Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

William Crapo "Billy" Durant (December 8, 1861 – March 18, 1947) was a leading pioneer of the United States automobile industry, the founder of General Motors and Chevrolet who created the system of multi-brand holding companies with different lines of cars.


Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Durant was the grandson of Michigan governor Henry H. Crapo. William dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather's lumberyard, but by 1885 he had partnered with Josiah Dort to create the Coldwater Road Cart Company. He started out as a cigar salesman in Flint, Michigan, and eventually moved to selling carriages. He founded the Flint Road Cart Company in 1886, eventually transforming $2,000 in start-up capital into a $2 million business with sales around the world. By 1890 the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, based in Flint, Michigan, had become a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles, which ultimately became number one in the world. Durant also conceived the modern system of automobile dealer franchises.When approached to become General Manager of Buick in 1904, he made a similar success and was soon president of this horseless-vehicle company. In 1908 he arranged the incorporation by proxies of General Motors and quickly thereafter sold stock, and with the proceeds acquired Oldsmobile. The acquisitions of Oakland, Cadillac, and parts companies followed in short order.

Originally, Durant was highly skeptical of cars, thinking that they were stinky, loud, and dangerous, to a point where he would not let his daughter ride in one. By 1900, there was significant public outcry for government regulation of gas-powered horseless carriages. Durant heard this outcry, and rather than relying on government regulations to improve their safety, saw an opportunity to build a successful company by improving on the safety of these new machines. In order to accomplish this, he sought out the purchase of Buick, a local car company with few sales and large debts.

General Motors[]

In 1904 Durant began realizing his vision of building the car industry, starting from virtually nothing, utilizing his sales skills to enter Buick (which had only built 37 cars to date) into a New York auto show, and returning with orders for 1,108 cars. Durant and Samuel McLaughlin of Canada signed a 15-year contract to build Buick power trains at cost plus; they were called McLaughlin Buicks until 1942. Durant went back to Detroit to start General Motors (GM) Holding Company at the suggestion of his partner McLaughlin, CEO of General Motors of Canada (founded November 20, 1907). Durant founded General Motors Holding Company on September 16, 1908, with $500,000 in Buick stock that Durant traded McLaughlin for $500,000 of McLaughlin stock, making McLaughlin one of General Motors biggest shareholders. Durant had arranged a $8 million deal to buy Ford in 1910 when the bankers turned him down and the board of directors of General Motors dismissed him.

Both Durant and rival Henry Ford foresaw the automobile becoming a mass market item. Ford followed the course of the basic Model N, and had said "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."Durant however, drawing on his experience in the carriage business, sought to create automobiles targeted to various incomes and tastes. This brought about his plans to merge Buick with various other companies to serve this purpose. He purchased Cadillac, and in 1908 formed General Motors by consolidating 13 car companies and 10 parts-and-accessories manufacturers.


In 1910, Durant became financially overextended and banking interests assumed control, forcing him from management of GM. He immediately set out to create another "GM," starting with the Little car, named after its founder, William H. Little. His initial intention was to compete with the Ford Model T, then beginning to show its impending popularity. Unsatisfied with this approach, however, he abandoned it and went into partnership with Louis Chevrolet in 1911, starting the Chevrolet company. Before long, a disagreement between the two resulted in Durant buying out his partner in 1914. Durant went on to McLaughlin in 1915 to put Chevrolet in General Motors of Canada and with the shares being bought up at 5 to one and 7 to one McLaughlin and Durant with other share holders had enough stock to reclaim Durant's old job. McLaughlin had no problem with his friend back at the helm. McLaughlin went on building Chevrolet and built his Buicks in Canada without conflict to his Buick contract. General Motors Corporation was started at this time with Durant putting Pierre du Pont in charge.

Nevertheless, the venture was so successful for Durant that he was able to buy enough shares in GM to regain control, becoming its president in 1916. During his presidency from 1916–1920, Durant brought the Chevrolet product line, as well as Fisher Body and Frigidaire into General Motors. In 1920, he finally lost control of GM to the DuPont interests.

While in charge of Chevrolet, Durant did acquire other companies, including Republic Motors, mainly to produce Chevrolet.

Vertical integration[]

Drawing on his experience in the carriage making business twenty years earlier, Durant also assembled a collection of parts and components manufacturers into a new entity called United Motors Company, making Alfred P. Sloan of Hyatt Roller Bearings Company the president. It was made up of Hyatt Roller Bearing, New Departure Manufacturing, Dayton Engineering Laboratories (later Delco Electronics Corporation), Harrison Radiator Corporation, Remy Electric, Jaxon Steel Products and Penman Rim. In 1918 United Motors was sold to General Motors for $44,065,000. Sloan rose to president of GM in the 1920s, going on to build the company into the world's largest automaker.