“GMC” doesn’t mean what you think it means

Max Grabowsky (left). Note how getting the details of this story correct was difficult 75+ years ago, when Grabowsky was still alive. National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

At the end of John Ford’s classic end-of-the-frontier 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a newspaper editor literally burns a story that corrects a popular but untruthful legend, rather than publish it. When the beneficiary of that legend tries to convince him to right the record, the editor tells him, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As that scene in the movie teaches, some legends are just too good to be true—but persist nonetheless.

Take the supposed origin story of the GMC truck brand, for example.

The way that legend goes is that two Detroit brothers, Max and Morris Grabowsky, started the Grabowsky Motor Company at the turn of the 20th century. In 1909, William Durant was busy building General Motors, using Buick as the foundation. That same year, he purchased the country’s leading luxury motorcar manufacturer, Cadillac. According to one version of the story, Durant also “wanted a truck to combat Henry Ford’s stranglehold on that market.”

He arranged to buy the Grabowsky Motor Company, as it was highly regarded for its truck products. But the terms of the sale included a requirement that the name would not be changed. By the legend’s logic, GMC still stands for Grabowsky Motor Company, and not General Motors Corporation.

The first Rapid Motor Vehicle Company truck, made by Max and Morris Grabowsky. National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

Let’s get more extraneous elements of the story out of the way.

When Durant started buying shares of the Grabowsky’s truck company, it was indeed highly regarded and one of the biggest truck manufacturers in the country. That was in 1908, the same year that Henry Ford introduced the Model T. Ford Motor Company’s first truck, the one-ton-rated Model TT (essentially a beefed-up Model T), wasn’t even introduced until 1917, so Durant could hardly have been trying to combat any stranglehold on the market. Henry Ford couldn’t have had such an effect for at least another decade.

The “terms of the sale” part of the legend, regarding keeping the name “GMC,” was probably picked up from Durant’s deal to buy Cadillac.

General Motors

As for “GMC,” Max and Morris Grabowsky indeed started an eponymous motor vehicle company called either the Grabowsky Motor Company or the Grabowsky Motor Vehicle Company (the sources differ), located in the Detroit area, in 1900.

There is little personal information available about the brothers. We do know that they were born to a Jewish family and that Max was born in Detroit in 1876. Sources describe him as either an engineer or a bicycle maker.

That early iteration of GMC built just one and a half total trucks before reorganizing in 1902. It’s not clear what happened to job number one, but the completed second truck was the brothers’ first sale, to the American Garment Cleaning Company of Detroit, in ’02, and it was said to be the first motorized truck operating in Detroit.

However, that truck wasn’t sold under a Grabowsky brand. By then the brothers had built a new factory on Rapid Street in Pontiac, Michigan, and serendipitously found their new location to be a perfect name for a motor vehicle company. They renamed the original GMC (or GMVC) to The Rapid Motor Vehicle Company.

(That factory, by the way, became the nucleus of what was later GM’s sprawling Pontiac West Assembly Complex.)

The original chain-drive Rapid trucks were powered by a horizontally opposed, 196-cubic-inch, two-cylinder gasoline engine that put out in excess of 20 horsepower, with a two-speed planetary gearbox. At the time, freight was carried by horse-drawn carts, and the Rapid’s main selling point was that it wasn’t just faster than a horse, it was cheaper to operate.

Rapid eventually also offered electric trucks, designed by John M. Lansden, an early EV pioneer. The company had center-mounted DC motors, with standard lead-acid or optional Edison nickel-iron batteries kept in a wooden compartment below and behind the driver’s seat.

When GM acquired the Rapid company, it carried over both gasoline- and electrically-powered trucks, which means the new Hummer EV is not GM’s first electric truck—by more than a century.

By 1904, Rapid was selling hundreds of one-ton trucks a year. Two- and three-ton models followed. By 1909, the year that Durant completed GM’s acquisition of the Rapid company, a Rapid truck was the first truck to drive to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

According to an article at Hemmings, the Grabowskys weren’t even involved with the Rapid company when it was acquired by GM, Rapid having been purchased in 1905 by Albert North and Harry Hamilton’s Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works.

It was Hamilton, a natural marketer, who had the Rapid truck take on Pike’s Peak. He also entered it in the 1908 Glidden Tour endurance run and then had it driven back to Rapid Street, a total of over 2000 miles without a mechanical breakdown.

gmc name legend real meaning

Part of the confusion over the history of the GMC brand is that while a GMC brand was never used on a truck sold by the Grabowskys, there were indeed Grabowsky-branded trucks, just not ones related to General Motors’ GMC brand.

After the brothers sold their original truck company, in 1909, they and an associate named Bernard Ginsberg started another truck company called the Grabowsky Power Wagon Company, “power wagon” then being the generic term for what we today call a truck. Albert Kahn, a favorite industrial architect of Henry Ford and Joseph Stalin, designed a four-story factory for the GPWC. The Grabowsky Power Wagon even had a unique selling point: a powerplant that “pulls out like a drawer” and could be removed for service.

That company, though, went bankrupt in 1912. Coincidentally, that was the same year the actual GMC nameplate first officially appeared on a General Motors vehicle, GM having reorganized Rapid and the Reliance truck line, which it had also acquired, under the General Motors Truck Company brand the year before.

(To clarify another bit of confusion, some sources say that the Grabowskys also founded the Reliance company, but that Owosso, Michigan–based car and truck maker was unrelated to the Grabowskys.)

gmc name legend real meaning
General Motors

The Grabowsky brothers were undoubtedly automotive pioneers who should be better known, and not just for an automotive urban legend. One account says that they built the first truck in America, and while it’s tempting to say that too is an urban legend, it may be historically accurate, at least as far as a cursory internet search shows.

gmc name legend real meaning
Alexander Winton’s 1899 “Semi Truck”

Alexander Winton, the pioneering automaker who is best known today for losing a race to Henry Ford, is said to have made the first truck in 1899 by mounting a hitch to a Winton motorcar to which he could attach a trailer. It’s tempting to call that the first “semi,” but Charles Fruehauf didn’t invented the semi trailer as we know it until 1914. And, unlike the Grawbowskys’ early vehicles, Winton’s “truck” doesn’t look much like what has been considered a truck for most of automotive history—a cab up front and a flat bed or box in the back. The Mack brothers started their company in 1900, but they started out making buses and didn’t build their first truck until 1905.

It’s possible, then, that the truck that the Grabowskys delivered to that laundry company in 1902 was not just the first motorized truck operating in Detroit; it may well have been the first motorized truck in America, period.

gmc name legend real meaning
The first Fruehauf trailer in 1914. Fruehauf

The “GMC stands for Grabowsky Motor Company” legend is a nice story that ties everything up in a nice bow. However, after taking a deep dive into this particular rabbit hole, it appears that, other than the fact that the Grabowskys started a truck company that was eventually sold to General Motors, not much of that legend is the historical truth, even if most of the legend’s inaccuracies are based on fragments of the real story.

The GMC badge on your Sierra or Yukon? It stands for nothing other than General Motors Corporation.


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: The real story behind McLaren boss Zak Brown’s retro RV


    Yeah the forum posters on the old Hagerty forums (RIP) debunked this pretty solidly.

    The Fruehauf trailer is a sketchy-looking thing…

    I was once stuck behind someone (thankfully in slow city traffic and not highway) who had their sedan towing an appliance dolly that was ratchet strapped to the bumper by its handles, and loaded with a refrigerator. Never been so happy to pass someone in my life.

    Thanks to Ronnie for diving into the history to finally settle this argument once and for all. Or has he? 😁

    My book GMC The First 100 Years, which was researched at the GM Media Archives in 2001, Says: “Rapid Truck Co. was absorbed by General Motors, of 88 Congress Street, Detroit. Michigan on July 22, 1911. General Motors Truck Co. was formed expressly to handle sales of Rapid and Reliance trucks. A few weeks later, on August 1, 1911, a new GMC trademark was first used in the business of General Motors Truck Co. At that point, GMC nameplates began appearing on some, but not all, of the company’s trucks. This book was written as the official history of GMC on the brand’s 100th anniversary.

    It stands for what I thought it did… I guess I never heard that particular legend. Interesting trip thru history though

    Timely article: I read on some automotive site just the other day that GMC was Grabowsky Motor Co…like so many items of technical fiction, stories live on regardless of their accuracy or merit.
    Got a chuckle out of “Power Wagon”…some attorney somewhere is likely penning a letter to Stellantis, haha.

    “the Grabowskys weren’t even involved with the Rapid company when it was acquired by GM, Rapid having been purchased in 1905 by Albert North and Harry Hamilton’s Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works.”
    “After the brothers sold out to GM, in 1909…”. So what did the brothers sell to GM in 1909 if they had already sold out to North and Hamilton in 1905? I’m confused…..

    Sorry about that. I noticed it while checking on comments but once something’s been published I don’t have editing access. It was an artifact from an earlier draft that I didn’t catch. I’ll talk to my editors about making the correction.

    Great story thanks for doing a deep dive on this enjoyed the complete story history debunked again keep up the facts like this

    I had only heard the Grabowsky thing a few years ago. I always associated GMC with General Motors and noting else.

    I thought Grabowsky was a football player with the Chicago Bears. LoL.

    I stand corrected. However, in conversation with the late Norm Grabowski, he claimed to have familial ties with the truck-building Grabowsky’s (he didn’t explain the spelling change) and he is the one who told me about the whole thing. The facts are irrefutable, and if the article says “GMC” stands for General Motors Corporation, then so be it. Maybe we need to invent a time machine so we can go back and talk to everyone involved…

    Max and Morris Grabowsky were my 2nd great grand uncles. I always heard as a kid they “started what became GMC” but regardless of what it stood for they definitely had a hand in innovating some trucks. Which is good enough for me lol family legends die hard.

    Hi, Michaela, the spelling of Grabowsky with a Y is significantly different in the family lineage. I’ve tried to track the origins of Max and Jack, some 20 years older than my Polish-born paternal grandfather Joseph, c.1878. Feel free to contact me via gmail at AG1812. Alan G

    I am 85 years old and grew up with the GMC label meaning Garage Mans Companion and FORD meaning Fix Or Repair Daily I

    Rebuilt Dodge


    Spelled backwards:

    Early in my automotive sales career (19 year old), I had a customer who was interested in trading his GMC truck in. Trying to ingest some humor into the sales process, I exclaimed I was about to appraise “God’s Mechanical Curse”. He did not think it a bit funny, took his keys and made a hasty exit! I learned early on, never mix religion and business.

    Growing up in the 50’s and the family business owning one, it was always the General Mess of Crap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *