On September 16th 1908, General Motors was founded by William Crapo “Billy” Durant. Durant, a high-school dropout, had made his fortune building horse-drawn carriages, and in fact he hated cars–he thought they were noisy, smelly, and dangerous. Nevertheless, the giant company he built would dominate the American auto industry for decades.
Meanwhile, the automotive revolution was beginning to take hold. In 1904, Durant was approached by Buick to help guide the fledgling automaker. With Durant at the helm, Buick was soon making 8,800 cars a year, more than any other U.S. company.
In 1908, Benjamin Briscoe, head of automaker Maxwell-Briscoe, proposed that Maxwell-Briscoe, Buick, Reo and Ford the four largest U.S. automakers merge to create the International Motor Car Company. The deal fell apart when Ford and Reo pulled out, but Durant pushed ahead to form the proposed company, which he renamed General Motors.
The interesting thing about this story is, every car that was made in America was usually named by its inventor for instance. David Buick, who invented the overhead valve engine, founded the Buick Motor Car Co. in 1903. In 1925, Walter P. Chrysler got the naming rights to the Maxwell Motor Co. The Henry Ford Company, which traded freely on Ford’s early fame as an inventor, and so on and so forth.
For its part, General Motors almost didn’t get the name it bears today. Durant actually incorporated his company under the name “International Motors Co.”, in New Jersey in 1908. But his attorney advised him that it would be easier to raise capital under a new name.
“We might use ‘United Motors Company’ were it not for the fact that there is already a United Motor Car Company in that state,” the attorney wrote. “We suggest the name General Motors Company, as we have ascertained it can be used.”
Volkswagen, a response to Adolf Hitler’s call for a car for the common folk, means ‘people’s car’ in German, evidently beating out the prototype’s name, ‘Strength through Joy,’ for the honors.
Some other storied automotive brands are based on acronyms. Fiat stands for Fabbrica Italiani Automobili Torino, or Italian Automotive Works Turin. Similarly, Saab stands for Svenska Aeroplanaktiebolaget, or Swedish Aeroplane Ltd., hearkening back to the automaker’s origins as an aircraft company.
So whatever happened to William Durant?
During the Depression, Durant went bankrupt, and suffered a stroke in 1942, which left him “a semi-invalid” and managed a bowling alley, slinging hamburgers in Flint Massachusetts until his death in 1947.
He was interred in a private mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. Durant was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1996.
However the story today isn’t about the loss of great inventor but how high school, dropout named William Durant had a dream and pursued his vision to the top.
As we celebrate today’s day to remember how on September 16th 1908, General Motors was founded by William Crapo “Billy” Durant.
Written & Designed by JD Mitchell