William Crapo Durant

The American industrialist William Crapo Durant (1861-1947) was the founder of General Motors, an automobile manufacturing company.

William C. Durant was born in Boston, Mass., on Dec. 8, 1861. He grew up in Flint, Mich., where he became a leading carriage manufacturer. In 1886 he organized the Durant-Dort Company and helped to make Flint the carriage capital of the nation.

Durant acquired control of the Buick Motor Car Company in 1904 and revived it; by 1908 Buick was one of the four leading automobile companies. Durant had a vision of the boundless possibilities of the automobile, particularly the moderate-priced car, and attempted to capitalize on these possibilities by establishing a large-scale enterprise based on volume production. He intended that his company would be well financed, market a variety of automobiles, and produce many of its own parts.

After an attempt to buy Ford Motor Company in 1907 failed because Henry Ford wanted to be paid in cash, Durant established the General Motors Company the next year. He began with the Buick and added Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Oakland (Pontiac), and other lesser companies. Durant overextended himself, and by 1910 General Motors needed the intervention of a bankers' syndicate to lift the burden of debt. Durant returned to the automobile business in 1911 with the Chevrolet car. In 1916, with the backing of the Du Pont family, he recovered control of General Motors.

In 1919 General Motors was one of the largest American industrial enterprises, but Durant exercised little control over its operation; General Motors was too decentralized to be effective. When the Panic of 1920 occurred, Durant was overcommitted in the stock market. He tried unsuccessfully to support the price of General Motors stock; he was forced out of the company in 1920 by the Du Ponts, who wanted to protect their sizable investment.

The remainder of Durant's life was anticlimactic. In 1921 he started Durant Motors, which failed to become a major automobile producer. Durant Motors was already shaky when the 1929 crash occurred; the Depression then sharply reduced automobile sales and resulted in 1933 in dissolution of the firm. Durant was bankrupt by 1935. During his remaining years he engaged in a variety of business enterprises but without marked success. He died in New York City on March 18, 1947.

Durant was a pioneer in the automotive industry, and his most notable creation, General Motors, has dominated the automobile market since. Some of his chance ideas, such as the entry of General Motors into the manufacture of refrigerators, were highly successful. However, Durant never succeeded in organizing and administrative structure adequate for the giant enterprise he founded, and the task of converting General Motors into an enduring monument was left to his successors.

Further Reading on William Crapo Durant

John B. Rae, The American Automobile: A Brief History (1965), places Durant in the context of his times and industry. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (1962), has a chapter which analyzes Durant's administrative strategy. Carl Crow, The City of Flint Grows Up: The Success Story of an American Community (1945), includes a brief account of Durant's early years.

Additional Biography Sources

Weisberger, Bernard A., The dream maker: William C. Durant, founder of General Motors, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.