Nobody Rationalizes Billy: The Early Automotive Industry with Bernie Carlson

Everybody knows Henry Ford, then there’s the tycoon you’ve never heard of, Billy Durant. The motive force behind the early success of Buick and the founding of Chevrolet and General Motors, William C. Durant developed business practices that transformed the automobile industry. Durant was a businessman of marked tenacity and impatient of restraint, and he used these qualities to amass a fortune and to fend off would-be interlopers in his arena of corporate power.

In this episode of Stories from the Stacks, historian Bernie Carlson, professor at the University of Virginia, discusses his research into the role played by William Durant in the early automobile industry. Carlson suggests that the prominence of Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet in the historiography of automobiles obscures the diversity of business practice that flourished in the early decades of the industry. Among Durant’s key innovations was the development of the holding company as a corporate form with control over subsidiary firms for manufacturing and distribution.

Using Hagley Library collections, including the John J. Raskob papers and the Z. Taylor Vinson collection of transportation ephemera, Carlson discovered that Durant faced stiff competition from rival capitalists P.S. du Pont and J.J. Raskob, who wished to intervene in General Motors to rationalize its management and operations as they had recently done with the DuPont Company. Durant refused to cede control of his company, and through complex financial machinations managed to retain it. Carlson describes his research methods as “reading dead people’s mail” and “following the money.”

To support his use of Hagley Library collections, Dr. Carlson received a Henry Belin du Pont research grant from the Center for the History of Business, Technology, & Society. More information on funding opportunities for research at Hagley can be found here.

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Interview by Amrys Williams. Produced by Gregory Hargreaves.

Banner image: General Motors studies the small car in 1925, PC20110510_726, Chamber of Commerce of the United States photographs and audiovisual materials, Series II. Nation’s Business photographs (Accession 1993.230.II), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Library.