1923 Star
1923 Star. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

General Motors was formed in 1908 by a high-flying carriage entrepreneur from Flint, Michigan by the name of William (Billy) Crapo Durant. He soon assembled many companies, including Buick and Cadillac, into the GM family. Unfortunately, Billy was more of a speculator and promoter than he was an administrator, with the result that GM was taken over by the bankers in 1910. Billy was no longer in control.

Durant, still on the GM board of directors, then organized Chevrolet, and made it successful enough that he was able to use it to regain control of GM in 1915. He resumed running GM in his usual flamboyant style until 1920 when he was again ousted, this time for good.

The irrepressible Durant was down but far from out. At the age of 60 he organized yet another car company, Durant Motors Inc., in 1921. Within a few months, his medium-priced Durants were rolling out of a Long Island, N.Y., assembly plant.

In 1922, Durant bought the faltering Locomobile prestige car company as an upscale adjunct to his own brand. He would subsequently produce cars with such names as Eagle and Flint, and would establish plants in several cities, including Toronto, Ontario, Elizabeth, New Jersey, Muncie, Indiana and Flint, Michigan.

Durant recognized, as had Henry Ford, that the real future of the automobile lay in a popularly priced model. He thus decided to challenge Ford’s all-conquering Model T, and launched his Model T fighting Star car in the spring of 1922. It was priced at $348. A self-starter and dismountable rims were approximately $100 more, although they soon became standard. This made its price competitive with the Model T.

The Star was an “assembled” car, meaning that most of the components were produced by outside suppliers. Engines, for example, came from Continental, axles from Timkin and Adams, and universal joints from Spicer.

The Star’s engine was a 35-horsepower, 2.1-litre (130 cu in.) four cylinder of conventional design, except for the method of mounting the transmission. Like other models in the Durant stable, the Star’s three-speed gearbox was not integrated with the engine like most cars, but was set back a small distance in the chassis. Power reached the transmission through a short shaft, a layout that would largely disappear by the 1920s.

The Durant name still held magic, and the Star’s introduction in Washington, D.C. met with great enthusiasm. It attracted 30,000 people, and generated 10,000 dealer inquiries. Right across the country people flocked to dealerships to see Durant’s new, low-priced car.

Stock in the newly created Star Motor Co., sold through the Durant Corp., quickly totalled $30 million. It was the kind of promotional environment in which the entrepreneurial Durant thrived.

To meet the demand for Stars and Durants, Billy outbid Walter Chrysler by paying $5.2 million for a huge Willys Overland plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

More than 100,000 Stars were sold during the first year, and production approached 20,000 a month. This was still small potatoes beside Ford’s annual production of one million plus Model Ts, but it was very respectable for a new car. There was also an export version known as the Rugby.

The Star came out in two-and four-door open and closed models. Then in 1923 Durant led the industry by introducing a Star station wagon, the first factory-produced wagon offered by a mass automobile manufacturer.

A 40-horsepower six was added in 1926, with a 127 mm (5.0 in.) longer wheelbase than the four’s 2,591 mm (102 in.). Four-wheel brakes were fitted in 1927.

Once he got a business up and running, the visionary Durant tended to lose interest in it. During this period, he became enamoured with Europe, spending a lot of time there when he should have been at home taking care of running his company. The Durant empire started to whither in the late ’20s, and the future of the Star along with it. Although it had been a popular car, the Star couldn’t escape the Durant Motor Co.’s flagging fortunes.

In 1928, the Star six became the Durant 55, while the Star four continued, although that would be its last year. For 1929, the Star four became the Durant 4-40 in the U.S., and the Frontenac in Canada.

The Durant Motor Co. went out of business in 1932. In Canada, the Durant plant was taken over by Canadian interests who reorganized it into Dominion Motors. It continued to build Frontenacs, and assemble Reo Flying Clouds in Toronto until production ceased in 1933.

Although the Star was on the automotive scene for only seven years, it gained considerable popularity. After its passenger-carrying duties were over, the Star’s sturdy little Continental engine often showed up in such applications as powering buzz saws, boats and autotracs, which were farm tractors made out of cars.

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