The man whose name the volume-oriented brand of General Motors carries was born on Christmas day in 1878 in Switzerland. After working in a variety of mechanics shops in Paris and Montreal, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet emigrated to settle in the United States in 1901. In 1905, Chevrolet was hired by Fiat to race their cars.
This ultimately evolved into a job driving for the Buick racing team, where he met William C. Durant, the founder of General Motors. While working at Buick, Chevrolet started designing an overhead valve six-cylinder engine in 1909. He built it in his machine shop in Detroit, on Grand River Boulevard.
In 1911, Durant and Chevrolet teamed to form the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, along with William Little and Dr. Edwin Campbell—Durant’s son-in-law. There are mixed stories of the origins of the Chevrolet logo. Some say Chevrolet first saw the pattern on wallpaper in a Paris hotel room. Others say it’s a stylized Swiss cross. Either way, the company adopted the logo in 1914. The cars sold well and the partners all made money. However, Durant and Chevrolet had a design disagreement in 1915. The conflict was significant enough to make Chevrolet decide to sell his shares to Durant and leave the company (which ultimately turned out to be a huge mistake).
Durant went on to make enough money with Chevrolet to acquire a controlling interest in General Motors and folded the Chevrolet Motor Company into GM. Meanwhile, Chevrolet and his brothers founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation to build racing parts for Ford Model T automobiles. They also built racing cars of their own. Louis drove in the Indy 500 four times, with his best finish—seventh place—coming in 1917. However, one of the Chevrolet brothers, Gaston, won Indy in 1920 at the wheel of one of their cars.
Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Motor Company, under the General Motors umbrella, was positioned as the volume brand to compete with the ubiquitous Ford Model T. By 1917, there were Chevrolet factories all over the country as well as in Canada; this included New York City; Tarrytown, N.Y.; Flint, Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; Oakland, California; Fort Worth, Texas, and Oshawa, Ontario. By the mid-1920s Chevrolet was the largest volume division of General Motors and in 1927, GM sold more Chevrolets than the Ford Motor Company sold Fords.
From this position, Chevrolet became known as the most popular American automotive brand. In fact, Chevrolet was so coveted by the American motoring public the brand became known as an intrinsic piece of America, prompting its advertising agency in the 1960’s to coin the phrase; “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”
But this was still a ways in the future in the 20s, 30s and 40s, when the company was competing with Ford and Plymouth as the lowest-priced cars available to the American motoring public. Despite their low price however, Chevrolet models did offer innovations. An independent front suspension system was adopted in the mid-1930s. In addition to family sedans, the company offered pickup trucks for working people, and coupes for the young at heart.
Louis Chevrolet died in 1941—nearly penniless.
Power steering and brakes, a V8 engine, power windows and air conditioning became de rigueur in Chevy automobiles by the middle 1950s, making the cars outstanding bargains as well. The crowning achievement of Chevrolet came in 1953 with the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette cars. Penned by legendary GM designer Harley Earl, the Corvette debuted at the 1953 GM Motorama auto show as a concept car. To build it quickly and cheaply, GM exec Robert McLean (a fitting name, no?) mandated the Corvette be built with existing Chevrolet componentry. Thus, that first Corvette used the chassis and suspension from the 1952 Chevy sedan. To keep tooling costs for the new body down, it was made of fiberglass rather than steel and a polymer body has remained an essential component of every Corvette made since.
Chevrolet’s small block V8 engine debuted in 1955, a descendant of which resides in the Corvette to this day. Fuel injection arrived in 1957. In 1960, having observed the success of the Volkswagen Beetle, Chevrolet decided to produce its own rear-engined air-cooled automobile—the Corvair. The first production American car with an all-independent suspension system, handling problems plagued the small Chevrolet because of its engine placement. The Corvair was eventually abandoned after being labeled unsafe by consumer activist Ralph Nader.
Still though, by 1963, one of every ten cars sold in the U.S. was a Chevrolet.
The horsepower wars of the 1960s found Chevrolet a willing participant. Camaro was introduced to compete with Ford’s Mustang and V8 powered Chevelles, Novas and Impalas exhibited outstanding performance potential. Speaking of the Impala, Chevrolet’s flagship model (known as the prestige car within the reach of the average American citizen) was introduced in 1958 and went on to become the best selling automobile in the United States—period—by 1965.
Fuel price concerns of the 1970’s saw Chevrolet respond with compact models like the Chevette, the Vega, and downsized versions of its most popular models. Unfortunately, these cars weren’t as well-received as the full-size models of the 1960s had been and Chevrolet began losing market share. Interestingly though, as the company’s cars began falling out of favor, its trucks were gaining in popularity tremendously. To this day, Chevy trucks and SUVs resonate strongly with the buying public, even as the company struggles to attract buyers back to its cars.
Though performance had fallen out of favor by the end of the 1980s (with even the Camaro being discontinued at one point) the tail end of the 1990s saw the performance aspect of Chevrolet emerging once again. This ultimately culminated in the highest-performing street-legal series production Corvette of all time (as this is written) the 638-horsepower, 205 mile per hour, Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1.
Keeping an eye on fuel efficiency, Chevrolet introduced the Volt during the same period. Chevrolet’s Volt is the market’s first extended range hybrid electric vehicle. Drawing its primary motivation from battery-powered electric motors, when the battery pack is depleted, a small onboard gasoline engine starts to generate electricity to keep the Chevrolet automobile going.