Durant stepped into the vehicle business in 1885, after he found a suspension system that reduced bounce while driving. The following year, he and Michigan-based automobile industrialist Josiah Dallas Dort established the 'Flint Road Cart Company.' Later renamed the 'Durant-Dort Carriage Company,' it became a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles by 1890. By the start of the 20th century, it was eventually the largest such manufacturer in the U.S.
Toward the beginning of the 20th century, Durant grew concerned about the ineffective government regulation of gasoline-powered horseless carriages. Instead of waiting for the government to alter the situation, he himself decided to introduce a reformed and safer range of transportation. It also marked the beginning of the industrial transition from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile. Interestingly, Durant initially hated cars, but he viewed the situation as an opportunity.
To begin this massive endeavor, Durant first set out to purchase the local car company 'Buick Motor Company,' which was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1904, he assumed control of the company and revived 'Buick' with the help of resources from 'Durant-Dort.'
Under Durant's control, within 4 years, 'Buick' became one of the four leading automobile companies, outperforming the industry leaders 'Ford,' 'Cadillac,' and 'Oldsmobile.'
With a vision to make his company a large-scale enterprise, producing a variety of automobiles and parts, Durant got 'Buick' to participate in the 1905 'Automobile Show' in New York. There, he received orders amounting to over 25 times the number of cars the company had ever manufactured. By 1907, production at 'Buick' had multiplied.
Durant wanted to expand the business. Unlike his competitor, 'Ford,' which manufactured only 'Model T' back then, he envisioned manufacturing different models at different price ranges to serve buyers with different needs and means. To achieve his goal, he thought of buying car companies and parts manufacturers.
He attempted to buy 'Ford' in 1909, but his attempt failed, as Henry Ford demanded cash payment. Along with Canadian businessman Robert Samuel McLaughlin (founder of the 'McLaughlin Motor Car Company'), Durant created an escrow account and used it to establish the 'General Motors Holding Company' on September 16, 1908.
Durant and Benjamin Briscoe of 'Maxwell-Briscoe' planned to merge the top four auto companies, 'Buick,' 'Olds Motor Vehicle Company,' 'Maxwell-Briscoe,' and 'Ford,' to establish the 'International Motor Car Company.' 'Ford' and 'Olds' later backed out. Eventually, 'Briscoe' backed out, too.
The New Jersey holding company began to add several other car companies, such as 'Cadillac,' 'Oldsmobile,' 'Oakland' ('Pontiac'), 'Cartercar,' and 'Elmore,' along with several spare parts supply companies, such as 'Dayton Engineering Laboratories' ('Delco Electronics Corporation'). Unfortunately, despite being a great salesman, Durant's bad purchasing decisions got him into financial trouble. Most of his acquisitions were reckless and over-priced.
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By 1910, 'General Motors' (GM) was neck-deep in debts, and Durant lost control over the company. However, this did not break his determination. Some of his friends invested in the company, and that helped him overcome the situation to some extent.
However, the most considerable help came from automobile engineer Louis Chevrolet, who made Durant a partner in his newly established the 'Chevrolet Motor Company' in 1911. The company was an instant success.
In 1914, he sold his share in the 'Durant-Dort Carriage Company.' Durant increased his ownership in ‘GM’ by selling much of his 'Chevrolet' stock. The 'Chevrolet Motor Company' acquired ‘GM’ in 1915, renaming it the 'General Motors Corporation,' with Pierre du Pont in charge. Durant became its president in 1916. McLaughlin became the director and the vice president of the company in 1918.
Backed by du Pont's family, Durant regained full control over ‘GM.’ In that short period of leadership, ‘GM’ acquired the product line of 'Chevrolet' and flourished. Durant simultaneously established several other companies, such as 'Republic Motors,' to produce 'Chevrolet' automobiles.
In 1918, ‘GM’ acquired 'United Motors,' which Durant had established by assembling several manufacturers of parts and components. The following year, ‘GM’ became one of the largest American industrial enterprises, and Durant gained prominence in 'Wall Street.'
Durant wanted ‘GM’ to expand from being an automobile company to an electronic goods manufacturer. His idea of manufacturing refrigerators was highly successful. However, his poor organizing and administrative skills heavily impacted the goodwill of such a giant enterprise.
Additionally, his poor purchasing decisions again got him into reckless acquisitions. He joined the Rockefeller family and several other financial giants to buy large quantities of stocks, with the prime motive of increasing the price of ‘GM’ stocks in the market.
Additionally, he had a major fall-out with 'Cadillac' founder Henry Leland. Durant opposed the U.S. participation in World War I and thus kept ‘GM’ away from aiding any defense work. With this, the company lost a golden opportunity to make profits. Leland, who was patriot, left ‘GM’ to establish the 'Lincoln Motor Co.' to serve the nation in the war.
By the time the “Panic of 1920” occurred, his over-commitment in the stock market led to what is believed to be the most considerable financial loss in stock-market history. Durant was again losing control over ‘GM.’
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Du Pont realized that Durant's position in the stock market could hamper his investment in ‘GM.’ Durant, for the second time, was forced out of the company. He submitted his resignation in exchange for financial aid from du Pont to pay off his debts.
Alfred P. Sloan Jr. took over the control of the company and disintegrated ‘GM’ into 'Cadillac,' 'Buick,' 'Oldsmobile,' 'Chevrolet,' and 'Pontiac.'
In 1921, Durant established 'Durant Motors, Inc.,' his next attempt to sustain in the automobile industry. Unfortunately, the company failed to generate any profit.
With the onset of the “Wall Street Crash of 1929” and the “Great Depression,” 'Durant Motors' finally dissolved in 1933, leaving Durant bankrupt by 1936. He and his second wife survived on a pension provided by R. S. McLaughlin and Messrs.
He subsequently ventured into multiple businesses, including a bowling alley in Flint, which he went on to own by 1940. Durant believed that entertainment venues had a potential market in the future. He thus thought of opening a chain of alley venues nationwide. Unfortunately, the business idea crashed.
He also opened a fast-food restaurant in Flint, where he himself worked in the kitchen.
In 1942, Durant, already quite old by then, risked his health to climb up to a mine entrance in Goldfield, Nevada, where he had planned to open a cinnabar mine. He hoped to receive subsidy from the U.S. government, but the idea never materialized. His gamble resulted in a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed.