“GMC” doesn’t mean what you think it means
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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I wouldn’t swear by the accuracy of the article BUT does anyone know how/why certain trucks are badged GMC and not say, Chevy? Is it simply a marketing decision?
The ones that are styled and engineered like GMC’s are badged “GMC”. The ones that are styled and engineered like Chevrolets are badged “Chevrolet”. It’s not rocket science.
This is all wrong. GMC stands for “Good Man, Charlie”
It sure as hell isn’t Generous Motor corporation. I worked for a GMC Dealership 42 years.
In the GMC Motorhome (1973-1978) Community it is often referred to as: “Get More Cash” or “Got A Mechanic Coming”
So, a re-write of last years Hagerty article by Sajeev? https://www.hagerty.com/media/hagerty-community/according-to-you-10-automotive-factoids-you-should-never-forget
Can’t anyone make new stuff anymore?
It’s the writer who doesn’t know what GMC stands for. The General Motors Corporation is defunct. GMC stands for General Motors Company.
And wouldn’t you think that they would know that battery-powered cars have electric motors and gasoline-powered cars have engines, since they started out with both?
My family was in the trucking business beginning with horse drawn equipment. Some time during or just after the first world war, the first motorized vehicles were purchased… They were GMCs. I actually have copies of photos of the trucks with the company name painted on them. The company dissolved in the 1970s.
The funny thing about urban legends is who thinks they are true. In 6th grade (1991) I wrote a paper on GM and it’s divisions. One of the sources I used was the Pontiac/GMC division as I contacted them and they sent me a letter, whoever wrote that letter said that GMC stood for Grebowski Motor Co. 😂 I’m sure I still have that letter somewhere written on Pontiac/GMC letterhead.
I am going to have to double check but I believe the Duryea brothers in Chicopee, MA created the first pick up truck prior to the Grabowski brothers. Duryea is credited as the first motor car in the US as well, 1893. They are also the first to win a race that crossed state lines or something to that point. They drove from Springfield, MA to Enfield, CT. There is a whole display that the newly revamped Springfield train station.
Georgia Milk Cow……
But next time the parts counter guy asks me what make my vehicle is, I’m gonna tell him it’s a “Grabowski”
Very interesting article!
I have been interested in cars and trucks since l was 8 am 68 !
Thanks for the article!
There was also a GMC -Geronimo Motor Company around the same time.
Gotta a mechanic coming
“Gotta” is a contraction/corruption of “got to”, not “got a”. I’ve gotta get going. I’ve gotta remember that.
Quote: “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Anyone who may be a Charles Bronson fan really needs to watch “From noon till three” with Jill Ireland. This movie will bring that quote home to the viewer good movie, btw.