committed to building only one vehicle, his Model T, Durant envisioned different models and prices to meet buyers’ different needs and means. He bought Cadillac and a dozen other car companies and parts manufacturers. 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. 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.
During his second run at the helm, Durant made other acquisitions, including Fisher Body and Frigidaire. However, he was ousted again, in 1920, after he returned to risky stock trading. Durant lost his fortune, believed to be nearly $1 billion, in the 1929 stock market crash and declared personal bankruptcy in 1936.
By 1940, Durant envisioned a national chain of family friendly bowling alleys and opened the North Flint Recreation bowling alley in Flint, near the Buick complex. Cars played a part there, too: Durant opened the Horseshoe Bar, Flint’s first drive-in restaurant. Durant died in 1947 in New York at age 85.