On November 8 1911, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with William C Durant – who had lost control of General Motors the previous year – and investors Dr Edwin R Campbell (Durant’s son-in-law) and William Little (manufacturer of the Little automobile).
It may come as a surprise to many people that the man behind the name Chevrolet – a name that is now as synonymous with America as blueberry pie – was actually born in Switzerland and was of French descent. From 1895 to 1899 he worked as a mechanic before moving on briefly to Paris then Montreal, Canada until finally, in 1901, settling in New York, USA, initially working for an engineering company before securing a job with the Brooklyn operation of the French car manufacturer De Dion-Bouton.
In 1905 Louis was hired by Fiat as a racing driver before he joined a company in Philadelphia developing a radical (for the time) front-wheel drive racing car. He went on to race Buicks, in doing so forming a strong relationship with Durant, the founder of General Motors.
Louis learnt car design whilst working for Buick and despite the lack of a formal education, by 1909 was experimenting with his own overhead-valve six-cylinder engine with financial assistance from Durant. By March 1911, Louis was building the first prototype Chevrolet in his machine shop situated at 701 Grand River Avenue, Detroit and three months later a factory was leased at 1145 West Grand Boulevard.
The first production year, 1912, saw a total of 2 999 Classic Six touring cars being built. In June 1913, Chevrolet and the Durant-owned Little Motor Car Company were merged to form the Chevrolet Motor Company of Michigan, with production moving to two plants in Flint. Such was initial demand, in the same year a third assembly plant was established in New York.
Two other significant events took place in 1913. After a dispute with Durant over design, Louis left the company bearing his name – and the bowtie emblem was introduced. Two stories exist on how the badge was derived: one claimed it came from a Parisian hotel wallpaper pattern seen by Durant, the other says it was based on a logo for Coalettes, a pure carbon fuel substitute for coal.
In 1915 yet another factory was leased for vehicle assembly, and the Chevrolet Motor Company of Canada was incorporated and a manufacturing facility established. Electric lights became standard on all models.
In 1916, the Chevrolet 490 Roadster and Tourer were introduced with a price of $490. The company then established America’s first West Coast assembly plant in Oakland, California and the following year the Chevrolet Motor Company of Texas was incorporated, based in Fort Worth. Then the Toledo Chevrolet Motor Company was set up to build transmissions while a plant in Michigan was bought to manufacture small parts and the Mason V8 engine.
The first ‘closed top’ Chevrolet was produced in 1917 and the success of the 490 pushed unit sales past 100 000. But a major change in Chevrolet’s history was about to take place. Durant merged his Mason Motor Company with Chevrolet then, after six years away, regained control of General Motors and, unsurprisingly perhaps, on May 2, 1918, Chevrolet joined the GM Corporation.
Smart bowties – Chevy fans name their favourites
Ed Welburn, global vice president of design at General Motors, stepped into the shoes of his “absolute heroes”, GM designers Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, back in September 2003, but despite the awe-inspiring responsibility of following those who have become legends, he admits that “I’m having more fun now than at any other time during my career at GM”. He lists the following five Chevrolets amongst his all-time greats:
1912 Classic Six. “This was the first Chevrolet, so it’s very significant. Louis Chevrolet used all his experience and background to create it and make history.”
1936 Suburban. “Arguably it was the first Sport-Utility Vehicle (SUV) and it was the first in a line of what is now the longest continuous name to be used on a car.”
1948 Pick-up. “Small commercial trucks and vans are as big a part of the Chevrolet story as its cars. And the 1948 range was one of the most significant: it was clean, basic and affordable.”
1955 Bel Air. “Exhilarating performance and a flamboyant, confident and colourful style were what made the 1955 Bel Airs – coupés, convertibles and station wagons – stand out from the crowd.”
1963 Corvette Sting Ray. “”What an amazing car. Exhilarating, both in how it looked and how it drove I’ve lectured on it many times. Every Corvette since has been influenced by it.”