by Michael Lamm, courtesy of the Ironstone Concours d’Elegance
Photos courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library
Many thanks to Michael Lamm for providing this terrific bit of history.
To celebrate Chevrolet’s 100th anniversary, we’d like to focus on the man rather than the car. Louis Chevrolet began developing his namesake automobile in 1911. The Chevrolet brand became an icon and a tremendous success, yet he, Louis, received little profit from it.
Although Louis Chevrolet was much more than a race driver, racing is what made him famous. In 1905, he beat Barney Oldfield and Walter Christie, the two best-known drivers of the day, at New York’s Morris Park in a 90-horsepower Fiat. In the process, Chevrolet set a track record of 68 mph which, in 1905, was like establishing the speed of light. Later that year, he beat Henry Ford and Walter Christie in a one-mile race at Cape May, New Jersey. Those two wins brought Louis Chevrolet instant recognition as one of America’s most skillful and daring race drivers.
It also brought Louis Chevrolet to the attention of William C. Durant, who had just founded General Motors.
Durant hired Louis in 1909 to race Buicks, at the same time hiring Louis’s brother, Arthur, to be his personal chauffeur. Over the next two years, Louis piloted Buicks to an impressive list of victories. But because he crashed nearly as often as he won, he had the foresight to invent the rollbar.
In 1910, after Durant lost GM in a stock dispute, Louis Chevrolet began to develop a stylish, upmarket car for Durant’s comeback into the auto industry. That effort ended up being the first Chevrolet, introduced in Jan. 1913. The car boasted a veed radiator, six-cylinder engine, the first gearshift lever in the center of the floor and an emergency brake hidden under the dashboard. The Chevrolet automobile sold 10,000 units in three years (including 3,500 earlier Little models), earning millions for Durant and setting him up to again take control of General Motors. Durant rewarded Louis Chevrolet with $10,000 in Chevrolet stock.
But then Durant decided to bring out a less expensive version of the Chevrolet to compete with Ford’s Model T—a wise move but one that Louis Chevrolet didn’t like. He preferred to see his name on more prestigious cars, so he sold his stock to Durant and walked away. It didn’t take long for Louis to realize his mistake.
Louis Joseph Chevrolet was born on Christmas Day, 1878, the son of a Swiss watchmaker. His father taught him about clocks, watches and things mechanical and also instilled in him a high standard of precision. The family moved to France in 1886 and, as a teenager, Louis became enamored of bicycles. He built several, raced them, and then took a job in a machineshop in 1895.
Legend has it that the next year, American millionaire Cornelius K. Vanderbilt was touring France in his very expensive new car when it broke down. No one could fix it, but young Chevrolet stepped up and got the car running, whereupon Vanderbilt assured Louis that his future lay in the United States.
Louis subsequently became a mechanic for several French automakers, notably Darracq, Hotchkiss, de Dion Bouton and Mors. Mors sent him to Canada in 1899, and from there Louis went on to New York, where he got a chance to drive a Fiat race car. The pairing seemed natural, and Louis Chevrolet divided his time in New York between racing, selling and repairing high-end European cars.
After his father died in France in 1901, Chevrolet began to bring his family to the U.S., including his two brothers, Arthur and Gaston, both of whom joined him in racing. In 1905, Louis married. His wife, Suzanne, gave birth to a son, Charles, in 1906 and another, Alfred, in 1912. In 1915, Louis became an American citizen, but by that time GM and the Chevrolet automobile were in Louis’s past, and he’d moved forward in racing.
In 1914, he began building Frontenac race cars, a name that dominated the Indianapolis 500 for several years. All three Chevrolet brothers entered the Indy 500 in 1916, and Gaston won the race in 1920, only to crash and die six months later in California. Louis also modified a tiny Cornelian cyclecar and drove it in the 1915 Indy 500 but didn’t finish. Frontenac eventually branched out into designing and marketing performance parts for the Model T (Fronty Fords) and others.
That business prospered, but Frontenac lost a fortune trying to develop a passenger car along with Stutz. The Depression hit Louis Chevrolet hard, as did the death of his son, Charles, in 1934. He became a consultant to Chevrolet Division that year but had to leave in 1938 due to a stroke. Louis Chevrolet entered a retirement home in Florida and died on a visit to Detroit in 1941. All his personal papers, engineering drawings, photos, etc., were destroyed in a fire at his sister’s home in New Jersey. Louis and Gaston Chevrolet are buried side by side at the Holy Cross cemetery near Indianapolis.