The Beginning: Buick
Durant’s automotive story starts in 1903 when directors of another Flint vehicle business, the Flint Wagon Works, bought the fledgling Buick Motor Company of Detroit and moved it to Flint to build gasoline engines the wagon works could market to its farm customers. In summer 1904 the Buick firm’s president, David Dunbar Buick, and engineer, Walter L. Marr, persuaded the wagon works’ president, James H. Whiting, to let them build a few automobiles to see if they would sell. After a successful test run to Detroit and back in July of ’04, Whiting gave the go-ahead. He was an automobile enthusiast and didn’t need much persuading.
The Buick automobile’s first press review, in September of 1904, was a rave, the reporter praising the overall look of the car and the engine that was both quiet and powerful. Buick got another strong review as it won its class in a hill climb. “The new Buick made its initial appearance, and in a twinkling stamped itself as a wonder,” gushed Motor World. But by then, Whiting was disenchanted with David Buick. Costs were high, production was low. At a meeting of local carriage makers in Chicago, Whiting vented his feelings with Fred A. Aldrich, secretary of the rival Durant-Dort Carriage Company.
Aldrich said the energetic Durant was footloose in New York – he was studying the stock market – and he might be able to help. “William C. Durant is the man who can put Buick on its feet,” he advised Whiting. Aldrich said he could set up a meeting but there was one problem. Durant, like many carriage makers, did not like automobiles. He found them noisy, smelly and dangerous. When his daughter told him she had just ridden in a relative’s automobile in 1902, he scolded her for courting danger.
But Durant was known as a gambler and for being adventurous in promotions. He was grudgingly impressed when he rode in a Buick and found it powerful, reliable and quiet, and noticed it attracted crowds. One of Durant’s sales secrets was to “look for a self-seller,” a product so attractive it could sell itself – just like the horse-drawn road cart that had pulled him into the vehicle business in 1886. By the time he met with Whiting he had come to realize that the Buick was such a product.
Things moved quickly. In their meeting, Whiting offered to turn Buick over to Durant to manage and promote. Durant accepted the challenge and by Nov. 1, 1904, he was on the Buick board and in control. He handed the Buick presidency to first Whiting and later Charles Begole (son of another former Michigan governor, Josiah Begole) and took on what to him were the fun tasks of raising money and promoting the product. While General Motors, his master work, would not be incorporated until Sept. 16, 1908, GM in effect got its start when Durant took control of Buick Nov. 1, 1904 – at a time Buick had built fewer than two dozen cars.
By the end of 1904, Buick had produced only 37 cars, but Durant took David Buick and Walter Marr, plus a Buick car and chassis, to the New York Auto Show in January of 1905. Durant’s first wife Clara boasted in a letter to a friend that her husband had sold 1,108 cars in New York. “The Buick car,” she said, “is certainly a success.”