William Crapo Durant, Founder of General Motors

by Tristan Miller

In 1886 Germany, the invention of the automobile changed the world forever. But with this new invention, a visionary entrepreneur would be required to pioneer this new territory. This industrial pioneer, would be William Crapo Durant. Born in 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts, William decided to drop out of high school to work with his Grandfather (Henry H. Crapo) who owned a lumber company. Being a natural business man, he developed his first business, a carriage company. The Flint Road Cart Company was born in Flint, MI in 1886, and by 1890 was the leader in sales of horse-drawn vehicles.

Automobiles fascinated William, however, their safety did not. He aspired to modify automobiles to be significantly more safe. In 1908 in Flint, with only $2,000, General Motors was set into motion. After establishing his new company that ultimately would be his legacy, he began to buy other motor companies including Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Oakland, and even Ford was considered at one point. By 1910, William had purchased 30 companies, and with the economic recession, was teetering with bankruptcy. Banks bailed out GM for $15,000,000 and forced Durant to step down as president. He would not let the banks get in the way of his child though.  Off in the distance, William and his close friends bought GM stocks, while William and his fellow businessman Louis Chevrolet established Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3rd, 1911. Disagreements led to Durant buying out Louis Chevrolet, and in 1915 the bank contract expired, allowing Durant to rise as president of GM once more in 1916. William was once again president of his creation.

William Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors. Photo Credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
William Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors. Photo Credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Combining GM with Chevrolet, the company prospered, until finally becoming General Motors Corporation in 1918. William had unfortunately had his fun. All GM stocks owned by all investors (including friends and relatives of Durant) drastically fell due to The Panic of 1920. All investors were not happy, and GM was once again broke. For the second time, they needed to be bought out, but this time, William Durant would not again rise to power. GM would acquire a new president (the largest owner of GM stocks) by the name of Pierre du Pont, a friend of Durant’s. William paid investors $21,000,000 and gathered his things, visiting GM as president for the last time.

William Crapo Durant. Photo Credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division, Washington D.C.
William Crapo Durant. Photo Credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division, Washington D.C.

Settling in New York, William decided to take one more shot at automobile production. On January 21st, 1921, Durant Motors initiated in Albany, New York. For over ten years, Durant Motors stayed afloat, until the Wall Street Crash on 1929 and the Great Depression caused Durant Motors to be liquidated in 1933. William and his wife Catherine were broke by 1936. In 1942 William suffered from a stroke that many described left him “semi-invalid”. Yet, he managed a bowling alley in Flint until his death in 1947.

William Crapo Durant was laid to rest in his own mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. Mr. Durant was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1996. Durant Park in Lansing, MI, was named in his memory, as well as Waterford Durant High School in Waterford, MI. In reference to General Motors, William once spoke to his wife Catherine, “Well, they took it away from me, but they cannot take away the credit for having done it,” perfectly summarizing his positivity, and leaving his legacy as the man who created the massive corporation of General Motors.