Louis Chevrolet

Who was Louis Chevrolet?

The name attached to America's best-selling car, the Chevrolet, belongs to a tragic figure.

Louis Chevrolet never found a way to make money from his talents, skills and experiences. That his name lives on as one of the most famous names in the automobile industry is attributed more to its romantic sound than the man himself.

The name "Chevrolet" is thought to be a French corruption of "goat's milk." Louis Chevrolet was born on Christmas day 1878 in Swiss Jura, the center of the French dairy industry region. The son of a watchmaker, Chevrolet showed a similar mechanical aptitude at an early age. He showed no inclination for school, however, and his parents were happy to encourage his wage-earning pursuits.

Chevrolet began a career in bicycle repair and soon the muscular six-foot youth was racing bikes. In his first three years he won 28 competitive events. He built bikes until he discovered cars. Chevrolet became an auto mechanic in the pioneering French auto industry. He jumped from job to job, gaining valuable experience, before coming to Montreal in 1900.

Chevrolet worked as a chauffeur in Canada for six months before coming to New York, his ultimate destination. Driving hard-steering, rough-riding racing cars required a great deal of muscle at the turn of the century. The hulking Frenchman was ideally suited to this pursuit. Slowly he established his reputation as a mechanic and a racer, winning his first road race on a cinder track in Morris Park, New York on May 20, 1905.

Chevrolet brought his younger brothers Arthur and Gaston to America and left for Flint, Michigan to drive for W.C. Durant, founder of General Motors. Chevrolet drove a Buick in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 but a broken camshaft put him out of the race early. Meanwhile Durant split from GM and privately hired Chevrolet to make the car of his dreams. Chevrolet was a consulting engineer, not an officer, in the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.

When the Chevrolet Classic Six reached production in 1912 there were 275 other automakers in the United States. The first Chevrolet was envisioned as a rich man's car, not the best-selling American car it would become. The Classic Six was big, powerful and pricey. It carried a sticker of $2150, out of the reach of all but the wealthy.

Durant realized he needed to compete with cheaper cars he could sell at high volume. Chevrolet believed his name only belonged on a big, impressive automobile and resigned in October, 1913. He sold his stock, securities which would have made him a millionaire many times over, when he left.

Durant would never miss him. The rough-hewn, uneducated Chevrolet did not fit in with the polished wheeler-dealers in the early auto industry boardrooms. Durant hated the man, but loved the name. He was soon putting the Chevrolet name on many of his brands of cars. Meanwhile, General Motors reorganized with Chevrolet becoming its leading division.

Without even his name Chevrolet formed the Frontenac Motor Corporation. By 1917 he had a new and very advanced racing machine, complete with an aluminum engine block, but no production system. Seeking a regular paycheck he signed on as vice-president and chief engineer for a new company called the American Motors Corporation. He helped develop their American Beauty but when development got under way his services were deemed expendable.

The Monroe Company next hired Chevrolet to build a race car. He updated his Frontenac racer and with his brother Gaston at the controls, won the 1920 Indianapolis 500. Tragically Gaston would die before the year was out in a fiery crash on a boardwalk raceway in Beverly Hills, California.

With the prestige garnered from his Indianapolis victory Chevrolet obtained backers to incorporate Frontenac Motors but the company went bankrupt with his cars still on the design table. Another car company failed in 1924 and Chevrolet turned to boat racing, winning the Miami Regatta in 1925. But the victory did not translate into widespread success.

In 1929 Louis and Arthur Chevrolet left the auto business altogether to form the Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Company with a new engine of their design but lost the business to Glenn L. Martin. Finally in 1934, out of charity and a moral obligation towards the man who gave their best-selling car its name, General Motors put Louis Chevrolet on their payroll.

Illness forced Chevrolet to retire in 1938. He and his wife lived in a small Florida apartment but the humid climate accelerated his decline in health and he returned to Detroit for a leg operation in early 1941. Complications forced a complete amputation from which Chevrolet never recovered. He died on June 6, 1941 at the age of 63. He was buried in Indianapolis, scene of his greatest racing triumph.


by Larry Roberts

January 02, 1998

Racing enthusiasts know that the Chevrolet name has a long history in motorsports. "Bow-tie" engines have won countless championships in stock cars, sprinters, drag racing and even at the Indy 500.

But it's doubtful that many of these same enthusiasts realize that just after the turn of the century, Chevrolet was the name of a nationally-famous race driver rather than a make of a car or an engine. Actually, there were three drivers by that name; the brothers Arthur, Gaston and the most famous of the trio, Louis.

Louis Chevrolet was born in Switzerland exactly 120 years ago and was the eldest of the three brothers. At an early age, he started his mechanical education as a bicycle mechanic and then moved on to work in the factories of Mors, Darracq, Hotchkiss and De Dion Bouton. He came to Montreal at the turn of the century and gravitated back to De Dion at its U.S. headquarters in Brooklyn. He then went to work for the Fiat outlet in Manhattan and this marked the beginning of his racing career.

Louis was assigned by the company to drive a 90 horsepower Fiat race car by virtue of the fact that he had been a chauffeur in Canada and his first contest was at the Hippodrome in nearby Morris Park. Today, the Hippodrome would be labeled a "sports complex" where all sorts of sporting events were held. He won the first race he entered, a miler, against all comers. Later in the day, he won the three-mile main event against the then-famous Walter Christie and the even better-known Barney Oldfield.

In the course of his early career as a driver, Louis Chevrolet built a Darracq-powered Land Speed Record car which he drove to a world-record of 119 MPH in 1906. He also joined a traveling "troupe" of race cars and drivers that barnstormed around the country performing at county fairs and horse tracks. When his younger brothers were old enough to be on their own, he brought them over to join him. As time went by, Arthur and Gaston both became skilled drivers, but early day reports sometimes failed to mention which of the three brothers took the checkered flag first, stating simply that "...Chevrolet won at record speed."

When Louis became a team driver for Buick in 1907, he was hired by its CEO William Durant who later went on to form General Motors. After losing control of the corporation two years after it was formed, Durant needed a well-known name to attract retail buyers as well as the investment capital to form a corporation large enough to recapture GM. In 1910, Louis and Durant formed the Chevrolet Motor Company which the financier used to regain control of General Motors a few years later.

But Chevrolet wasn't cut out to be a corporate giant and in 1914 he formed the Frontenac Motor Corp., ostensibly to produce high-class touring cars. But in truth, his energy was directed toward fielding a team of Cornelian race cars for the Blood Brothers Machine Co. His designs were winners, but the Blood Brothers soon redirected their own energies toward the production of specialized auto parts and Chevrolet was back designing and building his own race cars. He was an early advocate and user of aluminum in race engine construction and his 1916 Indy racer used an alloy block, head, pistons and various other ancillary parts in an age where cast iron was the material of choice.

Louis stopped driving after his brother Arthur was badly hurt at Indianapolis in 1920 and his second brother, Gaston, was killed in a track accident in California later that same year.

But Louis stayed in the race car business and produced high-tech conversions for Ford Model T engines that were competitive until the end of the '20s when specially-built race engines like the Duesenberg and Miller overshadowed them.

Louis Chevrolet spent his declining years designing airplane engines and other mechanical devices and died in 1941 at age 63. And like so many other pioneers of the auto business, his name remains, but none of his achievements mark his place in the history of the industry.


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