GM Chairman John F. Smith, climbed to the head of the company from the financial side, giving him just the kind of background GM prefers in its chief executive.

In contrast, GM founder William Crapo Durant was no finance man. In fact, some say that was the problem.

When he merged the successful Buick Motor Car Co. with Oldsmobile and several other small, financially shaky operations to form the General Motors Co. in 1908, Mr. Durant appeared to be as much a dreamer as an entrepreneur -- and a foolhardy one to boot.

His outlandish prediction that motorcars someday would sell at the rate of a half million per year caused one famous banker of the day to quip, "If he has any sense, he'll keep those notions to himself if he ever tries to borrow money."

GM had its share of rough times, largely because when it came to adding new businesses to his empire, Mr. Durant was an unabashed shopaholic. The company weathered the storms much better than its founder did, standing today as the world's largest industrial concern. Mr. Durant died broke in 1947 (see story p.45).

GM has changed a lot over the years, far exceeding even its founder's expectations. It's bigger now, stronger and richer. It sells about 5 million cars and trucks in the U.S. alone each year, plus a few million more around the world. Yet motor vehicles constitute only one of its many businesses -- and not even the most profitable one.

Still, if you peer beyond the barely visible "Ds" etched into the cornices high atop GM's headquarters in Detroit, you may be able to see back in time. Then you'll discover that other than some major additions from the 1980s, GM today remains essentially the house that Billy Durant built.

Within two years of its establishment, GM had added a number of new companies, including the Cadillac and Oakland (predecessor of Pontiac) car companies and a couple of truckmakers that it consolidated under GM Truck (forerunner of GMC).

By now, however, the company was so financially overextended that its alarmed bankers stripped Mr. Durant of operating power and brought in their own people, who sold or liquidated numerous unprofitable operations. The company also began to expand its horizons, establishing the General Motors Export Co. and purchasing Bedford Motors Ltd. of England, which already was building cars on Buick chassis.

The bankers had relegated Mr. Durant to a passive vice presidency, but they couldn't squash his entrepreneurial spirit. With little he could do within GM, he turned to buying and building companies on the side, including a second auto conglomerate called United Motors Corp.

Many of these ventures would come to figure prominently in GM -- especially the Chevrolet Motor Co., formed in 1911 by Mr. Durant in partnership with Louis Chevrolet, a former driver for Buick's racing team.

The Chevrolet Co. was so successful that Mr. Durant was able to use its stock to trade his way back into power at GM in 1916, taking the title of president for the first time. Chevrolet, for a brief time the majority stockholder in GM -- and technically, its owner -- became a full-fledged GM division in 1918.

By GM's 10th anniversary, then, all of its current vehicle operations were in place except Saturn Corp. Saturn would be formed seven decades later, the only one established from scratch within the GM fold and the only one granted subsidiary status.

Other notable operations, and men, followed Mr. Durant's return to GM. There were the famed Fisher brothers and their Fisher Body Co.; Charles F. (Boss) Kettering and his Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco), forerunner to GM's Research Labs; and the United Motors Corp.'s Alfred P. Sloan Jr. along with his Hyatt Roller Bearing Co., to name only a few.

General Motors Acceptance Corp., GM's financing arm and financial powerhouse, was established in 1919, as was the General Motors Institute in Flint. That same year, construction began on the General Motors Building in Detroit.

By 1920, after GM's plants had just dedicated the better part of three years of production to supplies for World War I, Mr. Durant had managed to grow the company to eight times its 1916 size. By year-end, however, GM again was on the verge of bankruptcy, and its founder was ousted from the company for good.

GM Chairman Pierre S. du Pont took on the presidency as well and named Alfred P. Sloan Jr. executive vice president.

Under their leadership, GM struggled to its feet and soared to new heights, only to have much of its fortunes swallowed up by the Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. It took the industry two decades to fully recover, but GM emerged a winner -- thanks largely to Mr. Sloan, who was as good at running companies as Mr. Durant was at buying them.

Although Billy Durant almost singlehandedly created GM, it is Mr. Sloan who is credited with shaping it into the successful giant it is today. After taking the helm in 1923, he ushered in the tightly controlled decentralized management philosophy that would make GM the model for corporate America.

It was a good time to head an auto company, the market boomed and the automotive business distinguished itself as the country's foremost industry, with sales of $3.2 billion for the year. GM alone sold a record 4 million cars. Four years later, GM vehicles outsold Fords for the first time.

By the end of the decade, GM had become a serious international auto company, acquiring both Vauxhall Motors Ltd. of the U.K. (which it merged with its Bedford operation) and Adam Opel AG of Germany, and installing an automobile assembly operation in Denmark.

Mr. Sloan ruled as CEO of GM for 23 years, 14 as president and nine as chairman, a title he retained for 10 years after relinquishing the CEO title to William S. Knudsen in 1946.

As car sales skidded in the depressed market of the 1930s, GM turned to a number of non-automotive ventures -- from radio to aircraft. But just as things began to look up, trouble struck. In 1936, GM became the target of the industry's first sit-down labor strike. Two years later, the country again was hit by a recession. And then it was on to war.

World War II transformed GM from the world's largest automotive producer to the foremost supplier of war materials, with $12.3 billion worth of defense product delivered between 1940 and 1945. Civilian vehicle output, of which GM had accounted for 44%, was halted from early 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.

A post-war surge in passenger car demand was dimmed by labor strikes that shuttered many of GM's plants in late 1945 and early 1946. It was 1948 before the company was able to return to pre-war U.S. production volumes or to ramp up its overseas operations, including regaining control of its German Opel unit, which it was forced to abandon in 1940.

By the 1950s, pent-up demand and consumer discontent with what essentially were facelifted pre-war cars led to the fintailed, gas-guzzlers that defined the decade as the era of the "big car" -- such as the hugely popular 1955 Chevy. In retrospect, the '50s stand as the flashy finale to decades of progressive growth in the automobile's size and power and the dawning of the age of the sturdy, practical compact car -- in GM's case, led by the infamous rear-engined 1960 Chevrolet Corvair.

For the next two decades, GM concentrated on downsizing and refining its vehicles.

U.S. sales soared to record levels in the early 1960s, and Chevy's sister divisions followed it into the small-car field.

GM celebrated its 50th anniversary as its guidance and navigation systems saw the Apollo II astronauts safely through their historic 1969 voyage to the moon.

GM's journey into and out of the 1970s proved less smooth, beginning with a 67-day UAW strike and production loss of 1.5 million vehicles, and ending with an oil embargo and economic slump that sent consumers scurrying for smaller, more fuel-efficient models -- mainly Japanese.

Fortunately, a 1971-'78 industry sales boom had padded the company's coffers.

The dramatic growing of the GM business stable during the Durant era remained unparalleled for more than six decades. Then came Roger B. Smith, chairman from 1981-1990, and restructurings, acquisitions and joint-ventures too numerous to mention here. New names brought under the GM banner included Hughes, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Saturn, Saab, Geo, New United Motor Mfg. Inc. and Volvo GM Heavy Truck.

As GM moves toward the 21st century, hot on the trail toward globalization, it is forging new territory in the 1990s. It has turned its components operations into a separate business sector called Delphi Automotive Systems. It's spinning EDS off into an independent company and is revamping its product-development and "brand- management" systems to better focus on its customers.

It's heavily into vehicle leasing and the credit card business, and it's marketing vehicles on the Internet. Now it's even bringing electric vehicles to market -- whether the market wants them or not.