In a colorful lifetime, William "Billy" Crapo Durant not only founded General Motors — building the world’s first automotive conglomerate in the process — but clawed his way back after the board showed him the door. Alas, he got kicked out again and ended up running a bowling alley, correctly predicting that it would eventually become an American family craze (but not in his lifetime).
Durant (1861-1947) was the favored grandson of Henry Crapo, a Michigan timber baron and governor of Michigan. Things did not start out well for him in the business world; this Flint-based high school dropout was both drinking heavily and wildly speculating in the stock market. Grandpa wrote that young Durant "can’t get by a saloon or a drinking hole, no matter how low, without a ‘tip.’"
Flitting about, Durant briefly worked for the Crapo Lumber Company and sold patent medicines and fire insurance, which at least demonstrated he had a gift for sales. The silver tongue came in handy when he persuaded a bank manager to loan him $2,000, with which he purchased a Coldwater, Michigan carriage company — he’d had a ride in one and was impressed. Durant took on partner J. Dallas Dort, and Durant-Dort became hugely successful, producing almost 500 vehicles a day and employed 1,000 by 1906.
If he’d continued making horse buggies he’d be a footnote to history, but Durant began an epic series of acquisitions and startups by acquiring the ailing Buick in 1904. According to The Freeman, “At first, Durant hesitated: cars were smelly, noisy and dangerous. He had even refused to let his daughter ride in one.” But the deal went through and when Durant took his Buicks to the 1904 New York Auto Show, he came back with orders for more than 1,000 of them. By 1908, Buick was pumping out cars from the largest auto factory in the world.
Henry Ford stuck with one car, the Model T, but Durant was expansionist, quickly acquiring Cadillac, Oakland (father of Pontiac) and Oldsmobile (whose “Curved Dash” model was a milestone of early motoring). He even bought the company that became AC Delco. In 1908, he incorporated General Motors as a holding company around those brands.
The problem was that Durant simply bought too many companies — Cartercar and Elmore were a couple of his duds. “How was anyone to know that Cartercar wasn’t going to be the thing?” he said. Some models — Buicks and Cadillacs — sold well, but the company itself was losing a lot of money. In 1911, a group of Boston investors succeeded in ousting Durant from the company he founded.
No, he didn’t head for the bowling alley at that point. Instead, he founded Chevrolet as an economy car line, using the name (and the engineering talent) of a flamboyant French racing car driver. It was Buick all over again — Chevrolet was a huge hit. Durant, moving quickly, bought up a lot of GM stock and in 1916 took back the presidential post he’d recently vacated. Chevrolet was quickly integrated into the company’s roster.
Again, Durant combined smart moves — including buying the Fisher Brothers Body Company and Frigidaire, plus hiring Charles Kettering (who put lead into gas and invented the self-starter for Cadillac) — with dumb ones.
If Durant had simply stuck to selling cars, he’d have had a career similar to that of his brilliant hire, Alfred P. Sloan, the much better-known GM president who took over in 1923. Sloan’s contribution was to figure out how to smoothly run a company as large and diverse as General Motors.
Unfortunately, Durant went back to his old tricks of stock speculation, and added gambling addiction to his list of problems. In 1920, he was booted from GM a second time. There were forays into carmaking again, with the Durant and Star brands, but this time Billy’s charm didn’t do the trick.
He was still playing the markets. In 1928, Durant had controlled nearly $1 billion in stocks, but we all know what happened in October 1929. In 1936, Durant declared bankruptcy, and by 1940, according to MLive:
[Durant] was running a bowling alley, North Flint Recreation, on North Saginaw Street near Hamilton Avenue, not far from the Buick complex he had created decades earlier. He even added Flint’s first drive-in restaurant, the Horseshoe Bar, to the facility. While obviously heartsick over his financial reversals, he seemed enthusiastic about his new business and planned a nationwide string of bowling alleys.
At least he didn’t sell apples. The day GM built its 25 millionth car, in 1940, Sloan brought Durant back in for a public celebration. Durant, who spent his last years in New York, died in 1947, before he had a chance to start over in cars (perhaps he could have bought Packard?) or build his bowling alley empire.
Believe it or not, Ken Zino, publisher of Autoinformed.com and a veteran of a long career at Ford, thinks that Durant would have bounced back with a string of lanes:
I think that Billy Durant, down and out, had a larger vision for bowling — he saw it as a family entertainment with a huge potential for growth in the postwar period. He never saw the postwar boom — in cars, suburbs, appliances and yes, bowling alleys, since he died in 1947. He always had big dreams and large plans: He was, after all, behind the creation of what became the world's largest corporation.