Cigar salesman, to Wall Street tycoon, to bowling alley manager?
The name “William Crapo Durant” has been making somewhat of a comeback as of late, thanks to the 100th anniversary celebration of Chevrolet. Durant came of age as a young man in early days of the American Industrial Revolution. It was the time of the railroad robber barons, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Standard Oil, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, and others. Electricity and electric light was utterly fantastic to people, and men were building motorized carriages to replace horse drawn transportation. It was an amazing time lead by tough and ruthless businessmen.
Born in 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts, William started his working career as a cigar salesman. He obviously had a keen mind for business and started his first company in 1886 at the age of 25, building horse carriages. Starting with $2,000, the Flint Road Cart Company quickly became a $2 million dollar business with sales from around the world. Companies came, merged, and were gone quickly throughout Durant’s career. By 1890 his Durant-Dort Carriage Company was the number one carriage company in the world!
An interesting side note about Durant is that he was a horse and carriage man first. The earliest horseless carriages were very dangerous and Durant did not like them. So much so that he wouldn’t let his daughter ride in one! By 1900 there was a significant public outcry against the new fangled dangerous buggies. There were no rules of the road, most roads were rutty, dirt horse paths not at all capable of withstanding machines with speeds double and more of that of horses. Durant saw a problem and offered a solution – build safer cars.
Starting with a local car company called Buick, William entered a Buick automobile in a New York auto show in 1904 (yes, they had car shows a hundred years ago!) and came home with orders for 1,108 Buicks. At that point, Buick had only built 37 cars! From 1904 forward, William Durant would become one of a handful of movers and shakers in the new fledgling automobile industry.
Here’s a list of the car companies that passed through Durant’s hands:* Buick – General Manager in 1904
* Incorporated General Motors in 1908
* Bought Oldsmobile in 1908
* Bought Oakland and Cadillac companies
* Attempted to buy Ford Motor Company in 1910
* Started the Little Car Company in 1910
* Started Chevrolet with Louis Chevrolet in 1911 and acquired Republic Motors
* As president of General Motors from 1916 to 1920 be bought Fisher Body and the Frigidaire companies.
* Started United Motors, made up of the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, New Departure Manufacturing, Dayton Engineering Laboratories (later known as Delco Electronics), Harrison Radiator Corporation, Remy Electric, Jackson Steel products, and Penman Rim. In 1918 United Motors was sold to General Motors for a whopping $44,065,000! Combining companies with specialized abilities was called “vertical integration of parts” and had never been done before.
*Started Durant Motors in 1921
When Durant assembled the United Motors Company, he put Alfred P. Slone in charge as president. A few years later in 1920, Durant was out and Slone was in charge of General Motors and transformed GM into the world’s largest corporation by the 1950s. Yes, William was a VERY busy man!
During the roaring ‘20s, William Crapo Durant was a major Wall Street player. He used the same approach of “vertical integration of parts suppliers” with the Durant Motors company as he had with many of his previous enterprises. In their best years, Durant cars took on the likes of Packard, Cadillac, and Locomobile. But like many other Wall Street tycoons, Durant got swept up in the Wall Street Crash of ‘29. As the Depression set in and people weren’t able to buy much of anything beyond the basics of life, the Durant Motor Company folded in 1933. By 1936, at the age of 75, William Durant was bankrupt.
Fortunately for Durant, unlike Louis Chevrolet, Alfred Slone provided William and his wife a small pension, while Louis was given a job on a GM assembly line. At the age of 81 Durant suffered a stroke that left him a semi-invalid. And during his final years he was managing a bowling alley when he died in 1947.
What’a life! From cigar salesman, to carriage maker, to industrialist, to Wall Street tycoon, to a broke bowling alley manager. It goes to show that fame is fleeting and not all success stories have happy endings. – Scott
PS – William Durant’s unusual middle name, “Crapo” was in honor of his grandfather, lumber man Henry Howland Crapo, the 14th governor of the state of Michigan. Before becoming Michigan’s governor, he was instrumental in the construction and president of the Flint and Holly Railroad. Obviously, business mindedness ran in the family!
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