Louis Chevrolet

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Louis Chevrolet

Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941) was a fearless automobile racer who displayed little concern for his own safety when the outcome of a race was in doubt. Chevrolet's driving skills attracted the attention of auto executive, William Durant. The two men combined their talents to form the Chevrolet Motor Company. Chevrolet designed a stylish six-cylinder touring car, which became an immediate marketing success and proved that his design abilities matched his racing skills.

Louis Joseph Chevrolet was born on December 25, 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. He was the second son of Joseph Felician Chevrolet, a watch and clockmaker, and Angelina Marie (Mahon) Chevrolet. Young Louis grew up with six brothers and sisters. The family moved to Beaune, a small town in the Burgundy region of France, when Louis was about six. His father taught him basic mechanical skills and stressed the importance of precision in the manufacture of machine parts, which later contributed to his skill as an engine designer. To help with the family finances, Chevrolet got a job as a guide in a local wine cellar. Deciding that the method of decanting wine from one cask to another was too slow, Chevrolet designed a wine barrel pump which brought him local accolades and was used in the Burgundy region for decades.

Bicycle racing was a great weekend sport in Beaune and this is where Chevrolet developed his interest in speed. He experimented with gear ratios until he found the one best suited to his physical ability. While still in his teens and just out of grammar school, Chevrolet became an apprentice in a bicycle shop. The owner had a 1.25 bhp de Dion tricycle that was usually broken. Chevrolet bought repair manuals and worked on the bike in his spare time. He soon found the trouble, sent away for parts from the manufacturer, and had it in working order. Next he began building bicycles in the winter and selling them in the summer to tourists under the name Frontenac, after the seventeenth century governor of France's North American colonies. He later used the same name in America for the automobile company he began. About this time, Chevrolet saw his first automobile and was fascinated with the new invention.

His bicycle manufacturing business was not very successful, and Chevrolet became an apprentice at the Darracq, Hotchkiss, and Dion Bouton auto factories. In 1898, he got a job with the Mors Auto Company, and was sent to an auto dealership in Montreal, Canada, in 1899, at the age of twenty-one. Chevrolet worked as a chauffeur-mechanic for six months and then moved to Brooklyn, New York. He worked for the DeDion Bouton Motorette Company and soon was given the opportunity to be a substitute racecar driver for Fiat in New York City. In 1901, after his father's death, he brought the rest of his family to America. Chevrolet became a citizen in 1915.

In the early days of the auto industry, car companies got publicity for their products by winning road, track, hill-climbing, and endurance races. Chevrolet got his big break by defeating Barney Oldfield and Walter Christie, two outstanding racers, at the old Hippodrome in New York's Morris Park on May 20, 1905. Driving a 90-horse powered Fiat, he raced around the track at a record-setting 68 miles per hour, barely slowing down at the curves. Later that year, he beat Walter Christie and Henry Ford in a one-mile race at Cape May, New Jersey. Also in 1905, he married Suzanne Treyvoux. They had two sons, Charles Louis and Alfred Joseph.

Joined Buick Racing Team

The twenty-seven year old Chevrolet became an instant celebrity and eventually attracted the attention of William Durant, founder of General Motors. Durant invited Chevrolet and his younger brother, Arthur, to Flint, Michigan, in 1907 to try out for a job as his chauffeur. In the early days of auto racing, drivers won more glory than money and often worked in the auto industry to support themselves and their families. Durant staged a race behind the Buick plant in Flint. Arthur got the chauffeur's job because he was a more careful driver. Louis Chevrolet, who easily won the race, was asked to join the Buick racing team. For the next three years, Chevrolet won many victories for the Buick team, including the 158-mile race for the Yorick Trophy in Lowell, Massachusetts. According to auto racing historians of the era, the only reason Chevrolet lost a race was because his equipment failed. Between 1905 and 1920 Chevrolet spent the equivalent of three years recovering from serious accidents. Because of his many accidents, he added a stake to the middle of the car. The stake saved his life many times, but did not save the lives of his riding mechanics. Ultimately, he invented the roll bar, which is now mandatory in all racecars.

In 1909, Chevrolet opened a garage in Detroit, Michigan, where he began to design, build, and test four and six cylinder automobile engines. His friends described him as a perfectionist and an incredibly hard worker, who usually put in a sixteen-hour workday. He hated to delegate authority and preferred to do most of the important work himself. Chevrolet was also described as impatient and quick-tempered. He didn't like taking orders from others, although he was extremely loyal to his family and friends.

Designed First Chevrolet Automobile

When Durant was forced out of General Motors in 1910 because of a stockholders' dispute, Chevrolet followed him and offered to design a small, luxurious touring car. The result was a six-cylinder automobile (named the Chevrolet) that demonstrated his skill as a designer. The new car, which was priced at a high $2,150, sold 3,000 units in 1912. It made a profit of $1.3 million on the sale of 16,000 vehicles in the next two years. His car had the counterbalanced crankshaft, the first gearshift lever in the middle of the floor, and the first out-of-the-way emergency brake, under the dashboard. Chevrolet decided to leave the company in 1914 when Durant added a cheaper car to the Chevrolet nameplate, in order to compete with Ford. He did not want to be associated with inexpensive cars, and he was anxious to return to racing. He sold his stock in the Chevrolet automobile to Durant, before it had appreciated in value.

Founded Frontenac Motor Car Company

Chevrolet became a successful independent designer of racecars. He founded the Frontenac Motor Company in 1914 and built four racecars. All three Chevrolet brothers entered the 1916 Indiana 500 classic, but none of his Frontenacs finished the race. In 1915, Chevrolet constructed a new car, the Cornelian, for the Blood Brothers Machine Company. He had begun to work with alloys instead of steel. He emphasized the importance of better power-to-weight ratios, with a small four-cylinder vehicle, weighing less than 1,000 pounds. From 1916 to 1919 most industrial countries were involved with the production of materials to support the war in Europe. Chevrolet began to experiment with airplane engines. He also served as vice president and chief engineer for American Motors.

After the war ended, Chevrolet returned to the racing business. He nearly caused a disaster for himself and his racers when he picked up his new vanadium steel steering arms before they had been heat-treated. All of the steering arms failed except the one on the car driven by his brother, Gaston. His 1920 straight eight-cylinder Frontenac won the Indianapolis race with Gaston at the wheel. This was the first American-built car to win a race at the Indianapolis Derby since 1912. American racing fans went wild. Chevrolet continued to race until his younger brother, Gaston, was killed in a Los Angeles race in November 1920. Another Chevrolet-designed car, a Monroe-Frontenac, driven by Tommy Milton, won the Indianapolis race in 1921.

Soon after this, the Frontenac Motor Company failed and C. W. VanRanst, a former Duesenberg engineer, convinced the Chevrolet brothers to build and sell special cylinder heads for souped-up Model-T Fords, called Fronty-Fords. At their peak, they turned out sixty heads a day. When the Model A came out, the Chevrolet brothers were put out of business.

Chevrolet was not an astute businessman. In addition to being unable to benefit from the impressive growth of the Chevrolet Motor Company and its subsequent integration with General Motors, he also lost a large amount of money in his attempt to produce a line of Frontenac passenger cars. Allan A. Ryan and the Stutz Motorcar Company invested one million dollars to produce a new line of Frontenac passenger cars as part of the Stutz line. The depression of 1922 cut short production and Chevrolet had to assume all the debt acquired by Ryan's Frontenanc Corporation of Delaware. However, he held the U.S. patent for inventing the flexible steering wheel and was the first manufacturer to install four-wheel brakes on a car. He also had a brief involvement with Albert Champion, who founded the Champion and AC spark plug empires. Instead of making a fortune with Champion, the two men had a monumental argument over a personal matter which led to a physical altercation.

Although automobiles were his enduring passion, Chevrolet had other interests as well. He experimented with speedboat racing in 1925, and won a regatta in Miami, Florida. He also enjoyed trapshooting and golf, at which he won many amateur tournaments.

Built Prototype for the Modern Airplane Industry

The Chevrolet brothers began producing an efficient aircraft engine called the Chevrolair 333. Bad management ended that business and caused a rift between the brothers. Chevrolet then joined Baltimore Ford dealer, Glenn L. Martin, in new aircraft company, but lost out to Martin in the stock market crash of 1929. Martin later built a successful company around this engine, which he called the Martin 4-333 or the Martin bomber. In 1934, Chevrolet became a consultant at the Chevrolet division of General Motors, where he remained until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was forced to retire in 1938.

His later years were marked by sadness. His eldest son died in 1934. Most of his memorabilia and engineering drawings were destroyed when his sister's home in New Jersey burned. Chevrolet died on a visit to Detroit, Michigan from his retirement home in Florida on June 6, 1941. He was buried next to his brother, Gaston, at the Holy Cross Cemetery near the Indianapolis Speedway. His pioneering achievements were recognized in 1969, when Chevrolet was elected to the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Further Reading

American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Fucini, Joseph J. and Suzy Fucini, Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985.

Louis Chevrolet, General Motors Corporation Business Research Library, August 13, 1998.

The Louis Chevrolet Memorial Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Cornelius Printing Co., 1976.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography, James T. White &Company, 1971.

Car Life, January, 1963, pp. 59-62. □

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