A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 22 / February 28, 2005

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Content :

1 – New thematic list : Automobile Tycoons (1919)
2 – Announcement : “Chapter 13 – Automobile and Aviation” coming soon


New thematic list : “ Automobile Tycoons (1919)

The evolution of economic development in America, like in the rest of the world, is essentially linked to technological progress. If the Gilded Age was characterized by the great expansion of railroads and by the concentration of (basic) industries under the umbrella of a small number of increasingly powerful trusts, the technologies that marked the dawn of the 20th century were revolutions in the field of transportation : the automobile and aviation.

The horseless carriage, as the forerunner of modern automobiles was called, had its American beginnings in the 1860s, when Sylvester H. Roper, an inventor and mechanic developed its firs steam carriage. But while steam was clearly the right power source for railway locomotives, it proved too heavy and cumbersome for the smaller horseless carriage. Electric vehicles were next, but the eventual technological winner was the gasoline engine, as used by Frank and Charles Duryea in 1893.

An expensive curiosity first, the horseless carriage started to get wider acceptance, when the Olds Motor Works started to produce their “Curved Dash” runabout, at $600 the cheapest model on the market, in ever larger quantities, reaching 6500 in 1905. Ransom Eli Olds had founded the company, which later became a cornerstone of General Motors, but by that time (1908) he had left the company, which was controlled by copper baron Samuel L. Smith and his sons Frederick and Angus.

Among the pioneers in the field of automotive construction, Henry Ford has achieved the biggest success. He tinkered around a horseless carriage as early as 1893 and started his first automotive venture, the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899, backed by a group of wealthy Detroit financiers, including Detroit mayor William C. Maybury. The company was succeeded by the Henry Ford Company, which after Ford’s departure became Cadillac, another future cornerstone of General Motors.

Henry Ford went on to found the Ford Motor Company and became one of the two outstanding automobile tycoon of the founding years, that is roughly the period between 1896 and 1920. The other one was William Crapo Durant, the grandson of millionaire lumber baron and Michigan governor Henry Howland Crapo. As a young man, W. C. Durant associated with Josiah Dallas Dort and became one of America’s leading manufacturers of horse-drawn carriages, establishing his factories in the family’s adopted hometown : Flint, Michigan.

In 1904 Durant was already a millionaire, when the directors of the Flint Wagon Works approached him with the plea to save the Buick Motor Company, an automobile manufacturer they had taken over as an attempt to shift their production from carraiages to cars. Durant did such a good job in reorganizing Buick and selling its cars, that he launched himself on one of the most astounding careers in the American automotive industry.

1908 was the decisive year, when both Henry Ford and William Crapo Durant launched their great succeses. Ford’s was his popular Model T, which in association with the assembly line became the first mass produced car in the world and made him a huge fortune. Durant’s was the founding of General Motors, an automotive giant which would eventually even outdo Ford in size and profitability.

1919, the year we chose to list the automobile tycoons, is the year when both Ford and Durant achieved new heights of their power in the automotive industry. Henry Ford was then able to buy out his minority shareholders for an aggregate $105’820’894.57, making his former partners (including future US senator James Couzens and the Dodge brothers) many times millionaires. William Crapo Durant was then reigning over his enlarged General Motors Corporation, and by various takeovers also making other people millionaires (notably the Fisher brothers, Charles Kettering and Alfred Pritchard Sloan jr).

Ford would go on and become a billionaire, while Durant would stumble over his own speculative nature and eventually die penniless. But in 1919, these two men led the club of automobile tycoons, a list which (on a preliminary basis) contains 40 people, most of them in Michigan, which became the girdle of America’s automotive industry. 

The list is a prelude to the coming chapter about the American automotive industry and will be completed in a future update, along with the publication of this chapter
at A Classification of American Wealth

Browse the list of Automobile Tycoons (1919) or other wealth classification lists and read more about the wealthy Americans and wealthy American families of the past at Encyclopedia of American Wealth


Coming soon : Chapter 13 – Automobile and Aviation

The first chapter of the long awaited Part 3 of “A Classification of American Wealth” is just around the corner. Tagged “Automobile and Aviation”, chapter 13 will lead us from the heydays of the Gilded Age into the Twentieth Century.


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