Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Durant, William C.

The founder of General Motors, William Crapo Durant was born on December 8, 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts. He dropped out of high school to work at his grandfather’s lumberyard in Flint, Michigan. His grandfather, Henry H. Crapo, was governor of Michigan from 1864-1868.

In 1885 Durant married Clara Pitt. The two had a daughter, Margery, but were divorced in 1900. He partnered with Josiah Dallas Dort in 1885 to start the Flint Road Cart Company. The venture produced horse-drawn vehicles and by 1890 was the nation’s largest carriage manufacturer, producing 50,000 vehicles a year. It was renamed Durant-Dort Carriage Company in 1895. In 1904, James Whiting convinced Durant to run the Buick Motor Company. By 1908 Durant had turned the floundering business into the nation’s leading car maker. Also in 1908 he married his second wife, Catherine Lederer of Jackson, Michigan.

Hedging their bets against the uncertainties of the fledgling automobile business, Durant and Benjamin Briscoe, of Maxwell-Briscoe, thought to merge the four top auto companies - Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Maxwell-Briscoe, and Ford - into one large company, to be called International Motor Car Company. Ford and Olds did not agree to the terms, and after a second attempt at securing financing, Briscoe dropped out. Durant remained an advocate for the idea.

General Motors was successfully launched on September 8, 1908 as a New Jersey holding company. Durant purchased the Buick Company with stock and shortly thereafter became the owner of the Olds Corporation of Lansing, Michigan. Durant then went on to buy the Oakland Car Company, later known as Pontiac. He next bought Cadillac with the cash from Buick. Durant not only purchased automobile companies, but also truck and parts supply companies, including AC-Delco.

In 1910, Durant lost control of GM to the bank, but after forming Chevrolet Motor Company in 1911, with Louis Chevrolet, was able to buy it back in 1916. In 1920, Durant agreed to resign from GM in exchange for GM president Pierre du Pont paying off his debts. In 1921 Durant tried operating a company under his own name, Durant Motors, but the Great Depression ended his automotive career. His company was dissolved in 1933 and Durant declared bankruptcy in 1936. By 1940 he owned a bowling alley in Flint, with plans to go nationwide. Suffering from poor health in later years, he was aided by financial support from Walter Chrysler and Alfred Sloan. Durant died in New York City on March 19, 1947.