Louis Chevrolet: His gift was cars, not corporations
Louis would say in later years that his Indy victories, not his connection with a car brand that bore his name, pleased him the most
It's sad but true: For much of the last 100 years, cantankerous Louis Chevrolet was a nonperson to the car brand that bears his name.
From the late teens through the 1980s, the company had little to do with the man. And vice versa.
Modern-day stewards have been easing Louis' spirit back into Chevy's fold since at least 1990, when General Manager Jim Perkins, who drove the Indianapolis 500 pace car, made a point of visiting the speedway grotto where Louis Chevrolet's racing feats are memorialized and his "Never Give Up" motto is cut into stone.
In June 2011, European Chevy boss Wayne Brannon helped host a gathering of more than 1,000 Chevrolet cars and trucks in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, which claims Louis as a native son. General Motors contributed to a statue to be erected there Nov. 3, the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet Motor Car Co.'s incorporation.
The legend began on the racetrack.
When Billy Durant hired Chevrolet and appropriated his lilting name for a new line of cars in 1911, Chevrolet was making do as a race car driver. He was famous but not rich.
He was too fiery to play car company VIP for long, and split with Durant about the time the first viable Chevy hit the street. Had he stayed longer, he would soon have been a millionaire.
Wealth eluded Louis time and again in the years ahead, even as he did wondrous things in racing and in high-performance automobiles and aircraft. He died poor in 1941.
He was born on Christmas 1878, and was mechanically gifted from childhood. It's said that one of his jobs after quitting grade school was to guide a blind wine buyer to the wineries near the Chevrolet home. He promptly invented a better decanting pump that was used for years throughout France's Burgundy region.
He was a husky teenager and became a champion bicycle racer after he tailored bicycle gear ratios to take advantage of his strength. The infancy of the automobile found him eagerly apprenticed to several carmakers. In 1901, at age 22, he was working for De Dion-Bouton in New York and in demand as a chauffeur and mechanic.
In 1905, Chevrolet became a motor racing legend. On May 20, at the wheel of a Fiat, the novice racer broke the great Barney Oldfield's one-mile closed-course world speed record. On May 27 he went head-to-head for the first time against Oldfield in a race in Yonkers and won.
The Vanderbilt Cup road race on Long Island that fall added to his daredevil 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. A breathless story in The New York Times the next day extolled the feat.
In January, Chevrolet drove Walter Christie's Darracq to a short-lived 119-mph world speed record on the beach at Daytona, Fla.
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 would soon build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Durant, then riding high as the president of GM, hired Chevrolet away from Fiat in March 1907 for his Buick racing team. When Durant was ousted in November 1910, the team disbanded.
Coincidentally, Chevrolet had declared after the Vanderbilt Cup meet the month before that his racing days were over. He had been badly hurt in a crash, and his mechanic was killed.
By February 1911 he had changed his mind. With his younger brother Arthur and some associates, he rented upstairs space in a garage at 3939 Grand River in Detroit. He said he wanted to design a race car engine, but it's clear he also worked on his wrecked Buick and another vehicle Art would drive at the inaugural Indianapolis 500-mile race.
Durant found him in the shop one day in early March.
What transpired is unclear. Louis said Durant agreed to partner in the design and building of a passenger car. Durant had a different story. He said that now that he had the Chevrolet name, his next job was to find a car that was worthy of it.
Louis had the fastest practice time at Indy but he didn't make the 500. Because his entry came after the deadline, he needed unanimous approval of the other entries before he could race. A secret ballot occurred. He lost. But he was at the speedway anyway on May 30 managing Arthur's entry, when the Flint Journal broke the news that the racer and Durant would join in a car-making venture.
The next day a correction appeared. Louis would not be a partner but rather an employee reporting to Bill Little, one of Durant's lieutenants.
Although Louis is often described as a founder of Chevrolet, that's about as close as he got.
Differences over everything from the nature of the car to personal dress and smoking habits came to a head in September 1913, when Chevrolet stormed out of a meeting with Durant and declared he was quitting the company. Of the two or three car designs he had been working on in the past two years, only the luxurious Classic Six was in limited production.
It has been speculated that Durant instigated Louis' tantrum. Having acquired Louis' name and a great dislike for the Classic Six, the wily deal maker saw nothing more to gain from keeping Louis aboard.
Louis showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1915 behind the wheel of the Cornelian, a tiny 1,000-pound racer of monocoque construction. Ten years after his racing debut, he would finally make the 500 grid. His 20th-place finish deflated the Cornelian boomlet but didn't deter Louis from the application of exotic materials and concepts to future racing machinery.
With short-lived backing from Albert Champion (it ended when hot-tempered Louis delivered a beating that nearly killed Albert), Chevrolet formed Frontenac Motor Corp. in 1914 to build and sell race cars. The Duesenberg brothers and Harry Miller would do the same thing, but much later.
Without Champion's financing and despite income from a brief engineering job, progress was slow at Frontenac. Louis favored aluminum castings for many components, including the overhead-cam engine, but not much was known about how to work the metal. Only four cars were built, three of which qualified for the 1916 Indianapolis 500. None finished.
The speedway was closed during World War I, but the four Frontenacs saw enough action on other tracks that they were well prepped for the 1919 Indy race. All four were in the starting field. Louis was strong all day, leading for 12 laps. He finished seventh. His 27-year-old brother, Gaston, was 10th.
Dazzling at Indy
In 1920, the Chevrolet brothers dazzled Indianapolis with seven exquisite state-of-the-art creations. Four green cars were called Monroes in deference to William Small, whose Monroe Motor Corp. financed the project. Three Frontenacs were burgundy and white.
Arthur was seriously hurt in a crash during practice. Louis qualified third in a Monroe. Gaston started sixth. Of the top 10 on the Indy grid, six cars were from the Chevrolet stable. The brothers were the toast of the town.
But disaster loomed. The cars were quick, but steering arms that weren't heat treated had been installed by mistake. They soon began to fail. Three cars, including Louis', were out before the race was half over. When Joe Boyer, who led 92 laps, crashed with seven to go, only Joe Thomas and Gaston were left. Louis was furious.
Gaston had been so busy back at the shop in preparation for the race that he hadn't practiced much. So the problem part on his car had the least wear. He took the lead with 13 laps left and cruised to Victory Lane. Not since 1912 had an American car won Indy.
When Louis kicked a tire on the car after the race, the steering arm fell off.
In spite of their ups and downs, or maybe because of them, the gritty Chevrolet brothers were heroic figures to U.S. race fans after the 1920 race. Gaston's fatal crash six months later in a race in California was cause for national mourning, and prompted Louis and Arthur to end their driving careers.
When the Chevrolets visited Victory Lane at Indianapolis again in 1921 with a new car driven by Tommy Milton, they became Indy's first back-to-back winners. Louis would say in later years those two Indy wins, not his connection with a motorcar that bore his name, pleased him the most.
An event in 1921 spoke to Chevrolet's stature beyond the racetrack. French war hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch needed a guide and interpreter during a triumphal tour of the United States. Louis was one of those tapped for the task.
But misfortune loomed. Owners of Stutz Co. had approached Louis after the 1921 race about capitalizing on the Frontenac's success with a production sports car. A new company was incorporated, a factory was acquired and workers were hired. Before production began, a recession caused the backers to flee. Left holding the bag, Louis lost almost everything.
Boats and planes
Meanwhile, the Chevrolet brothers had developed a line of Frontenac speed parts, including an overhead-valve cylinder head that turned the docile Model T Ford into a frisky street performer. Soon the Fronty Ford was the car to beat on short tracks around the country. A Fronty was fifth in the 1923 Indy 500.
It was the beginning of the automotive aftermarket business in America. And it sustained the Chevrolets through another failed attempt to start a production car company and Louis' adventure in 1925 with boat racing in Florida.
That's when the same Carl Fisher who made the Indianapolis 500 the world's premier motorsports event, and who had turned a mangrove swamp into Miami Beach, organized a spectacular regatta on Biscayne Bay. Among the luminaries invited to participate was Louis Chevrolet, who ended up winning the event.
In 1926, Louis was back at Indianapolis driving Walter Chrysler's Imperial E-80 pace car. The two veterans of the auto wars had one thing in common. They both had left the employ of Durant under stormy circumstances.
With Ford's switch to the Model A in 1928, the Chevrolet brothers saw their Fronty Ford hot-rodding business tailing off, so they turned their attention to airplanes.
The Chevrolair 333 engine they designed was derived from the engine that powered the Frontenacs in the 1920 Indy 500. It received rave reviews.
Gearing up to meet the expected strong demand, Louis and Arthur formed Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Co., and took on Glenn Martin, an aviation pioneer and Baltimore Ford dealer, as a partner.
The adventure would lead to grief. Management issues soon produced a rift between Louis and Arthur that never was resolved. Martin ended up with what was left of the company after the stock market crash. Eight decades and two mergers later, it is now Lockheed-Martin.
Louis was diagnosed with diabetes in the mid-1930s, about the same time one of his sons died and a fire at his sister's home in Plainfield, N.J., destroyed his trove of Chevrolet engineering files and memorabilia.
In a sad twist of fate, the ailing and destitute auto pioneer was hired as a mechanic at Chevrolet's Detroit Gear and Axle plant in 1934. The first of many strokes soon forced him to leave. He and his wife, Suzanne, tried moving back and forth between a small apartment in Florida and a place in Detroit.
On Jan. 10, 1940, the day the 25 millionth GM car (a Chevrolet sedan) was built, GM threw one of the biggest parties Detroit had seen in years. Durant, now a frail 77, was there. Louis Chevrolet, by then nearly incapacitated, was not.
Death came June 6, 1941, at age 62, from complications after a leg amputation. Louis Chevrolet is buried alongside his brothers in the Holy Cross/St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Louis was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1969. When the speedway grotto honoring Louis was dedicated in 1975, the newspapers noted that GM was not officially represented.