Reprinted with the Permission from the Hemmings Daily blog
Amid all the reports of southeast Michigan automotive landmarks either facing the wrecking ball or similar uncertain futures comes news that General Motors has stepped in to buy a historic former automobile factory in Flint, Michigan; however, the factory never built a GM vehicle and is not suited for manufacturing use. So why is GM buying the old Durant-Dort Carriage Company factory?
As GM’s North America President Mark Reuss noted earlier this month when he announced the pending purchase of the 25,000-square-foot factory, located on Water Street on Flint ’s waterfront and known as Factory One, he considers the location to be “the birthplace and ground zero of General Motors.” At the same time he disclosed that General Motors would provide funds for the upkeep and renovation of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company’s offices, a three-story building across the street from the factory currently owned by the city of Flint and occupied by the Genesee County Historical Society. GM spokesman Tom Wickham later clarified that the office building is actually where GM considers its inception to have taken place.
“That’s where the paperwork was signed,” Wickham said. “GM might have been incorporated elsewhere, but technically, we view the birthplace as being there in the Durant-Dort offices.”
Indeed, William C. Durant incorporated GM in September 1908 in New Jersey – a location chosen perhaps as much for privacy as for favorable incorporation laws – but the company didn’t simply materialize out of thin air. Durant, a Flint businessman, had already built a successful business out of the Flint Road Cart Company – later renamed the Durant-Dort Carriage Company – in partnership with Josiah Dallas Dort starting in 1886. Durant-Dort Carriage, spread over several factories in and around Flint , had in fact become so successful that Durant grew bored and looked for new challenges. In 1904, he found that challenge in the Buick Motor Company, which had recently moved from Detroit to Flint , but still hadn’t found much success. Durant turned it around almost overnight, with Buick production taking place initially on Kearsley Street and then later in a dedicated factory on Hamilton Avenue .
The success then set the stage for a consolidation of auto companies around Buick. Initial attempts to consolidate, led by Durant and Maxwell-Briscoe owner Benjamin Briscoe in meetings held in Detroit and New York City , fell apart. Briscoe, Henry Ford, and Ransom Olds all balked. But the talk of consolidation did inspire Durant to try again, this time using Buick and Lansing ’s Oldsmobile as the nucleus, later adding Cadillac, Oakland , and a host of suppliers to the General Motors portfolio.
Dort, who provided plenty of behind-the-scenes help as Durant built Buick and General Motors, kept the carriage company going until around 1915, when he, too, switched to automobiles. Dort employees assembled the eponymously named cars, designed by Etienne Planche, in Factory One over the next nine years, until Dort went out of business and liquidated the company. According to GM sources, Factory One never again produced an automobile: Instead, it was used by a wholesale paper company, as a produce warehouse, as a furniture warehouse, by a watch repair company, and by a neon sign company over the next few decades. Following Factory One’s restoration in the mid-1980s, it has seen use as an antique mall and by Flint area social services providers. Its listing history on Loopnet show that Factory One has been placed on the market a number of times since 2001.
The Durant-Dort office building, meanwhile, served as the office and headquarters of both the Durant-Dort Carriage Company and the Dort Motor Car Company from when it was built in 1896 to the end of Dort production in 1925. Not only is Durant said to have laid the plans for GM in that building, but he also reportedly conceived of Chevrolet while there. Used by various civic organizations for half a century, the building fell into the hands of the city of Flint in 1977 and was restored by the Genesee County Historical Society over the next decade. Since then, the society has asked GM for help with heating and cooling the building (about $20,000 per year) and with repairs and maintenance to the building (another $20,000).
Wickham said that GM has pledged $50,000 for the office building. He didn’t release the selling price for Factory One because the purchase has yet to be finalized.
Both Reuss and Wickham said the plans for Factory One are still under development, but they said that it’s possible that it could be used to showcase some of the historic cars in GM’s collection. “We’ve got a lot of really beautiful, historic GMCs and Buicks in the company that don’t get shown a lot of justice,” Reuss said. “One of the thoughts is that we’d convert Factory One [to show the historic vehicles] and we could launch vehicles like the trucks that are made here in Flint . It could be really, really beautiful.” GM currently displays a portion of its collection in the 80,000-square-foot GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights , Michigan , but keeps the remainder in storage.
However, some have expressed skepticism about GM’s intentions in buying Factory One. MLive.com noted that the purchase comes on the heels of three recently announced GM plant closings in the Flint area resulting in at least 730 lost jobs (and at about the same time that GM announced a $1.3 billion Cadillac factory in China); local UAW president Dan Reyes called it a “good sentiment” purchase. GM has also only given the Factory One purchase a by-and-by mention in a press release on a tree planting program; word of the purchase was only made public when Reuss spoke at the United Way of Genesee County’s annual dinner. Wickham countered that the purchase process began in December, before the plant layoffs were announced, and that it is by no means a feel-good move. “You can’t replace a plant closing by buying a historic building,” he said. “We approached it with an open mind not knowing exactly what to do with it, and we’re open to ideas from the community on how to develop it.”