The Fall of William Durant

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:04:26
Year Produced: 2010

Whatever might be said of him, William Durant was an incredible salesman.

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Lead: Whatever might be said of him, William Durant was an incredible salesman.

Tag: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: The founder of General Motors was a high school dropout who landed his first job as a cigar salesman. It was in this capacity that he learned that he could sell just about anything to anyone. He once took a ride in a horse cart and noticed that the ride in this particular carriage was very smooth, not like the usual jolting. He looked underneath and found a totally different suspension system. He located the inventor and with borrowed money bought him out. The Durant-Dort Carriage Company was a huge success and by 1900 the biggest in the country.

That same year Durant went on a joyride in one of the newer automobiles. Wherever he stopped, he drew a crowd. Durant knew this was his future. While they had been around since the 1890s, automobiles had not attracted the capital necessary to move them into mass production. He took over the Buick Motor Company in 1904 and began to sell stock to friends, relatives, anyone. By 1908 Buick sold nearly 9,000 cars, once again the biggest in the country. He formed General Motors with a view to acquiring other companies. Soon Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and the predecessor of Pontiac were a part of the family. In a dispute with his bankers over some bad purchases Durant lost control of General Motors for five years. While in exile, he founded Chevrolet and used its huge success to win back control of GM. This time under Durant General Motors enjoyed explosive growth. By 1919 it produced nearly 400,000 cars.

In 1920 the United States experienced a short, violent depression. Auto stocks led the way down and GM began to fall in value. Durant made the terrible mistake of borrowing money and buying shares to try to keep the stock from falling. His bankers intervened and saved GM but Durant lost most of his interest. Essayist John Steele Gordon says that if he had just ridden the stock down he would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world. In the feverish prosperity of the 1920s William Durant's three million shares of GM stock would have been worth $210 a share, instead he ended his life running a bowling alley.

At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.