In our weekly series “The Greats of Chevrolet Before They Were Famous”, we’ve looked at car builders, movie and marketing stars, amazing designers, and even a couple of racing greats, but what would Chevrolet be without Mr. Louis Chevrolet himself? Founding father of the Bow Tie-wielding company, Louis Joseph Chevrolet is one of the men that started it all, and in this week’s look into greats from Chevrolet’s history, we look into his meager beginnings.
Known famously here in the States for his contributions to the automotive industry, Louis Chevrolet started life across the Atlantic Ocean, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Born on Christmas day in 1878, he was born the son of a watch maker like many other La Chaux-de-Fonds natives.
At age 9, the Chevrolet family moved to Beaune, France, where the family grew to include seven children, including Louis’ brothers Gaston and Arthur, who were born in 1892 and 1896. By age 11, Louis had left school to help make money to support the family. His job of choice was repairing bicycles at the Roblin mechanics shop. There, Louis learned the basics of mechanics, gears, and engineering. He also met William K. Vanderbilt, an American millionaire and racer who happened to be vacationing in the area.
With his steam-powered trike in the Roblin shop for repairs, Vanderbilt took notice of young Louis and his skill for fixing bikes, and told the young man of the opportunities he would have in America with his skill-set. Not yet old enough to leave home, this invite of sorts stuck with him through his teenage years, until he finally made the decision to migrate to North America around the turn of the century.
By that time, the young Chevrolet had worked on and raced bicycles for a number of years. He had also been introduced to the Darracq internal combustion engine, a product of the Mors and Darracq Company. Louis spent his late teenage years working on the famous Darracq bikes. It was his introduction to this engine that shaped his love for engines, and launched his career in the automotive world.
After migrating to Canada and working for a short time as a chauffeur, Louis made his way to Brooklyn, New York, where he got a job with the De Dion-Bouton “Mottorette” Company. Unfortunately, that job was short-lived, as the company shut down in 1902. Louis Chevrolet then moved on to work for Fiat, where he got his first taste of automotive racing.
After attending the First Vanderbilt Cup Race in the fall of 1904, and seeing two of the brand new 75 horsepower Fiat cars race, Louis was assigned as a backup driver by the New York Fiat distributor. In May of 1905, he competed in his first documented race behind the wheel of the William Wallace 90 horsepower Fiat. He would go on to drive at a number of other events that year, including the first race he won, held at the Yonkers, New York, Empire City track. From there, his racing career skyrocketed, and he became the in-demand driver for a number of companies.
In 1909, he and his brother Arthur were recruited by Buick to drive for the Buick Race Team. Louis saw great success, and met lead driver, William C. Durant, who convinced him to join Durant’s new business endeavor– General Motors. In 1911, Durant and Chevrolet co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with investors backing the pair. But Louis Chevrolet didn’t stay with the company very long.
After Durant proposed the idea of naming a lower-priced vehicle after Chevrolet, one that would compete with the Ford Model T, Chevrolet got offended, and opted to sell his shares in the company to Durant and parted ways with the company for good.
Louis Chevrolet went on to form another car company with his younger brothers Arthur and Gaston – the Frontenac Motor Company. The trio built racing parts for Ford’s Model Ts, as well as their famous Fronty-Ford racers. The three continued building cars and racing in famed races like the Indianapolis 500. They were making a name for the themselves, until Gaston’s tragic death on the racetrack in 1920, while behind the wheel of one of the Chevrolet Brothers’ Frontenac race cars.
Because of the tragedy that took his brother’s life, Chevrolet vowed to never race again, and faded from the limelight before his death in 1941.