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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: General Motors


General Motors 1908
General Motors 1908 (photo credit: www.automotivehistory.org)

General Motors: A Legacy of Innovation and Transformation


On September 16, 1908, a visionary carriage-maker by the name of William C. Durant founded General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan. His bold venture would evolve into one of the world's largest and most influential automobile manufacturers, leaving an indelible mark on the automotive industry.

General Motors Founder, William C. Durant
General Motors Founder, William C. Durant (photo credit: www.autohistory.com)

The Founder: William C. Durant. Born William Crapo Durant on December 8, 1861, in Boston, Massachusetts, Durant's journey into the automotive world was unconventional. His father, William Clark Durant, was a successful lumber and building materials merchant, and his mother, Rebecca Folger Crapo, came from a well-to-do family. Therefore, Durant did not grow up in poverty. He received a good education and attended private schools during his youth with his family's relative affluence likely played a role in his early education and opportunities.

However, Durant didn't attend college and instead bounced between several jobs. Durant began his career as a legal clerk, where he gained insights into the legal field, administrative processes, and documentation. He later became a grocery store clerk, then a newspaper reporter, a sales representative, and finally a coal merchant. Prior to founding General Motors, Durant invested in a manufacturing plant that produced bicycle pedals. This experience exposed him to the manufacturing process, quality control, and product development. He then made a name for himself in the carriage-making industry. Durant's ability to identify emerging opportunities played a pivotal role in the establishment of General Motors.

GM Logo's over the years
GM Logo's over the years (photo credit: www.logomyway.com)

The Birth of General Motors. Durant's background in the carriage industry provided him with valuable insights into transportation and manufacturing, which proved invaluable in his future endeavors. In 1903, he took his first significant step into the world of automobiles by investing in the fledgling Buick Motor Company, founded only four years earlier. Buick quickly gained prominence for producing high-quality automobiles, setting the stage for Durant's ambitious vision of building a comprehensive automotive empire.


The year 1908 marked a momentous turning point in the automotive landscape. Driven by a grand vision of consolidating several automobile manufacturers into a single entity, Durant initiated discussions with various carmakers. His audacious plan aimed to create a powerhouse capable of competing with emerging giants like Ford and Chrysler. These negotiations and acquisitions culminated in the formation of General Motors on September 16, 1908. With a diverse portfolio of established brands under its umbrella, including Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Oakland (later known as Pontiac), GM set out to dominate the American automotive market. One of Durant's defining strategies was offering a range of vehicle brands catering to different market segments and price points, allowing GM to appeal to a broader customer base and ensuring its presence in both the luxury and economy segments.

GM Buys Chevy in 1918
GM Buys Chevy in 1918 (photo credit: www. dandad.com)

Durant's Role and Challenges. Durant's role as the founder and first president of General Motors was marked by both triumphs and challenges. He was a charismatic and visionary leader who orchestrated a series of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships that expanded GM's influence rapidly. However, his ambitious expansion often came at a high financial cost. His appetite for acquisitions led to massive debt, which eventually strained the company's finances.


Despite the financial challenges, Durant remained undeterred in his pursuit of growth. One of his most significant achievements was the acquisition of Chevrolet in 1918, a move that would prove pivotal in GM's future success. The Chevrolet brand became the cornerstone of GM's product line, offering affordable and dependable vehicles that appealed to the masses.


Durant's Departure and Return...And Departure. The financial pressures eventually took their toll on Durant, and in 1910, he lost control of General Motors to a group of bankers led by J.P. Morgan. Durant's exit from GM seemed like the end of an era, but his story took a remarkable turn. Undeterred, he embarked on a new venture by founding the Chevrolet Motor Company in 1911, leveraging his successful acquisition.


As Chevrolet grew rapidly and became a formidable competitor to GM, Durant's fortunes changed. In a surprising twist, he orchestrated a merger between Chevrolet and General Motors in 1915, allowing him to regain control of the company he had founded just seven years earlier. Durant's return to GM marked a period of significant growth and innovation for the company. Under his leadership, GM introduced new manufacturing techniques and pioneered financial strategies that would shape the modern automotive industry.


William C. Durant finally left General Motors in 1920. He faced significant financial challenges and lost control of the company during various struggles and financial difficulties in the late 1910s. After his departure from GM, Durant went on to be involved in various other business ventures, including starting the Durant Motors automobile company. However, he never regained the level of influence and success he had during his early years at GM.

GM Acquisitions
GM Acquisitions (photo credit: www.motorbisquit.com)

General Motors Acquisitions Over the Years.


Chevrolet: Chevrolet was founded by Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant in 1911. William Durant sought to acquire Chevrolet to expand GM's product portfolio. In 1917, Durant successfully purchased Chevrolet, making it a part of General Motors. The acquisition allowed GM to offer a wider range of vehicles and positioned Chevrolet as a key brand within the GM family. Chevrolet's focus on affordable, mass-market vehicles has made it GM's largest brand.


GMC: GMC, originally known as the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company, was founded in 1902 by Max Grabowsky. The company specialized in producing commercial trucks and vehicles for industrial use. In 1909, General Motors acquired the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company and merged it with Reliance Motor Car Company, another commercial vehicle manufacturer it had acquired earlier. The new entity became the General Motors Truck Company, which later became GMC. GM's acquisition of GMC helped solidify its position in the commercial vehicle market. Today, GMC primarily focuses on trucks, SUVs, and commercial vans.

Buick: Buick is one of GM's oldest brands, founded by David Dunbar Buick in 1899. In 1904, Buick became a part of William C. Durant's growing automotive empire, which would later become General Motors. Durant recognized Buick's potential and its success in the early years of the automobile industry. The acquisition of Buick was crucial in establishing General Motors as a major player in the automotive industry. Buick's reputation for quality and innovation contributed to its lasting presence in GM's brand portfolio.

Cadillac: Cadillac, one of America's most prestigious luxury automobile brands, was founded by Henry Leland in 1902. Leland had a reputation for precision engineering and high-quality manufacturing. In 1915, Cadillac was acquired by General Motors under the leadership of Durant who recognized the value of having a luxury brand in GM's portfolio and saw Cadillac as the ideal choice. Cadillac's commitment to luxury and innovation has allowed it to remain a cornerstone of GM's premium vehicle offerings.


Milestones in GM's Journey

Over the years, General Motors achieved numerous milestones that solidified its position as a global automotive leader. GM was a pioneer in modern manufacturing methods. Under the leadership of Charles "Boss" Kettering, GM introduced advanced production techniques, including the development of the electric starter and the use of assembly lines. By the 1920s, GM had become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Its diverse brand portfolio, featuring Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and more, allowed it to cater to a wide range of customers.


GM expanded its operations globally, establishing subsidiaries in countries such as Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It became a truly international corporation.

Innovative Design: GM was known for its innovative vehicle designs and engineering. It introduced iconic models like the Chevrolet Corvette and the Cadillac Eldorado, setting industry standards for style and performance. After World War II, GM experienced significant growth and played a vital role in the economic boom of the 1950s. Its vehicles symbolized the American dream and the spirit of post-war prosperity.

GM Seeking EV Dominance
GM Seeking EV Dominance (photo credit: www.automotivenews.com)

Seeking Dominance in EV. GM has been at the forefront of automotive innovation, including efforts to develop electric and hybrid vehicles. The Chevrolet Volt, introduced in 2010, was a notable milestone in its commitment to sustainability. Since 2021, GM has sold over 440,000 electric vehicles globally, including record Chevy Bolt deliveries. They have invested over $35 billion in EV development through 2025, with plans for new Ultium battery plants and model releases. In 2022, GM launched the GMC Hummer EV pick-up and Cadillac Lyriq SUV amid strong initial demand. The company aims to deliver 30 new global EVs by 2025 across trucks, SUVs, and affordable segments.


GM has set a goal to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035. They aim to compete with Tesla in mass-market EVs while leveraging expertise in pickups and SUVs. Upcoming EVs include the Chevrolet Silverado EV and Blazer EV in 2023. GM has partnered with LG on the new Ultium battery chemistry and signed raw material agreements to support their ambitious EV roadmap. Their recent accomplishments and investments position GM to lead the future of electric, zero-emissions transportation.

General Motors 1958
General Motors 1958 (photo credit: www.thedailydrive.com)

Did You Know?

Durant's Resilience: William C. Durant founded General Motors not once, but twice. His initial departure from the company did not deter him from returning and leading it to greater heights.

Birth of the Chevrolet Brand: Chevrolet, one of GM's most iconic brands, was founded by Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant in 1911, two years after Durant lost control of GM. It later became a vital part of the GM family. Speaking of Chevrolet, not only is it GM's largest brand with approximately 40% of their total sales, the Chevy Suburban, originally launched in 1935 as a two-door station wagon built on a truck frame to serve both passenger and cargo needs, is still in production today.


Durant's Aviation Venture: In the 1920s, Durant ventured into aviation by founding Durant Motors Airplane Company. Although this venture was short-lived, it showcased his enduring entrepreneurial spirit.

The "Boss" Kettering: Charles "Boss" Kettering, an engineer and inventor, played a crucial role in GM's success. His contributions to automotive technology, including the electric starter and improved engine designs, were groundbreaking.

Legacy of Innovation: GM has a long history of innovation, from introducing the automatic transmission and catalytic converters to pioneering safety features like airbags and anti-lock brakes.

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