Lt's true that the letters "D" carved into the cornices of the formidable old General Motors Building in Detroit are faded and barely visible from the street. And I suppose those who work inside the building are hardly aware of the bold deeds and master strokes of GM's founding father.
But that's Detroit. Drive 60 miles (80 km) north to Flint, where it all began, and if you look hard enough you'll see that the legacy of Billy Durant is properly commemorated.
William C. Durant's name is prominently recalled in Michigan historical markers in front of the old Durant-Dort Carriage Co. headquarters (restored a few years ago as a National Historic Landmark) and at Buick Motor Div. headquarters in Flint. Within sight of Durant-Dort is a statue of Mr. Durant (along with a later rendition of his carriage partner, J. Dallas Dort), life size, no pedestal, looking like he's just standing there on the street.
At Flint's Sloan Museum, there's a mannequin of Mr. Durant in the reconstructed dining room of banker Arthur Giles Bishop, recreating a half-remembered moment in 1905 when, apparently, Mr. Durant's signature guaranteed the return of Buick manufacturing operations from Jackson to Flint. And in front of the building, a tribute to Mr. Durant is carved into a marble flagpole base.
To some of us in Flint, Mr. Durant is more than a bronze figure or plastic mannequin. Several years ago we found the only known Durant motion pictures -- a few seconds at a banquet, grabbing a water glass and later applauding.
Just a few weeks ago, Dick Scharchburg, curator of the GM Institute (GMI) Archives, called with news that a voice recording of Mr. Durant had surfaced. Apparently one of his many investments was in "U and I Broadcasting Systems" in 1931, and he sent his wife's great aunt, Ella Day, a 5-in. disc he had recorded. A relative, William Durant Radebaugh of Battle Creek, MI, recently found it and sent it along.
So 49 years after his death, Mr. Durant's voice is heard again -- a New Year's on Jan. 1, 1932, spoken with a slight Boston accent, even though he left that city by age 10. We played the 65-year-old recording in San Antonio April 25 during acceptance remarks by Buick General Manager Ed Mertz when Fortune magazine placed Mr. Durant in its Business Hall of Fame.
Although he stood only about 5'8", Mr. Durant was a giant in his accomplishments, his failures, his sense of the dramatic, his ability to attract intensely loyal followers and an almost equal number of critics and enemies.
It's easy to picture him on a September evening in 1886, a slender and confident young businessman striding quickly through downtown in the old lumbering town of Flint. That night he hitched a ride in a friend's horse-drawn road cart and was impressed with its spring suspension.
He bought the rights and then contracted with a Flint carriage maker to produce it. By 1900, his tiny Flint Road Cart Co. had become the Durant-Dort Carriage Co.
Basically, he did the same thing when a fellow Flint carriage maker, James H. Whiting, persuaded him to take over Buick in November 1904. Within four years Buick was said to be the country's top auto producer -- with 8,000 completed. And on the basis of Buick's success, he created a holding company he called General Motors in 1908.
Mr. Durant's career often is linked with the words roller coaster. He lost control of GM to bankers in 1910, so he created another company with one of his former Buick race drivers, Louis Chevrolet. The Chevrolet Motor Co. performed well enough for Mr. Durant to trade Chevy stock for GM stock and regain control of General Motors by 1916.
Within four years, GM was eight times as large as it was in 1916 -- but again Mr. Durant was overextended and lost control. His widow later claimed there was a plot, but in any event, bye-bye Billy. After that, he started Durant Motors and became one of the major bulls on Wall Street in the 1920s. Predictably, he went bankrupt in the '30s. By the early '40s, he was operating a Flint bowling alley. He had plans for a nationwide chain of bowling alleys, but time ran out. Mr. Durant had a stroke in Flint in 1942 and died in his New York apartment in 1947.
Billy Durant was dependent on handouts from old associates such as Walter P. Chrysler and Alfred P. Sloan Jr. during his last years, but he has a tremendous legacy: He created what became, and remains, the world's largest industrial corporation.