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Billy Durant, Flint Michigan and General Motors

In the late summer of 1886, 25-year old William Crapo Durant was an up-and coming businessman in Flint, Michigan. He was born in Boston, but came with his mother to her family in Flint when a baby. Billy, as he was called when grown, was the grandson of Henry Howland Crapo of New Bedford MA, who brought his family west to Flint in the 1850s, where he was involved in land speculation and lumbering. Crapo, pronounced ‘cray-po’, was, like Thoreau, a descendant of Huguenot French or a Channel Islands family. He served as a State Senator and Governor of Michigan during and after the Civil War. Billy’s father was a Yale-educated lawyer who, to his family’s and wife’s dismay, turned to stock speculation and alcohol, causing his wife to leave him and go to Michigan to her parents.

Billy dropped out of school at 16 in 1877 and found he had a knack for selling things. He also had a bit of a knack for raising money. He packed cigars for a local cigar manufacturing company and kept its books. Then he got involved in helping improve the operations of the Flint Waterworks Company. 

On a September evening in 1886, while on his way to a meeting of the waterworks company, Durant stopped by to see his friend, J. Dallas Dort, at his hardware store. While they were talking, another friend came by driving a new road cart. In conversation, Dort and Durant learned that it was a new design that had a spring suspension and was very comfortable. Durant was coaxed into accepting a ride the rest of the way to his meeting, with both riders crammed into the single seat. By the time they reached Billy’s destination, he was ‘sold’ on the virtues of the vehicle.

The cart had been made in a small blacksmith/wagon repair shop in Coldwater Michigan, a small town a dozen or so miles north of US 20. In the early 1880s, the shop had branched out into a carriage-making sideline. Thomas O’Brien and William H. Schmedlin had devised what was then called a ‘road cart’, which had a novel spring suspension, making the ride over Michigan’s rough roads more bearable than in other vehicles. The duo started producing the carts in 1883 and received a patent for their design in May 1886. They were making a small number of them, which resembled today’s racing sulkies to some degree, having two wheels and a seat for a driver.

Two days after his ride in the cart, Durant got off the train in Coldwater and headed to O’Brien’s place of business. He found the two partners there and inquired if they wished to sell a share in the road cart business. As the two had some other projects that needed money, they offered to sell all the rights for $1500. Durant agreed in principle and went back to Flint to raise the capital. He managed to get a bank loan for $2000. Dort wanted to partner with Durant and put up $1000 for a half-interest in his company.

By 1900, the Durant-Dort Road Cart Company was the largest in the country and was an exporter. The company’s success led to the creation of more than a dozen other full-time carriage-makers in Flint. While Durant was the dreamer, frontman and salesman, Dort was the hard-headed businessman. This arrangement worked for Durant until the late 1890s, when he left Flint, his wife and the practicality of J. Dallas Dort for the fast-paced world of stock speculation. 

Durant and Dort were not the first to establish a carriage company in Flint. Flint’s growth as a lumber town declined as the resource in the area declined and was replaced by agriculture. Farmers needed carriages and wagons. A carriage-maker named Manly Miles settled on a local farm in 1837 and wrote to his brother in Cazenovia NY to come out and help establish a carriage and wagon works. By the time of the Civil War, a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs from southern Ontario established their works in Flint. The Canadian connection came with the extension of the Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto through Port Huron and Flint to Chicago. Both W.F. Stewart and W.A. Paterson eventually moved from wagons into auto making.

Durant and Dort contracted with Paterson to make their carts at first, while Durant hit the road to sell them. He was so successful that Paterson broke his contract to make his own version, but Durant and Dort had made so much money that by then they could now afford their own facilities. By 1905, the Company claimed to be producing 150,000 carriages and carts per year in a number of facilities from Ontario to Georgia. It also owned the largest wheel manufacturer in the world, a varnish works and hardwood lands in the South.

Durant spent a lot of time in New York City around and after 1900. He was estranged from his wife and bored with the details managing an already-successful firm, leaving that to Dort. He began studying the operations of the financial markets, especially the formation of ‘trusts’, the financial combination of a number of local and related companies into a single, regional or national one.

By 1904, the Buick Company, now located in Flint, had designed an automobile that proved to be both powerful and durable. The owners liked the machine, but, as Buick himself proved to be useless at marketing, they approached Billy Durant, who up to then was not a fan of automobiles. In November 1904, after he had driven the Buick for two months in all sorts of weather and road conditions, Durant convinced himself of the value of the car and accepted this new challenge. He would run the Buick Company, but would also remain affiliated with Dort in the carriage business. He would build an automobile company, just as he had built the road cart company, with a good product, his sales acumen and his growing interest in corporate finance and structure.

He did so. The Buick was a quality car with a strong engine and, with Billy’s promotional skills, sales took off, so much so that the company had to build a new factory north of downtown Flint. Three years later, Billy was looking at the possibility of combining a number of automobile and related companies into one large firm. Various negotiations ensued through 1908, involving the JP Morgan interests off and on. They were set back when both Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds of REO demanded too much cash (not GM stock) for their companies. Eventually however, Durant, with the Buick and the investors who controlled the Olds Motor Works Company with the Oldsmobile, formed the core of a new company, General Motors (GM).

About The Yankee Road

The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America is a 3-volume book series that combines fascinating history with a travel narrative, taking the reader on a journey through the places Yankees and their descendants settled as they expanded westward. Using a physical road to connect locations important to the Yankee cultural “road,”

Jim McNiven takes us on side trips into individual stories, introducing readers to the origins of such large-scale and diverse ideas as conservation, public education, telegraphy, mass production, religion, and labor reform. US Route 20, which McNiven nicknames “The Yankee Road,” is America’s longest highway, extending coast to coast from Boston to Newport, Oregon. Along it, or near it, so-called Yankees developed ideas that underlay much of how the world works today.

Visit The Yankee Road to learn more about the men and women whose ideas created modern America.