At the Root: The Flint Road Cart

The humble Flint Road Cart, the genesis of the industrial giant that became General Motors, wasn’t actually started in Flint. In 1886, William C. (“Billy”) Durant was running late to a meeting, and reluctantly accepted a ride from a friend named Billy Algoe on his new road cart. Surprised by the (relatively) smooth ride, Durant asked Algoe where he purchased the cart; from the Coldwater Road Cart Company came the answer. Shortly thereafter Durant departed on a train to Coldwater Michigan, determined to invest in a company that could produce such a superior product that would no doubt “sell itself.” The head of the Coldwater firm, however, had no interest in taking on investors–but offered to sell the company, the tools, and three road carts to Durant for two thousand dollars. Durant agreed to the price if the rights to the patent on the seat were included. With no intent to continue the manufacture of road carts, that was agreed to by the Coldwater owner. Durant left on the next train to Flint, walked from the train station to Citizen’s Bank, and was soon seated in front of Robert Whaley to ask for a two thousand dollar loan. Whaley, impressed be Durant’s presentation (and possibly already knowledgable about the grandson of local business leader and former governor of Michigan Henry Howland Crapo), agreed to loan Durant the money, whereupon Durant returned to Coldwater to collect his new company.

After returning to Flint, Durant ran into a friend then managing a local hardware store by the name of Josiah Dallas Dort. Dort previously had been impressed with Durant’s business acumen, and decided that he would join in on Durant’s next business venture. So when Durant told him about the Coldwater Road Cart, Dort asked to¬† buy in; Durant was eager to take on a partner who could manage the day-to-day business of the company, and agreed to make him an equal partner if Dort could come up with one thousand dollars. Between the his life’s savings, and those of his mother, Dort was able to come up with the money, and Durant found his business partner. That settled, Durant soon left on a sales trip to Chicago and a large fair in Wisconsin. He returned to Flint a week later with sales orders for three thousand road cart.

Not having a factory or work force of their own, Durant and Dort instead chose to contract with an established Flint wagon manufacturer, Willliam A. Paterson, to build the road carts for them. Paterson agreed to do so at a fairly reasonable price, but then attempted to cut out Durant and Dort as “middlemen.” The partners then pulled the tools and patent from Paterson, and cast about in search of an empty building to establish a factory. Find an empty building on what was then called South Street, the two men were able to negotiate a lease for the building (now located at 303 W. Water Street) that had been built in 1880 but never used by the Flint Woolen Mill. The partners then set about hiring a work force, and were soon turning out road carts to fill those orders. The men quickly expanded their line of offerings to include farm wagons, surreys, and buggies in a wide array of colors and custom features. In short, vehicles “for every purse and purpose.”

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Director, Special Collections and University Archives
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