103 years ago today, General Motors acquired Chevrolet in a reverse-merger that began the process of GM’s becoming the world’s largest automaker. It’s one hell of a weird story, so if you haven’t heard it before, buckle up.
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Chevrolet was founded in 1911 by Louis Chevrolet, Arthur Chevrolet, and William Durant. Durant had also founded General Motors alongside Charles Stewart Mott back in 1908—which meant these two companies were strangely intermingled from the very start. The key figure here is Durant.
So, while Durant founded GM, he was ousted by the board in 1910. Why? He over-leveraged his company in trying to make as many acquisitions as possible: Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Elmore, Oakland (predecessors of Pontiac), Reliance Motor Company, and the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company (predecessors of GMC). Durant even tried to buy Ford. But that aggressive spending wasn’t a popular move. And when he was ousted, he decided to strike back by forming Chevrolet.
Chevy grew real successful real quick, and Durant was able to use his growing funds to reacquire a controlling interest in GM by buying up as much GM stock as he could afford. GM stock was expensive at the time, but Durant was offering an interesting trade: for every share of GM stock a shareholder sold him, he’d offer those same shareholders five shares of Chevy stock. Soon, Durant was able to buy up enough GM stock to become president, since folks were really interested in the rapid growth of Chevy.
As president, Durant brought Chevrolet into the GM fold as a separate division on May 2, 1918.
Durant, though, was not exactly a popular guy, and when Pierre S. DuPont finally rose to chairmanship and then president after his family used their chemical company to buy up GM stock, Durant was ousted from the company in 1920. DuPont even went so far as to pay off Durant’s debts just to get him out of control.
Durant continued to try to break into the auto industry but never quite regained the success of Chevrolet; ultimately, the Great Depression forced him to reevaluate his career path. At that point, he opted to instead open bowling alleys near Flint, Michigan.