In 1911, if you asked Billy Durant -- the prototypical American promoter / businessman -- if Chevrolet Motor Company would sell 180 million vehicles by 2011, he probably would have said, "Damn right it will." That was just the kind of guy William C. Durant was: always eager to make a deal. And if blowing smoke made the deal all the bigger, he wasn't above that either. But in the case of Chevrolet, which he co-founded with race driver Louis Chevrolet on Nov. 3, 1911, Durant would have been spot-on. The former wagon-maker hit the mother lode when he created the brand whose symbol has become famous the world over. But, as with most things in Durant's up-and-down career, it wasn't easy.
With a gift for promotion, Durant was already a successful businessman by the time he first dipped his toe in the infant automobile business in 1904. Largely on the strength of his advertising and marketing skills, his Coldwater Road Cart Company was one of the country's top-selling manufacturers of horse-drawn carriages. But when Durant took his first spin in a motorcar, he immediately realized that the horse-drawn carriage would soon go the way of, well, the horse-drawn carriage. He quickly rounded up a group of investors and purchased Buick Motor Company from its founder, David Dunbar Buick, who was also responsible for the process of bonding porcelain to iron, giving us the modern bathtub.
Buick was a burgeoning company, and Durant's sales genius made it even bigger, turning it into the bestselling automobile brand in the pre-Ford Model T era. But that didn't satisfy Billy Durant, a man whose dreams were always bigger than the next guy's. He quickly bought up several other motorcar companies, including Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland, which in the 1920s would morph into Pontiac. In 1908, he named the amalgamation of many car companies General Motors and seemed to be headed for domination of the American car market. But the rise of Ford Motor Company and other factors conspired to end his reign at General Motors just two years later.
Undaunted, by the end of 1911 he and Chevrolet (the man, not the company) had put together another car company, which was named to capitalize on the French race driver's on-track exploits. Not that the first Chevrolet was a racing machine. The five-passenger touring car was powered by a six-cylinder engine that produced just 40 horsepower, though it did use twin camshafts. Dubbed the Classic Six, the first Chevrolet sold for $2,150, making it affordable only for the well-to-do. But at the same time he came to market with the Classic Six, Durant was also keeping an eye on Henry Ford, who was beginning to enjoy unusual success with the low-priced Model T.
Chevrolet's first attempt at a low-priced car was the Series H, which he brought to market in 1914. With a suggested retail of just $750, the Series H was squarely aimed at the Model T. Like the Ford, it was powered by a four-cylinder engine, and it was a significant sales success, dwarfing the sales of the more expensive Chevrolet models. Buoyed by the Series H, Durant decided to continue on that path, creating the Four-Ninety, a car named for its retail price of -- you guessed it -- $490. In 1916, Chevrolet sold 110,000 Four-Nineties. That was just a fraction of the number of Model Ts that were sold that year, but still enough to establish Chevrolet as a key competitor in the low-priced market, a position it still holds to this day.
The success of Chevrolet allowed Durant to regain control of General Motors, but the post-World War I recession and boardroom politics resulted in his final ouster from the corporation in 1920. Ever the promoter, Durant would go on to found another car company, this time bearing his name, but his crowning achievement might well have been the creation of that quintessential American brand: Chevrolet.
Tom Ripley is a Driving Today contributing editor who writes about luxury automobiles and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.
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