1908 to 1945

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: North East - Part 1

In the travel series View America, North East - Part 1 covers Michigan and Wisconsin. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 100 full-sized photos.

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General Motors in 2004

General Motors Corporation, or abbreviated GM, was the world's largest automaker and one of the world's largest truck manufacturers. In 2004, it produced approximately thirty percent of all American cars, and fifteen percent of all cars worldwide!

GM's headquarters are located in Detroit, and based on sales it was then the largest U.S. company. It manufactured Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Geo, GMC, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Saturn, and owned the German Opel and the UK Vauxhall. It was also a majority shareholder of the Swedish Saab and the Japanese Isuzu. Other company branches were the Hughes Electronics Corporation (telecommunications systems), and General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), one of the largest financial services companies in the world, with insurances and loans. Finally, GM also built locomotives.

Flint, and how it all began

From the 1820's, the city of Flint was the center of the carriage makers. In 1888, William C. Durant and his partner founded the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, which manufactured horse drawn carriages with a leaf spring suspension. Fifteen years later the company was market leader throughout the U.S., and Durant was a millionaire.

William Durant in 1922

In 1903, the Scot David Dunbar Buick founded the Buick Motor Car Company in Flint. This company would become world famous, but unfortunately Buick's managing and financial gifts were not as great as his mechanical acumen, and one year later he stood at the edge of a financial abyss.

The same year also saw the beginning of the switch from carriage manufacturing to car manufacturing. The city of Flint converted in no time to this new industry, and almost immediately received the label of Vehicle City. Old carriage warehouses and workshops, that usually were built in several floors, had to be converted quickly, or simply had to be moved to new and modern buildings, where everything happened on the same floor.

Several factors were instrumental in this very rapid conversion. There was a large supply of risk capital, originating in the immense profits of the railroads, mines and industry, and there was an abundance of cheap labor.

photo of  Durant in 1922Next to Durant and almost simultaneously, there appeared several strong personalities. Walter P. Chrysler was Buick's Works Manager in 1912. Ransom Eli Olds of Lansing founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897, and he was the first manufacturer of passenger vehicles. Henry M. Leland founded the Cadillac Automobile Company in 1902, named after the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit. Henry Ford founded the Ford motor Company. ifounded the Oakland Motor Car in Pontiac, Michigan, later renamed to Pontiac.

In 1904, Billy Durant bought the ailing Buick company, and succeeded again in restructuring this company in 15 years time to the largest car manufacturer in the USA, after Henry Ford. Between 1905 and 1920, Buick built more than one million cars !

This tremendously fast development did not come without a struggle. William Durant came to the conclusion that every manufacturer who developed only one model would continuously teeter at the edge of bankruptcy. He became convinced that a large company would be better armed, if it manufactured several models.

General Motors

In 1908, Durant founded the General Motors Company, and approached other manufacturers with his ideas. Buick and Olds joined GM in the same year, and Pontiac and Cadillac followed in 1909. By 1910, GM had bought more than twenty other manufacturers ! But his many purchases with borrowed money put him in a vulnerable position, and in 1910 the banks took control of GM, and threw Durant out of the board...

Durant did not take this lying down, and in 1911 he founded the Chevrolet Motor Company, together with the Swiss car racer Louis Chevrolet. The new company grew rapidly by making less expensive models, so that it could compete with the popular Ford Model T. With the ensuing profits, Durant bought GM shares, and in 1916 he was again firmly in the saddle of GM.

He immediately bought Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), a company founded by Charles F. Kettering, the inventor of the electric ignition. In 1918, Chevrolet officially joined General Motors. In 1920, GM again faced financial problems, and Durant was ousted from the company for the second time. The new president of GM was none other than Pierre S. du Pont, also chairman of du Pont de Nemours.

In 1923 however, he was succeeded by the former assistant of Durant, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who remained at the helm of the company for the next twenty three years. Sloan was a workaholic, who completely reorganized the company, decentralized it, and constantly innovated it with practical improvements. His extraordinary legacy is that he converted the previously loosely connected large company into an industrial empire, despite later problems.

GM building Detroit 1923

Alfred P. Sloan Jr.

The Great Depression and World War II

Flint Assembly 1950

In 1927 and for the first time, GM sold more vehicles than Ford. But a few years later, business took a terrific hit during the Great Depression. In 1932, General Motors manufactured 75% less cars than in 1929, and Buick even completely closed its doors in 1930.

In 1940, World War II broke out, and in 1941 all the assembly lines of the car industry were converted to military production, with stupendous military aid. They now produced tanks, airplanes, motorcycles, vehicles, weapons and military equipment.

The Flint factories were soon called The Arsenal of Democracy. The Buick complex, once GM's largest factory, formed the base of wartime mass production.

Video : General Motors 1908 - 2009


** Continue reading with part 2 **