By Jennifer Young
In 1920, auto workers of Muncie, Indiana, believed they had an automotive hit on their hands.
General Motors (GM) founded its first made-from-scratch brand in 1920 with the development of the Sheridan line of automobiles. Before Sheridan, GM preferred to acquire independent auto makers and incorporate them under the company’s ever expanding umbrella. Sheridan, however, was the pet project of Billy Durant, an auto industry pioneer and head of GM at the time.
The Sheridan was an early “assembled auto.” This meant that its manufacturers used off-the-shelf parts made by other companies to assemble the vehicles. Durant hoped the Sheridan would hit a price point that landed somewhere between Chevrolet and Buick. GM produced four models as part of the Sheridan line. These included: an open, coupe, roadster, and sedan. The autos featured either a four or eight-cylinder engine. The cars also came with Northway engines, Warner three-speed transmissions, and Hoosier dry-disk clutches.
GM promoted the Sheridan line as setting new standards in comfort and beauty. Its advertisements of the time promoted the autos as convenient and mechanically outstanding. So enthusiastic was Durant about the Sheridan line that he hired Eddie Rickenbacker, an American fighter pilot ace, to market the vehicles for GM. Rickenbacker’s endorsements and an intensive marketing campaign led to a waiting list for the vehicles.
As soon as plans for the Sheridan line were approved, Durant acquired a manufacturing plant in Muncie, Ind., for the vehicles’ production. At the high point of production in 1921, the Muncie plant was churning out 300 cars a day. At this rate, GM was reaping a great profit from the new line. However, it wouldn’t be long before production of the Sheridan was scrapped.
Just when production of the Sheridan was peaking, GM fired Durant. Having amassed a considerable fortune from Wall Street trading, Durant decided to purchase the Muncie plant and the rights to the Sheridan. He then launched Durant Motors. He planned to continue making Sheridans in Muncie along with Princeton automobiles. The takeover seemed to cause unease with auto buyers. Soon, Rickenbacker pulled his support for the Sheridan and even though there was still a waiting list for the vehicles, production of the line ceased by September 1921.
Durant, undaunted, launched Durant Motors in Canada and established plants in Michigan, New York, and California. It seems that much of the failure of the Sheridan occured because of bad publicity. The press reported that the Sheridan of Durant lacked the same quality as the Sheridan under GM. This, of course, was frustrating for Durant who knew that the cars employed the same parts and were assembled by the same workers at the same Muncie plant. Nevertheless, he went on to acquire other auto companies to incorporate into Durant Motors.
Because the Sheridan was only produced for a short time, it is in high demand among auto collectors. Durant Motors, on the other hand, would continue to operate with moderate success for about a decade. Then, the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression threw the industry—Durant and his company included—into a tizzy of bankruptcy. Durant never recovered his fortune but he was granted a pension of $10,000 per year from GM for his contributions to the company. By today’s standards, that sum would be nearly $180,000 per year. Durant died in 1947 at the age of 85. Various parks and schools in Michigan are named in his honor.