By: Gary Fisher
President - Genesee County Historical Society
March 18th was the anniversary of the death of “The Wizard of Flint”, William C. “Billy” Durant. He was the founder of the Flint Road Cart and Durant Dort vehicle/carriage companies, savior of Buick, creator of General Motors, Chevrolet, Frigidaire, AC Spark Plug (With Albert Champion) and several other firms. Durant was without question one of the best people in the history of American business and culture. His influence touched most of the major automobile companies outside of Ford.
Besides creating the companies, he worked with, mentored, coached, or collaborated with a literal all-star cast of innovators and titans of the industry including: Dallas Dort, Walter Marr, Eugene Richard, David Buick, James Whiting, Louis Chevrolet, Charles Nash, C.S. Mott, and Albert Champion to name a few.
The Flint Journal reported his death this way on March 18th, 1947:
W.C. Durant, 85 founder of General Motors and Flint’s “industrial wizard” who three times toppled from virtual czardom in the motor industry, died at 2:15 A.M. today in his Gramercy Park apartment in New York City. Funeral arrangements have not been announced. His wife and nurse were with him when he died.
Mr. Durant who led in Flint’s development, had been in poor health since suffering a slight stroke here October 2nd, 1942. While in Hurley Hospital, where he was confined until December 15th of that year, he underwent a major operation.
Despite his condition, he was in Detroit briefly a year ago. There, in 1940, heads of the corporation which he had twice controlled saluted him at a celebration taking place when the 25 millionth GM car came off of the Chevrolet assembly line here.
Although his actual residence had been in New Jersey or New York for many years, he always considered Flint home, “the finest and friendliest city in America.” Here he began one of the most remarkable careers in industrial history. Most of his major enterprises centered here and are still the bait of Flint’s industrial prowess, although his interests here were modest in recent years.
Excerpt from The Flint Journal, Tuesday March 18th 1947
His holdings by 1947 were modest because Durant had lost his entire fortune in an attempt to prop up his and his investors holdings during the Great Depression. Undaunted, he started Flint’s first fast food drive-in restaurant and a family friendly bowling alley. His vision was for a chain of fast food restaurants from “coast to coast.” As usual his dream was spot on and ahead of the McDonald brothers and their successor/partner Ray Kroc by a decade.
His story was inexplicably virtually erased from the history books, and not even taught in the Flint School system. Today books get him and his story completely wrong, often characterizing him as a wild eyed speculator and gambler, or worse. While he was indeed a gambler, and took risks some would call crazy, he almost always prevailed. That makes him more prescient than wild eyed by magnitudes of order.
Incredibly, and almost without peer, over his illustrious career he dominated three industries- carriages, automobiles, and finance. His influence on Wall Street at his peak was such that the entire stock market often moved at his hand.
It’s not just Flint, and the United States that owes Durant a debt of gratitude, but the entire world. Here in The Vehicle City we will work to get him and his story right. Most of all we will respectfully and fondly remember ‘The Man”, the builder of empires, catalyst of innovation, dreamer of dreams that he helped millions realize, and creator of an entire way of life.
That’s our Billy Durant. Today we take a moment to salute him on the anniversary of his death.
Gary L. Fisher
Genesee County Historical Society