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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
Durant scraped together his remaining resources and plowed them into Durant Motors. Conceiving that the American market was ripe for a small car with low initial and maintenance costs, he started to manufacture the French “Mathis” in New Jersey. Ultimately the Volkswagen was to prove him right, but at the outset of the Great Depression not even Billy Durant could revitalize the corpse that Durant Motors had become.
Durant Motors was liquidated in 1933. Bankruptcy for Durant followed in 1936, when he declared liabilities of almost one million dollars versus assets of only $250 (his clothes). Raymerc, the elegant home at Deal, was sold complete with furnishings at auction in 1938 and brought $111,778. Through it all Durant managed to hang onto his apartments in New York City and at the Hotel Durant in Flint, and enough money to provide him and Catherine with a comfortable living for their remaining years.
A short time after the bankruptcy proceedings reporters acting on an anonymous tip found William Crapo Durant washing dishes in a five-cent hamburger joint attached to a supermarket that had recently opened in an old Durant Motors salesroom at Asbury Park, New Jersey. Looking at least two decades younger than his seventv-five years. Billy obligingly posed with a broom, sweeping out the supermarket, too. It was a publicity stunt. Durant owned both the supermarket and the lunch counter. His nephew confided to the reporters: “Mr. Durant is just as enthusiastic over building up the Food Market as he ever was over automobiles. In fact he no longer can bear the thought of an automobile.” Supermarkets would be a big thing one day. But not then. Durant lost the place in a few months’ time.
Nineteen forty found Durant trying to start a chain of bowling alleys in the Midwest. He had conceived that recreation was the industry of the future and that a bowling alley serving only nonalcoholic beverages would appeal to young people and families. Opening his first bowling alley in his hometown of Flint, he tried to be helpful and to make friends of all the bowlers. The idea was excellent, but Durant again was ahead of his time.
Durant’s health failed, and for most of his remaining years he was an invalid. But his interest in taking another flier never failed. Looking forward to the post-World War ii boom, in late 194.3 Durant wrote to W. H. Washer, a Flint inventor: “When you have developed anything novel that appeals to you, don’t be afraid to give “Uncle Bill’ an opportunity of joining the workers’ ranks.” At the war’s end Durant told the Flint Journal , in a formal statement through his secretary: “The consumer market needs everything at home and abroad. The demand is so great there virtually is no competition and no sales resistance. ” He predicted a three-to seven-year boom. Reminiscent of his early days hawking patent medicine, yet foreshadowing the sixties, when the cosmetics industry would come into its own. Durant’s last business venture was backing a nostrum to prevent baldness and cure dandruff.
Billy Durant once said: “Money? What is money? It is only loaned to a man: he comes into the world with nothing and he leaves with nothing.” It was a characteristic statement, and a suitable epitaph.