1931 Durant 614 De Luxe Sedan
Never anything like it
By David Traver Adolphus
Photography by Roy D. Query
General Motors’ old building in downtown Detroit has a series of stylized capital “Ds” cast into a decorative exterior frieze. They’re not there for the city or its dilettante founder; they’re there for the man who built GM and lost it twice, William Crapo Durant.
A young Robert Redford could easily have played him on screen. He had the same cocky twinkle, the same confidence and swagger that made Redford a natural for the Sundance Kid, Jay Gatsby and Bob Woodward. Such a film could have been one for the ages, because Billy Durant’s story is a classic American rise and fall.
Durant was instrumental in the rise of the American automobile. He had already built a fortune in the carriage industry when he met David D. Buick in 1903, accepting management of the rudderless Buick Company the next year. Having survived one of the many panics that characterized the pre-war stock market, by 1908 he was at Benjamin Briscoe’s (of Maxwell) suggestion attempting to purchase the Ford Motor Company. It was part of a grand scheme, reminiscent of the supposed post-war Grand Alliance between Studebaker, Hudson, Packard and Nash. The four largest car companies of the time—Buick, Reo, Maxwell-Briscoe and Ford—would merge into one giant International Motor Car Company, or, as Durant called it after Ford and Reo pulled out of the deal, the General Motors Company. Durant started it anyway, and managed to hold onto GM for two years, pulling in Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland. After trying to buy Ford again in 1910, GM’s creditors, concerned about red ink during a recession, removed him from leadership in late summer of 1910, leaving him a position on the Board of Directors.
By that winter of 1910 he was starting from scratch, with nothing but his famously persuasive ways and a massive personal fortune. By all accounts, he was happiest during times like this, when he could start something and bring to bear his entrepreneurial skills. One of his first purchases during this time was a small car company run by William H. Little. Little stayed on, as did his race driver, an engineer named Louis Chevrolet. The new company took Chevrolet’s name when it was incorporated and by mid-1916, Durant, Pierre Du Pont and associates owned 450,000 of 768,733 total shares of GM, which allowed Durant to absorb GM into the smaller Chevrolet.
Four years later, Durant was out of GM for the second time, this time for good, having made up stock losses after the first post-WWI stock market crash in 1919 out of his own pocket. Much of Durant’s first fortune had been erased. But his drive and desire to create had not been, and neither had his friendship with the Du Ponts. With their backing, Durant Motors was incorporated on January 12, 1921. Six weeks later, the first Durant Four debuted, going on sale in May of that year.
While the stock market was often his primary focus, Durant stayed involved in the company, and his affiliations during these years included Star, Rugby, Flint, Locomobile, Mason, Eagle, Princeton, Mathis, DeVaux, Continental and Frontenac. The Durant brand briefly disappeared in 1927, with volume production being left to Star and Flint. In 1928, it was revived as a higher-end brand, and Flint production ended. Durant was to have all six-cylinder cars, and Star would have four cylinders; to that end, the Star R became the Durant 55, with new 65 and 75 models positioned above it. But the Star line was also destined for history, and when it was cut in April of 1928, the still-popular four-cylinder M became the Durant M2, which was replaced with another four-cylinder, the M4, before the year was out.
The year 1929 started well, with four new models in the range. The 40, 60 (with a new engine), 63 and 70 (replacement for the 75) were joined by the 66 before the end of the year. Unbelievably, an entirely new lineup was announced for 1930; the four-cylinder model 407 and the straight-six 614 and 617. In the fall of 1930, the 610 and 612 were introduced. Things were looking pretty shaky, though, and big cracks appeared. In December, California magnate Norman DeVaux bought the California portion of Durant from Billy Durant’s son, producing DeVaux-Hall cars in Oakland and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Despite advertising that claimed, “1931 will be a Durant year,” it wasn’t. Sales were gone, and with so much of Durant’s personal fortune tied up in the stock market, he lacked the resources to bail out the company; some accounts suggest he personally lost as much as $40 million after the 1929 crash. Competition from Chevrolet’s new OHV Six was fierce, and sales fell to 7,270 cars, down from an already-mediocre 20,261 the year before. As a result, the ’31 Durants were mostly carryovers from the year before. The 401 and the model 614 were retained, although a new mid-price, six-cylinder 618 was introduced. Later in the year, the 71hp model 619 was introduced. The company was falling apart at this point: New cars were introduced in 1932, but it is thought that there was no production run of the 621 and 622. On January 27, Durant Motors went into receivership and on January 30, 1932, filed for bankruptcy. Various bits and pieces stumbled along after the head had died: Dominion lasted until the end of 1933; DeVaux until 1932; and Continental (which replaced DeVaux) until 1934.
While the 58hp 612 was priced to go head-to-head with other low-priced sixes, the 614, starting at just under $1,000, was hundreds more than the competition. A huge list of standard equipment helped explain the cost; the only option on Standards was dual sidemounts, and De Luxes came with them, and chromed head- and taillamps. Fourteen versions of the 614 had been offered in 1930, but in ‘31, choices were limited to a Business Coupe, Standard Coupe, Standard Sedan and De Luxe Coupes, Sedans and Phaetons. The 612 was down to just a Tourist Sedan (with reclining Pullman bed).
Odus Raymer, the owner of our feature car, acquired his Durant in Detroit in 1965, from an ad in Hemmings. “I’m pretty partial to the heavier car, and the big car,” he says. “I like them pretty well. Down through the years, I always liked the ride of them, and I liked the design.”
Durant ads boasted of the ’31 that there was “Never anything like it,” but there was. Construction is probably better than the competition, if still conventional. The Hayes body is mostly steel, which Odus found out to his benefit when restoring the car in the ‘70s; the only wood which needed replacing was in the roof bows above the driver. The biggest selling point, 75 years down the line, is the channel-section steel double-dropped frame. With five crossmembers, it’s both relatively low and stiff.
Stepping up to the car, suicide doors open to reveal a well-designed “form-fitting” mohair interior. The flat floor allows stretch-out foot room, and hunkered down on the frame, the sedan is almost as wide as it is tall, leaving fedora room above. Resplendent in its original faded brownish green, a chrome grab bar assists in exiting the distant recesses of the rear seat. If you’ve never seen a Durant before, but the body looks a little familiar, it’s because versions of the Hayes-built body were in circulation for several years, used for DeVauxs—as well as the Marmon Roosevelt.
While the car is capable of modern speeds, it is more comfortable at a smooth and still-respectable 45 or 50 mph, tracking straight and true. Even in the corners, the double-dropped frame helps control lean. At 2,955 pounds, it’s heavy for this class of car—substantial 19-inch 550-series Lester tires do help constrain all that mass. Helping the ride substantially, when Odus restored the car in 1975, he added tube shocks to the rear end, mounting them between the frame rail and axle. He does mention that the steering effort seems higher than in his ’29 Durant, “But maybe I’m not as strong as I was. And steering like that was all you knew back then.” Four-wheel Midland mechanical brakes are vastly superior to some of the competition, and are outstanding for the era. Raymer’s only real complaint is the lack of a four-speed gearbox, as was found in his ’29. Actually, the four-speed was only in 6- series cars, and only in 1929. Known as a very sophisticated unit, it was probably quieter and smoother than the three-speed, which is noisy in low gears.
Dual sidemounts (which lock with the ignition key; while our feature car lacks them, some period materials indicate that hard covers for the spares were included on De Luxes) and snappy fender-mounted American flags bracket the radiator and fully chromed lamps and bumper. The chromed trunk rack was another standard feature, but the unmarked trunk is a period aftermarket accessory that came with the car in 1965. Combined with the distinguished body lines, it’s an impression of elegance so convincing that, combined with the resonance of the name, it has led people to believe it’s a Full Classic. Really, it’s anything but. Components were mostly farmed out—transmissions from Warner, Midland brakes from Bendix, Continental engine and body by Hayes. The car was supposed to be on an even footing with Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth or Essex, distinguished by above-average engineering and an appearance of value engendered by the high level of trim. Instead, the price moved it far above the value leaders, into a realm where it became a fish out of water.
They say that Durant was happy in his final years, running and promoting a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan, in the shadow of Buick. He said they were the next big thing. He had finally lost the last of his fortune, declaring bankruptcy in 1936. When the 25 millionth GM car was built on January 12, 1940, GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan brought his predecessor on stage to credit his contributions to the company, and industry. Durant said to his wife, “Well, they took it away from me, but they cannot take away the credit for having done it.”
A stroke sidelined him for good in 1942. It must have been a bewildering experience for a man who was known as a dynamo, and bitterly resented the rare occasions ill health slowed him down during his life. His widow Catherine said she sold off her jewelry piece by piece during the war to pay for his nursing care. By the time of his death at age 85 at his Gramercy Park apartment in New York City, on March 18, 1947, he was destitute, and outside of Flint, Michigan, already almost forgotten. A titan of a man, without whom names such as Charles W. Nash, Walter P. Chrysler, Alfred P. Sloan, Louis Chevrolet and David D. Buick would not today be remembered. Almost certainly, there would have been no Oldsmobile or Oakland, and Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac would be but dim memories, if they had ever existed at all.
One of the very last chapters of Durant’s history was written in the spring of 2005. Durant Motors Verlinden Avenue plant in Lansing, opened in 1920 and was purchased by GM in 1935. It became the home of GM’s Fisher Body division and later the main Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac plant, eventually known as Lansing Car Assembly. A victim of GM’s latest round of cost cutting, 3,500 people lost their jobs when it was closed on May 6, 2005, after a final Pontiac Grand Am rolled off the line.
If the young Durant was right for Redford, surely at the end of his life it should have been Marlon Brando’s broken-down boxer Terry, in On the Waterfront. Sitting in the back of a (Chevy) cab with Rod Steiger, you can almost hear him say, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody…” Durant was certainly never a bum. He was always somebody, he was always a contender. Because at the same time that he was a fighter who stepped back into the ring over and over, only to pick himself up off the mat, smiling for the next knockdown punch, he was also Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, who, when Mary Murphy asks him what he’s rebelling against, replies, “Whaddya got?”
Ages of Durant
Billy Durant’s history is as old as the auto industry, but the car bearing his name was rolling on March 1, 1921, 61 days after Durant left GM. By the time production ended in 1932, more than 80 models had been produced, with the brands sometime using the same platforms.
1921. Only Durant vehicles produced.
1922. The Star is introduced. Durant buys the bankrupt Locomobile, and establishes the Flint Motor Car Company
1923. The Princeton is announced, and a prototype built, but enters production as a Flint. The Mason Truck Company is established to produce heavy trucks, Flint production begins. Stars go on sale in Australia under the Rugby name.
1927. Mason truck, Flint and Durant production ends. Eagle prototype produced.
1928. Durant reappears. Star production ends and is transferred to Durant. Durant trucks become Rugby.
1929. Durant announces production of the French Mathis car. Last Locomobiles built.
1930. Norman DeVaux purchases Durant Motors of California.
1931. DeVaux-Hall Motors Corporation builds cars in California and Michigan. Durant Motors of Canada reincorporated as Dominion Motors Limited, produces Frontenac. Mathis announced but never built; successfully produced in France for many years.
1932 Durant, DeVaux-Hall Motors file for bankruptcy. Continental Motors Corporation purchases assets of DeVaux-Hall, introduces Continental-DeVaux.
1933. Final bankruptcy for Durant, Dominion production ends.
1934. Continental-DeVaux production ends.
Sometimes people end up with cars for seemingly mysterious reasons…and sometimes they don’t. In 1936, when Odus G. Raymer was 16, his father promised him that if he worked for free that summer in their small family haulage and road construction business, he’d buy Odus a car. “I worked all summer hauling gravel, raking roads—they didn’t put blacktop down back then,” he says. His father was as good as his word, and bought him a 1929 Durant 66. “I loved that car as this one. But I traded it in three, four years later for a Rockne, which was a big mistake. I thought I wanted a more modern car. But the Studebaker engine didn’t hold up…which could have been me.
“But that Durant did hold up and boy, did we drive it hard.” He found work in a machine shop, where he worked through most of the war, until the Department of the Navy found him. Briefly. Sworn in in Indianapolis, “I had four days of being in the Navy. Things changed—it was the end of the war.”
The Mulberry Maroon ’31 Durant came into his life though an ad in Hemmings in 1965. When he went up to Detroit to pick it up, “The man I bought it from had turned back the odometer, and wouldn’t tell me anything. I managed to get a few details out of his father.” The car had come from California, but not from the Durant factory there: It was built in Flint, Michigan.
Odus drove his Durant until 1975, when he restored it for the Bicentennial (it appeared in Logansport, Indiana’s parade). “When I restored it, I’d had trouble with it overheating, so I tore the engine down, boiled it out. When I put it back together, it has bearing inserts that were still the same gauge as the original, so the mileage wasn’t too high.
“I’m not much of a fan for collecting a lot of information, I just like to drive them. It’s not for sale, no matter how long I’m alive. I’ve got a daughter who wants it, and one who doesn’t care about old cars. It’s enjoyable, and has been down the years.”
Durant Motors Automobile Club
P.O. Box 2248
Vancouver, Washington 98668
Dues: $30; Membership: 400
PROS & CONS
More steel than the competition
Smooth ride and reassuring handling
Standard features, including dual sidemounts
Small production numbers
Reproduction parts availability
1931 Durant 614 De Luxe Sedan
Base Price $995
Type Continental Red Seal L-head straight-six, cylinders cast en-bloc, Pyrodyne head, aluminum alloy pistons.
Displacement 199 cubic inches
Bore X Stroke 4.0 X 3.25 inches
Compression Ratio 5.46:1
Horsepower @ rpm 71 @ 3,300
Torque @ rpm 122-ft.lbs @ 1,400
Valvetrain Solid valve lifters, chain-driven camshaft
Main Bearings 4
Fuel System Stromberg 1-1/4-inch U-2 plain tube carburetor, A.C. fuel pump
Ignition System Electric Auto-Lite
Lubrication System Pressure to main bearings, connecting rods and camshaft bearings; gear-type pump
Electrical System Six-volt
Exhaust System Single
Type Selective sliding gear, Borg & Beck single plate 8 7/8-inch dry disc clutch
Ratios: 1st 3.32:1
Type Hotchkiss drive, semi-floating, spiral ring gear and pinion
Type Elliot-type semi-irreversible, worm-and-roller, ball thrust bearings
Turns, lock-to-lock 4
Turning Circle 39 feet
Type Four-wheel Midland Steeldraulic internal expanding
Front 11 X 2-inch drum
Rear 11 X 2-inch drum
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction Composite steel and hardwood body-on-frame
Body Style Four door, six passenger sedan
Layout Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front Reverse Elliot type, dropforged I-beam axle, 7-leaf semi-elliptic springs, lever-arm hydraulic shocks
Rear Semi-floating solid axle, 7-leaf semi-elliptic springs, tube shocks
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels 12-spoke wood artillery
Front/rear 19 X 4 inches
Tires Lester blackwall bias ply
Front/rear 19 X 4.50 inches
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase 112 inches
Overall length N/A
Overall width 68 inches
Overall height 69 inches
Front track 57.5 inches
Rear track 57.5 inches
Shipping weight 2,955 pounds
Crankcase 6 quarts
Cooling system 14 quarts
Fuel tank 12 gallons
Bhp per c.i.d. 2.80
Weight per bhp 41.62 pounds
Weight per c.i.d. 15.05 pounds
Top speed 75 mph
1931 Durant (all) 7,270