Bill Vance: GM founder Durant took on Model T with low-priced Star

General Motors celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, having been formed in 1908 by a wealthy and charismatic Flint, Michigan carriage manufacturer named William “Billy” Durant. With Buick as his base Durant formed General Motors holding company and used it to assemble many automakers including Cadillac and Oldsmobile into the GM family.

Unfortunately Billy was more speculator and promoter than he was administrator, with the result that he lost control of GM to the bankers in 1910.

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But Durant, still a GM board member, quietly set about organizing another company called Chevrolet. It became so successful he was able to use it to re-regain control of GM in 1915. Durant resumed his usual flamboyant style, which lasted until 1920 when he was ousted again, this time for good.

The irrepressible Durant was down but far from out and at age 60 he organized another car company, Durant Motors Inc. in 1921, including a Canadian subsidiary in Toronto, Ontario. Within a few months, medium-priced Durants were rolling out of a Long Island, New York plant.

In 1922 Durant bought faltering prestige car company Locomobile as an up-scale adjunct to his Durant, and subsequently also produced cars with names like Eagle and Flint. Durant also had plants in Elizabeth N.J., Muncie, Indiana and Flint, Michigan. With Canada’s preferential tariff treatment, exports to British Commonwealth countries went through the Canadian Branch.

Durant, like Henry Ford, recognized that the automobile’s real future lay in the popular price field. He was confident enough to challenge Ford’s all-conquering Model T by launching his Model T-fighting Star in the spring of 1922. It was priced at $348, with self-starter and dismountable rims adding approximately $100. They soon became standard, but making them options had allowed Durant to keep the price competitive with the Model T’s.

The Star was an “assembled” car using major components from outside suppliers. For example, engines came from Continental, axles from Timkin and Adams, and universal joints from Spicer.

The Star’s engine was a 35 horsepower, 2.1 litre (130 cu in.), side-valve Continental four of conventional design. Its one unusual feature was the transmission mounting. Like other Durant models, the Star’s three-speed gearbox was not integrated with the engine, but set back a short distance in the chassis. Power reached the transmission through a short shaft, a layout that had largely disappeared by the 1920s.

Billy Durant’s name still held magic and the Washington. D.C. introduction of the Star met with such enthusiasm it attracted 30,000 people and generated 10,000 dealer inquiries. People flocked to showings across the country to see Durant’s new low-priced offering.

Stock in the newly created Star Motor Co., sold through the Durant Corp., quickly totalled $30 million. It was a promotional environment the entrepreneurial Durant loved.

To meet demand for Stars and Durants, Billy outbid Walter Chrysler by paying $5.2 million for a huge ex-Willys-Overland plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

More than 100,000 Stars were sold during the first year, and production approached 20,000 a month. It was small beside Ford’s annual million-plus Model Ts, but still very respectable for a new car. They also built a truck called the Rugby, a name also used on Star cars sold outside North America.

In 1923 Durant led the industry by introducing the Star station wagon, the first factory-produced wagon by a major manufacturer. Stars also came in two and four dour open and closed bodies.

A 40 horsepower six was added in 1926, with a 127 mm (5.0 in.) longer wheelbase than the four’s 2,591 mm (102 in.). Four-wheel brakes came in 1927.

Alas, once a business was up and running the visionary Durant tended to lose interest. During this period he became enamoured with Europe and spent extended periods there when he should have been home running the company.

The Durant empire started to falter in the late 1920s, and the Star’s future along with it. Although it had been popular, the Star couldn’t escape Durant Motor Co.’s flagging fortunes.

In 1928, the Star six became the Durant 55 while the Star four continued, although that would be its last year. For 1929, the Star four became the Durant 4-40 in the U.S., and the Frontenac in Canada.

The Durant Motor Co. went out of business in the U.S. in 1932. The Canadian Durant plant was taken over by Canadian interests, reorganized as Dominion Motors and continued building Frontenacs and assembling Reo Flying Clouds in Toronto until production ceased in 1933.

Although the Star was on the automotive scene only seven years, it gained considerable popularity. After its passenger-carrying days were over, the Star’s sturdy little Continental engine was often found powering such things as buzz saws, boats and autotracs, which were farm tractors made out of cars.

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