Louis Chevrolet was a Swiss-born auto engineer and race car driver who started one of America's most endearing automotive legacies with the Chevrolet Motor Car Co.
The Chevrolet Motor Car Company of Michigan was organized on Nov. 3, 1911. About that same time, the first Chevrolet motor car was being developed and built in a Detroit-area workshop.
Chevrolet's history was primarily the work of two men: Louis Joseph Chevrolet for whom the car is named, and William Crapo Durant.
This story is about the great achievements of Louis Chevrolet and how the Chevrolet name plate got started in America.
Chevrolet was a great pioneer and automotive racing enthusiast and designer. He was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1878. As his journey through our auto heritage would continue, Chevrolet first ventured into building and repairing bicycles. In the beginning, he sold his bicycles under the trade name of Frontenac which was very popular among bicycle owners.
Later, Chevrolet would show a great interest in automobiles and racing. His first employment assignment opportunity came with the Mors Auto Company in 1898.
During the early 1900s, Chevrolet lived for a short time in Montreal, Canada and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he got a job as a mechanic for the DeDion Bouton Motor Car agency.
This job brought an opportunity for his first attempt at racing cars. Later on, he would devote much of his time to racing as he drove Fiat automobiles to a great victory at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in 1905.
In 1906, Louis Chevrolet continued his journey and began to set up his first automobile company in New York under the name Chevrolet-Kenen Auto Company, later he introduced himself to Walter Christie to plan and design a front-drive V-8 racer automobile. Although the venture never panned out, Chevrolet did race Christie's front-wheel-drive car at Ormond Beach, Florida in 1906.
Louis Chevrolet in his first model automobile
Durant, Chevrolet meeting serves as basis for company
Later, William C. Durant, who had recently consolidated the Buick Motor Car Company in Flint, was paying very close attention to Chevrolet's great racing career. On a historical note, it was Durant, who asked Chevrolet to join the Buick racing team, as well as design engines for the company, after the two had raced against each other and Chevrolet had won.
In 1910, at the request of Durant, Chevrolet began to devote much of his time to the design and manufacturing of the new Marquette Buick engine. Several at the time were built for the stock car events which had formed part of the July 4th weekend program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Chevrolet had scored a huge success with his work on engine design. Chevrolet was the chief mechanic and Durant was the chief in charge.
Before meeting Chevrolet, Billy Durant had made millions in the carriage business and he always felt that there was even more money to be made in the automobile business. Buick's car was selling very well in the market when Durant took control. But, within three years he had made Buick the second-best selling U. S. car.
Later, Durant persuaded the owners of Olds Motor Works and Cadillac to sell out to his new automotive enterprise, calling the resulting conglomerate General Motors. Durant, who knew the great power of selling automobiles along with a good name, had a great idea at the time. He spoke with Chevrolet about the idea of designing a car for him. The design work began on this great looking automobile and in the late 1911, the first Chevrolet Classic Six was manufactured which also had created an historical event between the two men.
Chevrolet had designed the perfect vehicle he had wanted. Durant gave the four-cylinder model Chevrolet's name, which now appears on millions and millions of vehicles.
Pictured here is the very first Chevrolet vehicle: the Chevrolet Classic Six; seated in the car are Louis Chevrolet's brother, Cliff, and his wife, the man in the backseat is unknown. Pictured to the far left in the white coat is Louis Chevrolet. (Photo courtesy of Robert Tate)
Though Chevrolet never won an Indianapolis classic in four attempts as a driver, he designed and built the first-place cars for two successive years in 1920 and 1921. The 1920 winner was driven by Chevrolet's brother, Gaston.
On May 2, 1918, Chevrolet become a part of General Motors, and entered a new period of plant expansions and sales. This was also the first time Chevrolet motor cars offered closed models to the consumer market.
Chevrolet and Durant parted company in 1914. In later years, Chevrolet continued to find success in the racing world and other automotive ventures. During the Great Depression, Chevrolet began having health problems which eventually led to his death on June 6, 1941.
Today, Chevrolet is greatly remembered because of his name is on Chevrolet vehicles from the past to the present and has become an American icon. Today he his buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Indianapolis, close to the area of past glories on the racing circuit which he was once a part of. Louis Chevrolet, will always have a special place in automotive history.
A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: The Louis Chevrolet Memorial, Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Automotive News. “A Century Of Chevrolet:The Stories That Shaped An Icon” Commemorative Edition October 31, 2011.)
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