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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
With his first million made and his first marriage on the rocks, by 1900 Durant had outgrown the challenges of Flint and the carriage industry. The days of the carriageand-wagon industry were in fact numbered. Introduced into the United States in 1895, the automobile took America by storm. By 1900 the nation’s leading bicycle manufacturer, the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, had already switched over to the production of motor vehicles. And several leading firms in the carriage-and-wagon industry, including the Studebaker Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles, had begun experimental work with automobiles. In addition, hundreds of back-yard mechanics and small businessmen throughout the country were working on experimental cars and seeking financial support from local capitalists in order to enter the infant automobile industry. Southern Michigan was bound to be one of the hotbeds of such activity. It was not only a center for the production of carriages and wagons but also for stationary gasoline engines, which were widely used on midwestern farms.
One of the many Michiganders who attempted to enter the automobile business was David D. Buick, a Detroit manufacturer of plumbers’ supplies and an eccentric inventor. He was soon deeply in debt, and his operation was bought by James H. Whiting, a Flint carriage-and-wagon manufacturer who had become alarmed about the potential inroads of the motor vehicle upon the market for horse-drawn vehicles. The Buick plant was moved to Flint. But Whiting was unable to get the floundering company off the ground. Only six Buicks were sold in 1903, sixteen in 1904. Whiting was under pressure from the Flint banking community, which had supported his venture, to find someone who could put Buick in the black. To the bankers and Whiting, William C. Durant seemed the perfect choice.
Durant had been unresponsive to earlier overtures to enter automobile manufacturing, and as late as 1902 he had forbidden his daughter Margery to ride in a car owned by a school friend’s family on the ground that it was too dangerous. Probably he only considered Whiting’s proposition because his mother had become a small Buick stockholder. Before committing himself, he personally put the two-cylinder Buick car through its paces on the worst terrain he could find. Satisfied that the product was a winner, he agreed to undertake the management of the Buick Motor Company on November 1, 1904.
Once in control at Buick, Durant moved with boldness and speed into the volume production of a reliable car in the intermediate price range. Buick’s capital stock was increased from seventy-five thousand dollars to three hundred thousand the day he took over. On September 11, 1905, it was increased again to $1.5 million, and Durant is said to have sold nearly half a million dollars’ worth of the new stock to his Flint neighbors in a single day. The Durant-Dort Carriage Company became a major source of capital for Buick, and Buick cars were exhibited in its salesrooms. Companies that had supplied Durant’s carriage enterprise were shifted to automobile work. A national network of wholesale and retail distributors was established. Ina few years the Buick car was substantially improved in quality for the price asked. Large assembly plants were built at Flint and at Jackson, Michigan, which turned those cities into boom towns reminiscent of western mining camps. Boarding houses rented beds to workers in shifts, and Buick was forced to become involved in planning housing developments for its employees.
For a time Durant had a bedroom at the home of his daughter and her husband, Dr. Edwin Campbell, a Flint physician she married in April, 1906. Margery’s privately printed 1929 biography, My Father , has been appropriately described as “a work of filial piety.” In it Margery remembered her father as “a very clean man : an immaculate man.” Still, he “smoked cigars almost incessantly— I almost never saw him without one.” Durant ate very little, hurriedly and mechanically. He “slept only two or three hours a night.” He disliked outdoor exercise, open windows, and cold weather. He was always too busy to buy new clothes, so he generally ordered his suits on approval by phone. “He always had a bag packed ready to go. ” And it seemed to Margery that “he spent most of his life travelling. … He never planned ahead; hejust went.” She found him an affectionate and considerate father, even though “he doesn’t ever give all of his inner self to those about him.”
The most significant omission in Margery’s book is that she makes no mention of Durant’s taking, in 1908, a second wife, Catherine Lederer of Jackson, Michigan, the bright and pretty teen-age daughter of a railroad employee. Durant was forty-seven at the time, Catherine younger than Margery. It is a good guess that Margery jealously felt displaced by her father’s charming young wife.