The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Motor Vehicles
Louis Chevrolet

auto racer and designer

Louis-Joseph Chevrolet

Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born in the Bernese Jura region of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, on December 25, 1878, the second of seven children born to Joseph-Félicien and Marie-Anne Angéline Mahon Chevrolet (he had 4 brothers and 2 sisters). In 1887, the Chevrolet family moved to Beaune, in the Côte-d'Or region of France.

Louis inherited his mechanical skills from his father, a watchmaker, and gained an intense interest in the repair of bicycles while working at the Roblin mechanics shop, which fixed carriages and bicycles (1895-1898). There, he learned the basics of gears and mechanicals. A husky teenager, he became a champion bicycle racer after he tailored bicycle gear ratios to take advantage of his strength. During his three years with bikes, he won 28 competitive racing events. He continued to work on bikes until 1898/99, when his mechanical skills earned him a succession of jobs with carmakers.

In 1900, Chevrolet emigrated to Quebec, Canada, where he worked as an automobile mechanic. In 1901, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for French carmaker De Dion-Bouton. His mother and siblings joined him in Brooklyn in 1902. In 1905 he married Suzanne Treyvoux, with whom he had two sons (Charles Louis and Alfred Joseph).

Chevrolet became interested in automobile racing after observing the First Vanderbilt Cup Race on October 8, 1904. His first documented race was on May 20, 1905 at the New York ACA speed trials at Morris Park, New York. He set a new record that day, driving a Wallace Fiat for the one-mile lap in 52.4 seconds, which bettered Barney Oldfield's record time of 53 seconds. On May 27 he went head-to-head against Oldfield in a race in Yonkers, and won; he ultimately won 10 of his 11 races against Oldfield. The Vanderbilt Cup road race on Long Island on October 2, 1905 added to Chevrolet's reputation. Heedless of heavy fog, Chevrolet crashed a high-powered Fiat racer into a utility pole during morning practice, then wrecked a backup car in the race. In January 1906, he drove Walter Christie's Darracq to a short-lived 119-mph world speed record on the beach at Daytona, Florida. His racing career now in full bloom, Chevrolet barnstormed the country along with Oldfield, Christie and other racers, including a young Indianapolis businessman named Carl Fisher, who went on to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In March 1907, William C. Durant, president of General Motors, hired Chevrolet away from Fiat for his fledgling Buick Race Team; Louis's brother Arthur joined the team in 1909. During the last two years of the Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island, Louis drove his 1909 Buick Marquettes, clocking the fastest laps of the race, and nearly won the 1910 race, only to give the lead away to Harry Grant due to front suspension failure.

When Durant was ousted from General Motors in 1910, Chevrolet followed him out the door, and the two men founded Chevrolet Motor Car Company the following year. The company's first car was a Chevrolet-designed six-cylinder model that incorporated a number of what were then high-tech features. Althought the Chevrolet Six was one of the most expensive autos then being manufactured, it also established the Chevrolet brand as a major player in the industry. The Durant-Chevrolet partnership came to an end in 1913, however, when Chevrolet balked at Durant's desire to add a low-priced model to the product line and sold his stock to Durant. What Chevrolet did not know at the time, however, was that in selling his share of the company to Durant he had also given up the right to use his own name on cars. That name could have made him a millionaire, as Durant was ultimately able to regain control of General Motors and take the Chevrolet brand with him; Chevrolet is still GM's best-known nameplate.

By the mid-1910s, Louis Chevrolet had shifted back into the racing car industry, partnering with Howard E. Blood to create the Cornelian, a state-of-the-art racing car, which he used to place 20th in the 1915 Indianapolis 500 automobile race. In 1916, he and younger brothers Gaston and Arthur Chevrolet started Frontenac Motor Corporation, taking the name from a 17th-century French governor of North American colonies. By 1917, he had built a new, advanced race car, and with it he again became a leader in the automotive racing industry. Driving a Frontenac race car, Gaston Chevrolet competed in the 1919 Indianapolis 500, finishing in tenth place, while brother Louis finished seventh. The following year, Gaston broke the European dominance at the Indianapolis Speedway, winning the race in a redesigned Monroe-Frontenac. In the process, he became the first driver in the history of the 500-mile race to go the distance without making a tire change. Tommy Milton drove a Frontenac to victory in the 1921 Indianapolis 500.

In 1920, Gaston Chevrolet traveled to the West Coast and entered the Beverly Hills Speedway board track in Los Angeles California. However, during lap 146, Gaston was seriousley injured, and later died, when his and Eddie O'Donnell's machines crashed together on the Speedway at the east end of the grand stand near the close of the 250-mile race for the 1920 championship. Louis, overcome with the loss of his brother, vowed to never race again, and he and his remaining brothers concentrated on car building and reengineering engines and chassis of the day. In 1923, Frontenac Motor Corporation merged with the Bessemer Motor Truck Company of Pennsylvania into Bessemer–American Motors Corporation, which lasted less than a year before merging with the Winther and Northway companies into Amalgamated Motors. The latter company ceased operations soon after.

After the Frontenac Company failed, Chevrolet worked as a mechanic specializing in souping up Ford Model Ts, and also dabbled in aircraft and motorboat engines. He died poor in Detroit on June 6, 1941, and was buried in Indianapolis.

Automotive News
GM Heritage Center

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Motor Vehicles

This page was last updated on December 25, 2017.