If you want to spark some intense conversation during Thanksgiving dinner, here is a suggestion. Mention the fact that Chevrolet began as an import. With everyone’s undivided attention you can then clarify that opening and explain that you were talking about the man, not the car.
Louis Chevrolet was born the son of a maker of watches and clocks in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland on Christmas day 1878. He had six siblings but only two brothers, Arthur, and Gaston would follow Louis into the automobile business.
From an early age Louis displayed an inherent talent for devising mechanical solutions for labor intensive problems. As an example, in his early teens while working for a wine merchant he designed and produced a wine-barrel pump that streamlined the bottling process. In the early 1890s bicycle mania swept the world and Chevrolet launched a bicycle repair and manufacturing business under the Frontenac name. And he established a local reputation for his racing prowess.
The bicycle manufacturing business proved to be a short lived venture. The Frontenac name would resurface for another Chevrolet venture years later. So would Chevrolet’s penchant for losing money on business endeavors that would dog him for the rest of his life.
During the last years of the 19th century he began learning the basics of the internal combustion engine as an apprentice in the workshops of French automakers Darracq and Mors. Then in 1900 he accepted a position as a mechanic and chauffer in Montreal for a Swiss associate that owned an engineering company with offices in Canada and the United States. The following year he transferred to the company’s New York City office. His big break came in 1905 when he took a position with Fiat and had his first opportunity to drive in an automobile race, something that he excelled at.
On May 20, 1905, Louis drove a 90-hp Fiat at the Hippodrome in Morris Park, N.Y. taking first prize. Before the year was out, he had bested the now legendary driver Barney Oldfield three times. In 1906, Chevrolet moved to Philadelphia to work with J. Walter Christie, a pioneer in the development of front wheel drive cars who had accepted a contract to build a race car for Autocar.
The racing successes and mechanical skills of the three Chevrolet brothers caught the eye of William Crapo Durant who was looking to promote Buick through motor sports. This was the beginning of a tumultuous business relationship that transformed the American industry.
Arthur was hired as Durant’s personal chauffer, while Gaston and Louis became the face of the Buick racing team. Then after Durant’s launch of General Motors in 1908, Chevrolet continued to head the company’s race team, but he also established a machine shop on Grand River Boulevard in Detroit where he designed and built a highly advanced overhead valve six-cylinder engine. It was the first manifestation of Louis Chevrolet’s increasing desire to launch a company for the manufacturing of high-performance cars.
But William Durant was a profit driven swashbuckling and reckless entrepreneur. And so the acquisition of companies that manufactured automobiles and ancillary components to compete with Benjamin Briscoe and Jonathan Maxwell’s United States Motor Company soon put General Motors in a precarious financial position. To protect their investment, and under pressure from stockholders the corporation’s board of directors removed Durant from the company in 1911.
Durant, however, was not intimidated by failure. He had built a reputation for making his investors rich. And that made it easy to attract investors, especially for a project that included the then legendary Louis Chevrolet. On November 3, 1911, Durant and Louis Chevrolet co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with investors William Little, manufacturer of the Little automobile, Durant’s son in law, Dr. Edwin R. Campbell, and Samuel McLaughlin of the McLaughlin Car Company of Canada Ltd.
As Louis Chevrolet worked out the bugs on prototype models completed earlier in the year, Durant was building the financial underpinnings of the company as well as the needed dealer network. Meanwhile Arthur and Gaston continued racing and building high performance cars. While not as active as his brothers, Louis also continued racing.
In 1914, behind the wheel of a Chevrolet he competed in the last of the grueling Desert Classic races along the National Old Trails Road from Los Angeles to Ash Fork, Arizona, and then south to Phoenix. When an accident resulted in the mixing of gasoline and water occurred in Seligman, Arizona, Chevrolet was forced to quit. Louis also drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times, with a best finish of 7th place in 1919.
Resultant of serious disagreements over direction of the company, and Durant’s reckless financial practices Louis Chevrolet sold his stock in the namesake company in 1914. This and the loss of use of the Chevrolet name as Durant held the rights, was the first in a serious of calamitous decisions made by Louis Chevrolet.
The following year Chevrolet and his brothers established a company for the manufacture of aircraft engines. In less than a year that company decelred bankruptcy. In 1916, with financial investment from Albert Champion, the brothers founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation to make high performance parts for the Ford Model T. Once again profit proved elusive. But Louis Chevrolet was an ambitious man.
His next project was a partnership with Howard E. Blood of Allegan, Michigan, to create the Cornelian racing car. Louis drove one of these cars to a 20th place finish in the 1915 Indianapolis 500. In 1916, American Motors Corporation was formed in Newark, New Jersey, with Louis Chevrolet as vice president and chief engineer. By 1918 that company was producing cars in a plant at Plainfield, New Jersey but the post war recession crippled the endeavor. In a hope of staving off complete collapse, a merger was negotiated with the Bessemer Motor Truck Company of Pennsylvania, and reorganization as Bessemer-American Motors Corporation in 1923. This merely exacerbated the financial woes and in 1924 there was another merger with the Winther and Northway companies and reorganization as Amalgamated Motors. By 1926, the entire operation collapsed.
The onset of the Great Depression marked the end of the Chevrolet’s corporate ventures. Age had brought his racing career to a close. Financially devasted Louis returned to Detroit to work in General Motors Chevrolet division in a mechanical engineering capacity. A dramatic decline in his health, including atherosclerosis which led to a leg amputation in the late 1930s forced him to resign. On June 6, 1941 he died of a massive coronary in Detroit. He was buried in the Holy Cross and Saint Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Gaston had been killed in a racing accident in 192o. Arthur died by suicide five years after the death of Louis. His death marked the end of an era, the closing of a chapter in American automobile history.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America