The FINANCIAL -- General Motors on May 1 opened the restored Durant-Dort Factory One, considered to be the company’s birthplace and epicenter of the global auto industry.
Once home to the Flint Road Cart Co., established in 1886 by William Crapo “Billy” Durant and business partner Josiah Dallas Dort, it includes event space and a modern archive where future generations can learn about the innovators and risk takers who reinvented personal transportation.
“Factory One sparked the global auto industry and was a catalyst in the formation of General Motors,” said Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, who championed the project. “It preserves the stories of the early visionaries who built a brand-new industry in this city, within the very walls of where it happened.”
The restoration preserves a significant aspect of the shared heritage of GM and Flint, while creating a community space to help spur economic development in the city, according to GM.
Further, the facility demonstrates GM’s commitment to honoring its history and relationship with Flint. Factory One is available to the public by appointment, with event space offered for rent for corporate, community, educational events and more. It can accommodate up to 300 people.
Factory One’s archive is free to use and contains about 100,000 historical documents, photos and other artifacts related to carriage-building and early automobile manufacturing in the Flint area, as well as GM history.
The new research library relocates extensive archives from nearby Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute). Dr. Gregory M. Miller, Kettering’s director of special collections and archives, will oversee them from his new office at Factory One. The move makes the collection more accessible to the public, and it complements other historical assets at Kettering, the University of Michigan-Flint and Sloan Museum in the nearby College and Cultural Area.
Thousands of Durant documents and items donated by his widow include a 1908 letter from a New York law firm suggesting he name his new automotive company General Motors. The archive also includes papers from former GM leaders Harlow Curtice, F. James McDonald and Elliott “Pete” Estes, and innovator Charles Kettering, for whom Kettering University is named.
Rare, vintage carriages and automobiles with Flint roots also will be displayed at the grand opening of the facility, which includes provisions to host classic auto clubs and events such as the city’s annual Back to the Bricks, which brings visitors from around the world to Flint each August.
“Factory One is part of the very fabric of Flint, and its reopening is as much about the future as it is the past,” said Kevin Kirbitz, Factory One operations manager. “It is a tremendous community asset and academic resource that will educate and inspire generations to come.”
The history of Durant-Dort Factory One
Located on the Flint River near downtown Flint — in the aptly named Carriage Town neighborhood — parts of the factory date to 1880, when it was built by the Flint Woolen Mills company as a short-lived venture into cotton textiles. In 1886, Durant and Dort leased the then-empty facility to build horse-drawn carriages.
The company would become known as the Durant-Dort Carriage Company and one of the world’s largest carriage makers. Eventually, Durant would take control of another company – Buick Motor Co. – and leverage his Durant-Dort resources to grow the young automaker into one of the most successful car companies in the country. Durant used Buick’s success to build General Motors in 1908 and turned to his friends from Flint’s carriage industry to form Chevrolet in 1911.
Carriage sales eroded with the rise of the automobile and the Durant-Dort Carriage Factory ceased production in 1917. Dort then formed the Dort Motor Company, which closed in 1924.
In the more-than 130 years since Durant and Dort set up shop at Factory One, it housed countless other businesses and was renovated in the 1980s before falling into disrepair. Kirbitz, a GM engineer, automotive historian and Flint native, has been involved in the project since 2012, when GM — and Reuss — first became interested in the building.
GM purchased it in 2013 and stabilized it with new, period-accurate windows and doors, as well as a new roofing system, with the goal of preserving and showcasing the original architecture. Contractors replaced 17,000 bricks color-matched to the original, as well as 20 percent of the mortar on the building. The foundation, damaged by flooding and grade changes over time, was repaired and waterproofed.
The last phases of the restoration included all-new heating/cooling, electrical, plumbing, state-of-the-art fire-suppression equipment and additional interior renovations. And despite numerous interior renovations over the years, many of vintage architectural elements such as the wooden beams, brick work and more were preserved and restored.
GM also provides financial support to the Durant-Dort Carriage Company Foundation to operate and maintain the historic office building, a National Historic Landmark, across the street. GM is also working with the Genesee County Historical Society, which occupies the office, to conduct combined tours of the office and Factory One.
In addition, in 2015, GM donated $2 million to Kettering to create a powertrain laboratory and the GM Foundation donated $2 million for the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center, which includes a 3.25-acre test pad and outdoor lab space to test and develop driverless car systems.