Chevrolet's original Classic Six was not the car Durant expected
The company's first vehicle was no small runabout, but a five-seat touring car with a self-starter, full floating rear axle and three-speed transmission
Photo credit: GM CORP.
It didn't take Billy Durant long to launch his plan to return to power at General Motors. He quickly established his own -- if more modest -- automotive empire, launching Republic, Mason and Little. But the keystone in his comeback would be Chevrolet, a name well known because of the success of auto racer Louis Chevrolet.
Chevrolet was born in Switzerland, but his family moved back to its native France when he was 10. An engineer by experience, Chevrolet in-vented a pump to fill wine vats, repaired and raced bicycles, then repaired and raced automobiles.
Chevrolet worked for several European automakers, then immigrated to Canada at age 22, and on to the United States, where he achieved fame as a racer.
Seeking immediate profits, Durant wanted his first post-GM car to be a light, "French"-style vehicle that he could sell in high numbers, and he hired the famous Swiss racing driver to lead that effort. Chevrolet, in turn, brought with him his friend and car designer Etienne Planche, who had designed vehicles for Walter Automobile Co. and who later would create the first Mercer.
Chevrolet and Planche created quite a car, though it was not what Durant had in mind.
The 1912 Chevrolet Classic Six wasn't a light, low-priced vehicle. At $2,500, it was more expensive than a Cadillac 30. It also was huge -- built on a 120-inch wheelbase.
It was powered by a 299-cubic-inch (4.9-liter) inline six-cylinder engine. It would be several decades before Chevrolet again would produce an engine with such displacement, and it would be a V-8.
The Classic Six was no small runabout, but a five-seat touring car with a self-starter, full floating rear axle and three-speed transmission that announced itself with a domed radiator made from German silver with Chevrolet in script.
Although the car was not what Durant had wanted, he nonetheless sold nearly 3,000 of them. He also was selling the $690 Little Six from his Little Motor Car Co.
While the Chevrolet Classic Six was well built, the Little was not. Durant reportedly admitted that the Little could be "driven to its death in less than 25,000 miles."
Writing in the Standard Catalog of American Cars, historians Beverly Rae Kimes and Henry Austin Clark Jr. note, "Durant thus found himself with two cars, one that could be driven forever and wasn't selling and one that couldn't and was selling.
"His solution was to take the individual virtues of each car and combine them into one," the 1914 Chevrolet Light Six.
By the launch of the Light Six, Louis Chevrolet was gone. There was constant friction between he and Durant, and Chevrolet did not want his name on a low-priced car. He left Durant in 1913 and teamed with his brothers to build race cars.
You can reach Larry Edsall at email@example.com.