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The General Of General Motors
"Billy" Durant typified the courage of American business. He was charismatic, arbitrary and impenetrable.
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
In a lifetime that spanned the period from the outbreak of the Civil War to the beginnings of the post-World War n boom, Durant ultimately found what he sought from people only in his relationships with three adoring women: his mother, his daughter Margery, and his second wife, Catherine. The child is indeed the father of the man. And Durant’s early experiences with a boy’s normal male-role models were traumatic. The combination of a stern, prominent grandfather, a weak, irresponsible father, andanoverdemanding, unsympathetic uncle left indelible scars on Durant’s personality.
Billy Durant was born in Boston on December 8, 1861. His father, William Clark Durant, was a handsome, socially prominent banker at the time. But addictions to alcohol and stqck speculation soon turned him into a drifter. He left one day on a fishing trip when Billy was seven and never returned. Billy was later to spend a small fortune in unsuccessful attempts to locate the father who deserted him so early in life.
The father’s desertion drew Durant into a relationship with his mother that a psychoanalyst might well describe as oedipal. They were constant companions, bound to each other by mutual idolization. At the height of his success Durant would disrupt a busy schedule and travel days to spend a few hours with her. W. A. P. John, a reporter, found that Durant’s most striking characteristic was “his love for his mother. Of the dozens with whom I have spoken concerning him, most have singled out that particular trait as most indicative of the man. ” With tears glistening in his eyes Durant confirmed for John, “Yes, that’s all quite true. … She has always thought I was a wonderful boy. And I have tried not to disappoint her.”
Rebecca Folger Crapo, the mother, could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower . The Crapo family had made a fortune in shipbuilding and whaling by the time her father, Henry H. Crapo, moved from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to supervise personally the family lumbering operations in the frontier town of Flint, Michigan. Henry H. Crapo came to be reckoned one of Michigan’s leading citizens, and in 1864 he was elected to a four-year term as governor of the state. The grandfather’s achievements imposed a formidable burden on a boy in a culture that assumed one ought to do better than one’s ancestors.
When Billy was nine years old, the Durants followed the Crapo family to Flint. Billy attended the Flint public schools, where he was a well-liked but mediocre student. A critical turning point in his life occurred when he was forced by the decision of his uncle to leave school at sixteen to take a job at his grandfather’s mill at seventy-five cents a day. Bitter about the decision and determined to succeed in spite of it, Billy worked nights as a clerk in a local drugstore. This was followed by brief careers as a patent-medicine peddler and a cigar salesman. Durant then turned to selling insurance and real estate and undertook the management of the Flint water works. As a sideline he read gas meters. By the time he was twenty five years old, William C. Durant had a reputation as one of Flint’s most successful and enterprising young businessmen.
In 1885 Durant married Clara Pitt of Flint. But their temperaments proved to be irreconcilable, and despite Durant’s continued success in business they were divorced in 1900. It was rumored that Durant sent Clara a present of two million dollars a few years later when she remarried—one of his characteristic attempts to smooth things over with money.
By the time of his divorce Durant was already a millionaire. His first fortune had humble origins. Shortly after his marriage to Clara he had acquired for fifty dollars the patent rights to a two-wheeled road cart, claimed by its inventor to have the riding qualities of a much more expensive four-wheeled carriage. Durant found a partner in J. Dallas Dort, a hardware merchant. With two thousand dollars of borrowed money they formed the Flint Road Cart Company.
Their timing was perfect. A flourishing carriage-andwagon industry was then developing in southern Michigan and northern Indiana because of the proximity of excellent hardwood forests and the rapidly growing midwestern market for vehicles. Since Durant and Dort were both salesmen who knew nothing about making buggies, they devoted their energies to sales and farmed out the production of their cart to a Flint carriage manufacturer. They bought the completed carts from him for eight dollars and sold them for $12.50. The profits from their first ten thousand vehicles were plowed back into the business, and the name of the firm was changed to the Durant-Dort Carriage Company.
Sales soon outstripped production. The partners decided that they would have to undertake the manufacture of their vehicle themselves. Fearful that the growth of horizontal trusts in ancillary industries would make components and raw materials hard to get at reasonable prices, Durant and Dort purchased hardwood forests and set up specialized subsidiary companies to manufacture bodies, wheels, axles, upholstery, springs, varnish, and whip sockets.
By the turn of the century Durant-Dort had fourteen branch plants, hundreds of sales agencies, and annual sales of more than 150,000 vehicles. In a day when its competitors were mere order-taking assemblers of components, the company’s emphasis upon aggressive sales techniques and its integrated manufacturing operations were major innovations in the carriage industry. DurantDort’s bold conception of a mass market for low-priced vehicles and its attempt to blanket the market with a complete line of vehicles were other novel ideas that William C. Durant would apply to the manufacture of motor vehicles in a few years.