“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.


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    A four-story cement building, now demolished. Built for the Grabowsky Power Wagon Co. Designed c. 1907 by Albert Kahn, sold to Budd Manufacturing Co in 1912. Became the Columbian Electric Car Co factory 1914-1917. 1801, 1804, 1758, (6400?), Mt. Elliot at Strong or Milwaukee (which no longer goes that far east).
    This building was near the Hupmobile Poletown plant (now a Cadillac factory parking lot).
    1725 Mt Elliott Grabowsky 1907, Bankruptcy sale January, 1913
    1725 Mt. Elliot Detroit Electric 1919; (6561 Mt Elliott 1921 & 1922, after renumbering.)

    Lansden 1904-1923
    1904-1912, The Lansden Company,
    54-56 Lackawanna Avenue, Newark, New Jersey
    1912-1914, Allentown, PA
    1914-1920, The Lansden Co Ltd. Brooklyn, NY
    1920-1928, Danbury, CT,

    John McMurray Lansden Jr. and William M. Little made some experimental electric cars at the Birmingham Electric and Manufacturing Co around 1901. They moved to Newark, New Jersey, and started the Lansden Co on April 24, 1904. J. M. Lansden Jr., held Patent #837,628, issued Oct 14, 1904, for his basic light truck chassis, with a 3-chain drive design.
    Lansden’s vehicles featured Edison Batteries from the start, and was one of few that seems to have gotten some fresh supplies of the cobalt enhanced version after 1904, before the “perfected” cells became available (1910).
    On April 24, 1908, Edison acquired controlling interest in Lansden, and might have gotten a little too helpful, as J. M. Lansden left in 1911 to set up an electric truck department at the Rapid Truck division of General Motors (re-branded as GMC Truck in 1912). Edison sold his Lansden interest In January of 1912.

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