BILLY DURANT deserved a good biography, and he got one. As the founder of General Motors, he certainly has a place in the history of American industry; he was, moreover, a colorful, dynamic personality who should have been a natural subject for biography. Yet Bernard Weisberger is the first to do it comprehensively, and may well be the last, because it is difficult to see what more can be said about Durant.
There are two reasons for the death of previous studies. First, Durant ended as a spectacular failure whom his successors at General Motors would prefer to forget. (Even the Hotel Durant in Flint, Michigan, has now vanished.) The second is that Durant left no personal papers, and family records have been unavailable. Weisberger has overcome these handicaps by sheer intensive effort, collecting every scrap of information that could be found and putting it together in a complete picture of Durant and his work. It gives the first comprehensive account of his family background and private life.
Weisberger has established Durant as a good organizer and administrator when he chose to be; his record with the Durant-Dort Carriage Co., Buick and Chevrolet shows it. But his prime talents were as salesman and promoter. aThese served him well in the maneuvering that led to the creation of General Motors in 1908, and this book takes us through those complexities. It also brings out that the idea of a big automobile combine began not with Durant but with Benjamin Briscoe, who could not carry it through. In addition there is the first clear account of the efforts to include Henry Ford in the combination.
The heart of the book deals with Durant's role in General Motors, its founding to the first collapse in 1910, his triumphant return in 1916 and his final spectacular crash in 1920. A variety of interesting figures appear, some well-known, others now forgotten -- Alfred P. Sloan, Pierre Du Pont, John J. Raskob, Charles W. Nash, Walter Chrysler, Louis Chevrolet, David D. Buick. Each has a biographical sketch. Durant himself is appraised remarkably dispassionately, good points and bad, from his ability to see the great opportunities in the automobile industry to speculative mania that autimately destroyed him.
When General Motors ran into its first crisis in 1910 the problem was not stock-market speculation but Durant's unwise acquisitions, which showed a lack of technical understanding and a casual disregard for technical advice. Weisberger is admirably fair to the regime that followed, under James J. Storrow. He criticizes the banker's trust for taking advantage of the situation but gives full credit to Storrow and Nash for a needed rehabilitation of the General Motors organization. The story of Durant's return to power, on the wings of a brilliant success with Chevrolet, is well told.
A major contribution here is a fuller account than has heretofore appeared of Durant's relationship with the Du Ponts and John J. Raskob. They were not close allies. It just happened that in 1916 their interests coincided. When the 1920 collapse came, there is strong evidence that the Du Pont group was quite willing to use the opportunity to push Durant out. Yet they had not seriously tried to restrain him before, and Raskob in particular seems to have urged completion of the General Motors complex in Detroit when even Durant was prepared to be cautious.
Again, Durant did some thngs very well -- his insight in acquiring Frigidaire stands out. But he also made some bad guesses, like a venture into tractors. Most of all, in this second term as head of General Motors, he could not be bothered with administration. The passion for stock speculation had a firm hold. He could see the wisdom of keeping Walter Chrysler as head of Buick but then constantly exasperated him so that Chrysler gave up and walked out.
Durant became a figure to be pitied after his General Motors days. He kept trying, but he never succeeded again. Durant Motors was never more than unfulfilled promises, and his constant absorption in stock speculation pulled him down to irretrievable ruin in 1929. He emerges in this book very much like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy. He rose high and fell far because his great talents were offset be equallly great flaws. He had marked personal charm -- even the people who could not work with him liked him -- and some of his troubles stemmed from efforts to protect friends who had entrusted their money to him.
Weisberger chose his title well. Billy Durant could make dreams. He just could not make them come true.