Get to know Louis Chevrolet. It’s all here, from his start as a race car driver to co-founding the Chevrolet Motor Company with William Durant!
Chevrolet has put out some incredible vehicles since 1911 when the company was first established. Dozens of incredible models have been designed and more than 200 million vehicles have been manufactured in the more than 100 years that Chevrolet has existed. All you have to do to fully appreciate the muscle and style that Chevrolet has provided to car buyers is take a look at some of our Through the Years features on the Chevy Corvette, Chevy Camaro, Chevy Impala, Chevy El Camino, and Chevy Silverado.
The Corvette, the Silverado, the Suburban, the Malibu, the Impala, and so many others all have their own stories. Different teams worked to make each of these concepts a reality and create long-lasting legacies, but the story of every Chevrolet goes back to the same place. None of it would have been possible without the original Chevrolet, the man named ‘Chevrolet’: Louis-Joseph Chevrolet.
Before getting into the actual start of Chevrolet or the evolution of the company, let’s take a look at one of the men who created the company. Louis-Joseph Chevrolet is the co-founder of this American automobile company, but his journey didn’t start in America. He was born in Switzerland in 1878. Almost 10 years later, in 1887, the Chevrolet family moved to France. That’s where he developed an interest in bicycle racing and learned a number of mechanical skills.
For a decade, from 1889 to 1899, Chevrolet worked as a mechanic at a shop in Beaune, France. He then moved to Paris, France, and worked in various shops there, but he emigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1900. The next year, he moved south to the United States. He first worked briefly in New York City for an engineering company but then settled in Brooklyn to work for de Dion-Bouton, a French car manufacturer.
Chevrolet’s interest in racing didn’t subside during his time working as a mechanic and engineer, so Chevrolet started racing. He won his first race using a FIAT in 1905. Chevrolet drove an Italian Darracq racer, with a V8 engine, to set a world land speed record of 117.64 miles per hour in Ormond Beach, Florida in 1906.
He drove for Buick, too, getting to know Buick owner William C. Durant along the way. It was while working for Buick that Chevrolet learned more about car design. He even designed his own overhead valve six-cylinder engine for a vehicle in 1909. Chevrolet is listed as one of three co-designers of the 1910 Buick 60 Special.
Chevrolet, given his last name, was obviously one of the co-founders of the Chevrolet Motor Company, but what about his partner? That was the aforementioned Buick head, William C. Durant. It’s time to take a closer look at Durant, and how his interest in Chevrolet ended up in the ousting from his own company.
William Durant was a millionaire who was born into a wealthy Michigan family. After working in his grandfather’s lumberyard and then as a cigar salesman in Flint, Michigan early on in adulthood, Durant formed his own carriage company. Durant was actually skeptical of automobiles, though. He believed the loud engines and smell of burnt fuel made them dangerous. So dangerous that he didn’t let his daughter ride in one.
Durant read the room, as they say, and realized the general public’s discontent with the lack of safety regulations. He purchased Buick, a local dealership that had some debts to its name, in hopes of improving automobiles. Durant took control of Buick on November 1, 1904 and, in the process, conceptualized dealer franchises.
By 1908, Durant partnered with Samuel McLaughlin, who owned the largest carriage manufacturer in Canada at the time, to create General Motors. Durant envisioned GM producing parts for not just Buick, but several other marques as well. Just two months later, Durant purchased Olds Motor Works, among other companies. He consolidated 13 car companies and 10 parts manufacturers under the General Motors name before the end of the year. General Motors was soon facing a cash shortage due to all those acquisitions, and Durant was forced out of his own company. That’s when, in 1911, he joined Louis Chevrolet in becoming a co-founder of Chevrolet Motor Company.
On November 3, 1911, the Chevrolet Motor Car Company was created. Louis-Jean Chevrolet, his brother Arthur Chevrolet, William Durant, Michigan automaker William Little, and Durant’s son-in-law were all involved in the creation and financing. Louis became the president of the company. It wasn’t clear whether Durant wanted to specifically work with Chevrolet or if Chevrolet was just a means to an end, but the group of men needed each other at the time, so they worked together in producing Chevrolet’s first vehicle: the Classic Six.
This was a vehicle constructed with a six-speed cylinder engine, a cone clutch, and a three-speed gearbox mounted at the rear axle. Under direction from Louis Chevrolet, the Chevy Classic Six had low running boards, similar to European cars at the time. The car was colored black on the hood, splash aprons, and fenders. A light gray striping was added on the body and around the wheels.
Though the Classic C Series Six was the first Chevrolet vehicle, it didn’t have all the branding that Chevy models do today. There was an element missing: the Chevy bowtie logo. Some symbols are known worldwide. From the yellow McDonald’s arches to the Nike swoosh to that little, blue Twitter bird, people from all over the world can recognize those logos. The same can be said for some automotive brands like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and, of course, the Chevy bowtie.
There were stories that it was a modified Swiss cross, honoring Chevrolet’s birthplace. Other people said it was a design on wallpaper from a room in Paris where Louis had stayed, but Chevrolet credits Wiliam C. Durant as the person who introduced the signature bowtie. It was first used on the 1914 Chevrolet H-2 Royal Mail and the H-4 Baby Grand. The emblem was located front and center on both models.
Despite initial success, Durant and Chevrolet didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, or sometimes many issues. Their differences, particularly about the design of the Classic Six, became so great that Louis left Chevrolet in 1914.
When Louis left Chevrolet in 1914 he left his name behind, too. William Durant continued to use the Chevrolet name to sell cars while Louis founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation with his brothers, Gaston and Arthur, in 1916. The company made racing parts for Ford Model Ts, among other vehicles. Louis certainly didn’t design these Frontenac engines alone. He enlisted the help of Cornelius van Ranst to design a four-cylinder Monroe Frontenac engine, an overhead valve conversion engine, and various others. It was during this time that Louis started racing again, driving his own Frontenac cars.
Louis drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times. His best finish was seventh place in 1919. Louis’ brothers also competed in various races. Gaston Chevrolet, competing in a Frontenac, won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920. His vehicle was the first with an eight-cylinder engine to win the event.
Gaston Chevrolet tragically died in a racing accident a few months later on November 25, 1920. Shocked by the unexpected death, Louis decided to give up racing. He put all his focus on the Frontenac after Allan A. Ryan, from Stutz Motorcar Company, reached out to Louis about building the Frontenac in large quantities. It took a few months, but by the end of 1921, the first Frontenac prototype rolled out of the factory. 1,500 workers started building the Frontenac in larger numbers.
Several years later Louis left the second company that he helped create. After disputes with his brother Arthur, Louis split from him and Frontenac in 1927. He moved on to establish the Chevrolet Air Car Company in Indianapolis. Two years later, after moving to Baltimore in 1929, Louis founded the Chevrolet Aircraft Corporation, but the stock market crash of 1929 forced Louis to dissolve the business.
The early 1930s were a rough time in the U.S. for many people, including Louis Chevrolet. He continued developing ideas, even putting in an application for a patent on a 10-cylinder radial aircraft engine with the United States government in 1932. Louis had to take other jobs to pay the bills, though. He was documented as being a mechanic at the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors in 1933. While his name was on the building, he had no controlling power in the company. He was simply providing labor on the assembly line. By that point, more than 8 million Chevrolet vehicles had been manufactured and sold.
Louis was awarded the patent for his 10-cylinder radial engine in 1935, but after suffering a stroke two years before, he wasn’t up to building it. The rest of his days weren’t spent in luxury. He continued working as much as he could but didn’t design any other cars or engines. On June 5, 1941, Louis Chevrolet died at his home near Detroit. He was 63 years old.
After Louis left the company in 1915, he sold his share in the company to Durant. By 1916, Chevrolet stock was doing so well that Durant purchased a controlling stake in General Motors. In 1917, Chevrolet merged into General Motors. Within four years, GM grew to be eight times larger than it was when Durant regained control in 1916.
Just like he did before in the early part of the 1900s, Durant started acquiring other businesses. He purchased Hyatt Roller Bearing, Dayton engineering Laboratories, Harrison Radiator Corporation, Remy Electric, and others. With that collection of companies, Durant created United Motors Company. In 1918, General Motors purchased United Motors for $4,065,000. By 1920, Durant again lost control of GM, this time to shareholders.
Durant wasn’t done in the automobile industry, though. He started Durant Motors in 1921, the same year Louis Chevrolet was putting out the Frontenac. While Louis had retired from racing and was focusing on the Frontenac, Durant started getting more and more involved in the stock market.
The stock market crash of 1929 wasn’t any nicer to Durant than it was to Louis Chevrolet. Durant joined members of the Rockefeller family and other big-time traders to buy large amounts of stock on Black Tuesday when shares on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. The stock market didn’t recover, though, leaving Durant bankrupt.
By the 1940s, Durant did manage to get funding together to operate a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan. Durant was always a businessman, so he had plans to take that one bowling alley and turn it into a nationwide chain. At the same time, he was trying to open a mine to retrieve the mineral cinnabar. He also had hopes of getting a hair tonic venture off the ground. A stroke in 1942 prevented Durant from completing any of those plans. He died in a New York City apartment in 1947 at 85-years-old. Durant was posthumously inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1968. Louis Chevrolet was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in the class of 1969.
Though Louis Chevrolet, William Durant, and the other founders of Chevrolet Motor Company are long gone, Chevy developed a legacy that even the creators may not have imagined. When Chevrolet started in 1911, the first factory was built in Flint, Michigan at the corner of Wilcox and Kearsley Streets. Today, Chevrolet models are built in Michigan, New York, Kentucky, Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Ecuador, South Korea, and several other countries.
Sixty million Chevrolets are on the roads worldwide today. More than 215 million Chevrolets have been built since the very first Classic Six. The brand sells vehicles in 140 countries, making the brand widely known and widely available. Its reputation has been bolstered by dozens of mainstream references and homages. Pop culture has immortalized Chevrolet with songs about the Corvette, music videos featuring the Impala and Camaro, and movies like the Fast and the Furious showcasing the Monte Carlo. The Chevy Camaro was even one of the headlining attractions of the Transformers movies.
Louis Chevrolet would unquestionably be happy to see the roots that Chevrolet has developed with NASCAR and the racing industry. The Indy 500 started in 1911, just like Chevrolet did, and a fair share of Chevy vehicles have been part of the event ever since. In 1948 a gray Fleetmaster convertible was the first Chevrolet to pace the 500. The Chevy Camaro was introduced at the Indy 500 in 1967. Six Chevy vehicles won consecutive 500s in the 1980s, too. Chevy, of course, is one of the manufacturers of NASCAR vehicles. One of the most famous racers of all time, Dale Earnhardt, drove the No. 3 Chevrolet during much of his career.
Like other automakers, Chevy has jumped into an electrified future. They’re making affordable EVs like the Chevy Spark and the 2022 Chevy Bolt, starting $31,500. Chevy also offers an electrified Silverado, and is working on offering a Blazer EV and Equinox EV. The Silverado EV made our list of the Best EVs to buy in 2022.
Meanwhile, vehicles with gasoline engines, like the Chevy Silverado and Chevy Equinox, continue to be some of the brand’s most purchased vehicles. Wherever the future leads, Chevy seems willing to adapt in order to continue putting out a variety of vehicles for a growing global consumer base.