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Before the Flint water crisis became international news, before its vast unemployment and resulting crime marred its reputation as an All-American City, before it was known as the birthplace of General Motors and for producing millions of Buicks and Chevrolets, Flint was labeled as the Vehicle City because it was one of the country’s largest carriage manufacturing cities in the United States. And the man who made that happen was William Crapo (Billy) Durant.

Flint, Michigan is located 66 miles northwest of Detroit, along the Flint River. In the mid 19th century it was a lumbering town, along with much of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

In 1908, Billy Durant founded General Motors. But before that, he founded the Flint Road Cart Company. The year was 1886.

Chapter One of Billy Durant, Creator of General Motors, by Lawrence R. Gustin, is titled The Road Cart. Gustin’s book chronicles the life of Durant, his successes and failures, opportunities and risk taking.

With one year left in high school, Durant, a good student, full of energy, dropped out. By 24, he was a successful businessman, having sold lumber, groceries, cigars, and real estate among other things blessed with a natural talent as a salesman. Always in a hurry, he was running late, to get to a meeting but stopped to chat with his friend, Dallas Dort, in front of Dort’s hardware store. Along came another friend in a slightly flimsy looking two-wheeled road cart. The friend offered Durant a ride to his meeting.

Durant discovered that this particular cart, with barely room for two, had a seat suspension that provided a much smoother ride than other carts, especially along Flint’s unpaved roads. When Durant asked where his friend got it, he learned that the cart was produced by the Coldwater Road Cart Company. Durant could have purchased a cart for himself from a distributor in Flint, but instead took the train south to Coldwater, Michigan.

He met with the owners who offered to sell not only a road cart but the entire company to Durant. A price of $1500 was negotiated that included wood stock, axles, wheels, springs, finished and unfinished vehicles, patterns, dies and even the patent for the spring suspension. Now all Durant had to do was race back to Flint to borrow the money.

Dallas Dort knew and respected Durant’s business acumen. Dort’s hardware store was not thriving, and so he asked Durant if he would like a partner in the road cart venture. Durant sold him a half interest for $1000. They named their new company the Flint Road Cart Company.

Before the company built even one cart, Durant took a trip to Wisconsin to demonstrate a Coldwater cart at a fair. The sample cart he had shipped by American Express didn't arrive until two days into the fair. When it finally arrived, too late according to the rules of the fair to be considered, Durant convinced the officials to delay the judging. He arranged for the cart to be tested at the fairgrounds so they could experience the suspension. The road cart was awarded the blue ribbon and Durant took orders for more than 100 carts. A company in Milwaukee wanted 35 carts every ten days. Durant's first sales trip netted him over 600 orders. Durant called the road cart a “self-seller.” The slogan “Famous Blue Ribbon Line” of carriages was adopted.

Now with hundreds of orders and no factory in which to make them, Durant went to William A. Paterson, who also produced carriages and made a plan for Paterson to build 1200 carts at a cost of $12.50 each in his factory. Durant knew he could sell them for twice that amount. Shortly after that, Paterson decided to produce his version of a road cart, and thus the Flint Road Cart Company had to start producing their road carts in their own facility. In their first year of production, they built 4000.

Durant noticed that light-weight four-wheeled vehicles were popular, but no large company was producing an affordable and attractive model. Dort and Durant added four subsidiaries: Webster Vehicle, Victoria Vehicle, Diamond Buggy, and Imperial Wheel.

Durant wanted to develop a line of exceptionally cheap vehicles to be sold for cash only, not on credit. It took him a while to convince Dort and then convince A.B.C. Hardy, who at the time worked for the Wolverine Road Cart Company in Davison, Michigan, to take over as manager of the Diamond Buggy company. In a few short months, their profit was 150 percent.

In the late 1890s, the carriage business was very competitive. To stay on top and produce quality yet affordable carriages, they knew they needed to manufacture all the parts themselves. Gustin quotes Durant in his book:

“We made a study of the methods employed by the concerns supplying us, the savings that could be effected by operating the plants at capacity without interruption, and with practically no selling or advertising expense. Having satisfied ourselves that we had solved our problem, we proceeded to purchase plants and the control of plants, which made it possible for us to build up, from the standpoint of volume, the largest carriage company in the United States.

“We started out as assemblers with no advantage over our competitors. We paid about the same prices for everything we purchased. We realized that we were making no progress and would not unless and until we manufactured practically every important part that we used.”

In 1895 the Flint Road Cart Company changed its name to the Durant-Dort Carriage Company. Gustin reports: “At the company’s peak, Durant-Dort was not only an assembly company, but was making its own wheels, axles, paints, varnishes, and buggy tops and controlled its own sources of lumber.” Durant-Dort established the Flint Axle Works in 1900 and the Flint Varnish Works in 1901. In 1906 the Durant-Dort Carriage Company employed 1000 people and produced 56,000 vehicles.

The company also had interests in other carriage businesses in places like Atlanta, Georgia (Blount Carriage and Buggy), Toronto (Dominion Carriage), Pine Bluff, Arkansas (Pine Bluff Spoke), Kansas City (Hughes-Purcell Paint), and others.

Names of some of the vehicles in addition to the Famous Blue Ribbon line were the Eclipse, the Standard, the Victoria, the Moline, and the Diamond. They created a Poppy line for the California market. East Coast customers preferred darker colors, while western buyers liked brighter colors. Eighteen coats of paint were required and paint in those days took a long time to dry.

The three top carriage manufacturers, Durant-Dort, Flint Wagon Works, Paterson, were hitting peak production by the turn of the century. Before any automobiles were manufactured in Flint, an arch over Saginaw Street proclaimed Flint the Vehicle City. The top three were producing over 100,000 vehicles annually. But as the century turned over, it also became evident that the automobile was gaining popularity.

Flint’s economy at that time depended on the carriage industry. If the horseless carriage threatened that industry, the people of Flint had better pay attention.

Although A.B.C. Hardy believed, after spending time in Europe and seeing what was happening over there, that the future was with the horseless carriage, Durant resisted. In 1902 Durant was spending much of his time in New York City, playing the stock market and working on his next business deal. His idea was to consolidate some of the major carriage companies in the U.S. It had worked well within the Durant-Dort model, and he believed that it would save even more money if done nationwide. But many of these other companies were unwilling to lose the control that consolidation would mean.

Durant's great strength was his ability not only to sell but to organize and promote. Many people across the country and even in Flint were attempting to produce some version of an automobile, some more successfully than others. The Durant-Dort Carriage Company was humming along and didn't need Durant's constant attention, so he was ready when a new challenge presented itself. That challenge came in the form of a Buick.

Scottish born David Dunbar Buick was part of a group of men who had developed a superior engine, but in the process, spent more money than they could make. Buick had already made a name for himself by developing a process of adhering porcelain to iron to make plumbing fixtures. Rather like Durant, he liked new challenges and thus became interested in making engines, first for the marine industry and then for the automobile.

Buick produced at least one experimental car in Detroit in the 1899-1901 period and by 1903 had developed an overhead-valve engine. Buick called it “valve-in-head – much more efficient than other engines. However soon Buick was in deep debt. Many people in similar situations were also losing more money than they were making. In 1903, Buick moved the company from Detroit to Flint. According to an editorial in the Flint Journal at the time, Flint was deemed to be the natural place for the automotive industry to flourish, a city already known as Vehicle City. Soon Flint became one of the fastest growing cities in America.

James H. Whiting was the manager of the Flint Wagon Works, one of Flint's big three carriage companies. His enthusiasm for the automobile grew, and he became convinced, as Durant did not, that the automobile was the future. Whiting's money and interest drew Buick to approach him for help. In September 1903, Flint Wagon Works purchased the Buick Motor Company. But the financial troubles continued. Whiting approached Dort. Neither Dort nor Durant was fond of automobiles, but they were both very loyal to Flint.

Now a self-made millionaire, Durant at 42 still didn’t particularly like the noisy cars that startled people and scared horses. Gustin includes this quote from Durant, “I was not in the least bit interested in managing an automobile concern.”

It took hours of persuasion by several men, including Whiting, and hours driving and being driven around in a Buick car before Whiting announced "Billy's sold!" Durant liked the engine and the look of the car and was beginning to believe that the automobile had a future and that future should be in Flint. An agreement was made and in November 1904 Durant took over control and Whiting stepped down as president to go back to the Flint Wagon Works.

Just as Durant took a road cart to a fair in Wisconsin, he now took a Buick to an automobile show in New York and came back with 1108 orders. Again, as in 1886, he had to get an assembly operation up and running.

In 1908 Buick production reached 8820, larger than Ford and Cadillac combined.

Benjamin Briscoe of Maxwell-Briscoe, who had sold Buick to Whiting in 1903, contacted Durant. He told him that George W. Perkins of the J.P. Morgan Company was considering an idea to consolidate some of the car companies and wanted Durant’s opinion. Durant didn’t think Briscoe’s plan was workable but suggested a merger of a few auto companies that were trying to produce moderately priced vehicles in volume.

Henry Ford was willing to discuss the idea, as was Ransom E. Olds of the REO (his initials) company. Ford and Olds dropped out of the talks after failing to come to an agreement over stock versus money and other details. That left Maxwell-Briscoe and Buick. Durant went about trying to bring the Olds Motor Company into the merger.

The first name that the parties agreed upon for the consolidated company was United Motors, and then International Motor Car Company. When the deal disintegrated, Durant wanted to keep the name, but J.P. Morgan and Company wanted to keep it for their possible future use.

In a quote in Gustin’s book, Durant explained: “We then looked over the list of names which we had previously prepared when we were seeking a name for the consolidation and when we came to General Motors, I selected that name and as of that moment, the General Motors Company came into being.”

All in all, 22 companies came into the General Motors fold, either in their entirety or with substantial interests by the end of 1909. Durant almost bought Ford for GM, but after reaching an agreement, the National City Bank of New York rejected their loan request. (Banks then were still not for the automobile.)

Financial problems caused Durant to lose control of General Motors in 1910.

Durant was at his best when met with a challenge. The next one came in the form of Chevrolet. Louis Chevrolet was a prominent racecar driver who soon became a star of Buick’s vaunted racing team under Durant. After Durant briefly lost power at GM, and the racing team languished, Durant created a new company and named it the Chevrolet Motor Company. Louis had always wanted to design his own cars, and Durant wanted to produce a smaller car to compete with Ford. Production moved from place to place but finally settled in the old Flint Wagon Works building. Louis and Durant parted company before Chevrolet took off.

In 1914 Chevys were in high demand. They cost more than the Ford Model T but were lighter. And Ford was unable to build enough of the Model Ts. The success of the Chevrolet enabled Durant to reacquire control of GM in 1915, taking over as president.

Just as he had with the Flint Road Cart, Billy Durant found a way to build a car that would outsell the competition and even become an American icon. Many of Durant’s associates during his carriage building days stayed with him through the ups and downs of his career. Some came and went and came back again and again.

Durant went from being the largest volume carriage maker in the U.S. to the largest automobile manufacturer in just over three years. The Durant-Dort Carriage sales network was the basis for the automobile distributors across the country.

One of the many reasons for Durant's success was that he always paid his investors back, even when a deal went sour. He maintained good relationships with the local banks and these traits enabled him to raise money when he needed to. He was a leader and an organizer, unequaled even by Henry Ford. He wasn’t afraid to take a risk – some paid off, some didn’t.

In recent decades, Flint has been reminding its citizens of its vehicle heritage. In the 1970s, thanks to the interest created by the Billy Durant book by Lawrence Gustin and a newspaper campaign, the old Durant-Dort Carriage Co. office building was saved from the wrecking ball, restored and named a National Historic Building based on its tie-in with the birth of General Motors (Durant's office was there). In 1988, a statue of Durant was erected nearby, followed by one of his carriage partner Dallas Dort, both by sculptor Derek Wernher. New arches have been erected over Flint's main drag, Saginaw Street, replacing those of the early 20th century, with one proclaiming the "Vehicle City" sign earned during the city's carriage era.

In the last several years, a second statue of Durant was erected downtown, near new statues of auto namesakes David Buick and Louis Chevrolet and AC spark plug founder Albert Champion (with a new statue of philanthropist/auto pioneer C.S. Mott in the Flint Cultural Center and others of Charles Nash and Walter Chrysler at Bishop Airport. Nash was a carriage executive at Durant-Dort before becoming head of Buick and then GM; Chrysler was once Buick president). Those statues were the creation of Joe Rundell, a retired Chevy machine repairman who started creating statues when he was a great-grandfather (Rundell was the subject of a major New York Times feature). Three years ago GM purchased the original Durant-Dort factory in Flint as its historic beginnings because it was originally the Flint Road Cart Co. plant where GM founder Durant built his first wheeled vehicles, even though they were horse-drawn. The building may be used in part as a historical library featuring Flint's carriage and auto industries.

Deep into the 21st century, Flint, Michigan, is reminding people that before it was heralded as "Buick City" it was universally known as the Vehicle City because of its carriage industry.

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