The name Chevrolet is synonymous with the auto industry – it conjures up images of the 1950s and 1960s. No one can imagine a post-war world without Chevrolet. The man behind the marque was not so well remembered.
Louis Chevrolet was born on Christmas Day 1878 in Switzerland and as a young boy his parents moved to Burgundy in France. This is where his interest in mechanics and bicycles started – and like many boys enjoyed the thrill of speed on his two wheeler. In his late teens, he started work in a local mechanic shop however the desire to see the world was looming and so he firstly went to Paris and then from there to Montreal finding a job as a mechanic and chauffeur as he went. In those days, being a chauffeur meant also being a mechanic.
By 1901, he had moved south to New York where he was able to get a job with the the US arm of the French company De Dion-Bouton. It was in New York that he got married and was hired by FIAT to race their cars.
Another move was on the cards in 1907 as he joined the Autocar Company in Philadelphia and all the while he was figuring out automotive design and engineering – he didn’t have a great scholastic career before moving into the mechanical world, so for him it was a case of learning from his mistakes.
Chevrolet entered into an agreement to help build the Cornelian race car for the annual Indianapolis 500 race. At the same time that he was working with the Cornelian, William C Durant, the founder of General Motors hired him to also race Buicks and it was whilst with these teams, he developed his own overhead valve engine. Chevrolet had become a well known racer, so his name now carried some cache.
The relationship with Durant meant a backer for his own company, so with Durant’s brother-in-law and William Little (who also had his own car company) making up the partnership, Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in Detroit during 1911.
That relationship didn’t last long – 4 years later in 1915, Chevrolet sold the stake in his company and went to work back in Canada for the McLaughlin Car Company. Durant then did one of those tricky stock swap/buyback moves that meant that he could rebuy General Motors, absorb Chevrolet into that entity and then merge the McLaughlin Car Company into Chevrolet and rename it General Motors of Canada. As Louis Chevrolet had sold out a year or so earlier, he made little financial gain from this paper trail involving his namesake company.
There are differing stories about how the Chevrolet Car Company got started. Louis stated that he simply sold his name and was therefore a partner, Durant stated that he never intended Chevrolet to be a partner, simply an employee. You can see why that relationship didn’t last and why Louis had other plans.
Alongside all the confusion surrounding the Chevrolet Car Company, Louis had a couple of other irons in the fire: he was a joint owner of Frontenac Motor Corporation with his two brothers Arthur and Gaston. This company built performance parts for cars and their own racing machines – one of which Gaston Chevrolet used to win the 1920 Indy 500 and a team car won again in 1921. Frontenac was then approached by Stutz to partner making road sports cars, a new company was formed, however just as they were about to start production, the backers pulled out and the company failed, taking with it all of Louis’ cash.
To keep Frontenac in business, the Chevrolet brothers started making performance parts for Model T Fords. That was until the Model T was replaced by the Model A, and then that business slowed to a halt.
He was also Vice President and Chief Engineer of the American Motors Corporation (not the 1950s creation that owned Jeep amongst others). This company was merged during early 1920s into another company called Amalgamated Motors, which then ceased operations during the Great Depression.
With all the ups and downs of the auto industry, Chevrolet and his brother formed a new venture: the Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Company, in partnership with Glenn Martin. Another rift happened and Martin took the remains of the company and rebuilt it into one of the worlds most successful aircraft companies: Martin Marietta or Lockheed Martin as we now know it.
On one side, Chevrolet had fingers in many pies to create road cars and on the other, he loved his racing and it didn’t seem to matter whether it was one of his or anyone else’s he drove! He was once described as cantankerous, which would explain the many starts and failures of the companies that he was involved with.
After many business failures and a few racing accidents that caused him lifelong pain, Chevrolet was almost destitute and so in 1934 took a job with …. Chevrolet’s gear and axle factory in Detroit. A sad position for someone who was so famous in the early years of the industry and whose name was on the building. Unfortunately he was ailing in health and suffering minor strokes which meant he had to leave full time employment.
It seems he drifted between Detroit and the warmer climate of Florida for several years before an operation to remove a leg brought on his death at the age of 62. This could have been a byproduct of developing diabetes many years earlier. The 6th June 1941 should be commemorated as the end of a life that gave the US one of the icon marques of the industry – even if the name on every car was only with the company for 4 short years.