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This Month in Business History: General Motors

September 20, 2021 • History Factory

Funny story about General Motors founder William C. Durant: When cars first appeared on the market, Durant hated them. He thought they were too loud and too dangerous, and he wouldn’t permit his daughter even to go for a ride. Though the new contraptions must have disrupted Durant’s business — he headed Michigan-based Durant-Dort Carriage Company — he wasn’t wrong about the threat they posed to people. The unprecedented speed and power of these so-called “horseless carriages,” combined with a dearth of adequate roadways, safety features and driver training, resulted in mounting injuries and deaths to drivers and pedestrians alike.

Facade of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company in Flint, MI.

According to General Motors legend, this was what prompted Durant to get involved in the automobile industry: He wanted to improve safety conditions for the public. Durant took control of Buick Motor Company on November 1, 1904. And in September 1908, he brought together several auto manufacturers, including Buick, to form General Motors as a holding company.

The General Motors Building in Detroit, MI.

In the first few years, Durant brought 11 more car companies — including Cadillac and the Olds Corporation — plus some parts suppliers and other businesses under the GM umbrella. The moves were expensive for a young company, and the bank soon forced Durant out.

Louis Chevrolet (right), sitting in a Buick that he designed.

He immediately hatched a plan to return to the automobile industry. In 1911, he teamed with Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet to form Chevrolet Motor Company. That venture was successful, and in 1916 Durant was able to buy enough shares of GM to regain control of the company.

Durant stood in stark contrast to his contemporaries, especially Henry Ford. While the famous Ford approach was to produce a lot of units of a single product, Durant aimed to make different styles for different incomes and preferences, resulting in a wide brand portfolio.

Crowd gathered around the newly introduced Firebird III in 1959.

Over time, GM has acquired and launched some 43 automotive brands globally. The presence of so many companies has enabled General Motors to involve itself in a number of areas and innovate at important moments in American history. GM’s Oldsmobile and Cadillac vehicles were the first mass-produced automatics in the industry, and their Hydra-Matic technology was used in tank designs during WWII. Later, the company helped mastermind navigation systems that guided the Apollo moon missions, and it built the famed Lunar Rover.

More recently, GM converted manufacturing lines to use novel 3D printing technology for producing personal protection equipment for frontline hospital workers in the fight against COVID-19. Within a few months of the pandemic’s outbreak, the facility had produced over 1 million units of PPE for public use.

While GM has faced challenges in the past, including scandals around safety, omissions and labor, plus a 2008-09 bailout that cost U.S. taxpayers $11.2 billion, the company has committed itself to an innovative and green future. Electric vehicle technology is rapidly evolving, and the market for those vehicles is growing. In January 2021, General Motors made another move that may again improve conditions for the public: In response to climate change, the company announced that by 2035, it would produce only zero-emission vehicles. While electric cars have increased in popularity, they currently represent only about 4.6% of global car sales, perhaps due to high cost and uneven convenience. However, with one of America’s top-selling automakers entering the arena, we might soon see significant changes in the way we get from place to place.

With a commitment to public interest driving its innovation, General Motors has stayed at the forefront of the industry. This month, we celebrate the company’s founding and its unique rise to the top.

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