Gifted race car driver, inventor died penniless and forgotten
Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet had no head for business
A 1976 booklet printed for the unveiling of the Louis Chevrolet Memorial at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway says Chevrolet excelled in three areas:
1. Racing early automobiles
2. Designing and building fast, durable race cars
3. Improving the comfort and reliability of passenger cars
Those who knew him described him as "fearless and daring, but never reckless ... quick-tempered and impetuous at times; a perfectionist who took pride in his work, with very little patience for the mistakes of others," the booklet says.
But he was no whiz at business. He had opportunities to become a millionaire — and played his cards wrong every time. His talents made money for several auto pioneers and his name continues to grace General Motors' top-selling brand, but Chevrolet died poor and on the fringes of the industry he helped create.
Chevrolet was born on Christmas Day in 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, the son of a maker of watches and clocks. When he was 8, his parents moved to France. He had six siblings, and his two brothers, Arthur and Gaston, would join him in racing.
As a youth he worked for a wine merchant and designed and produced a wine-barrel pump. Later he tried bicycle building and sold his bikes under the label Frontenac — a name that would resurface years later in one of his automobile ventures.
He moved to Montreal in 1900 and worked as a chauffeur, an occupation that required mechanical skills in those days. He moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and got a job as a mechanic. He joined Fiat in New York City in 1902, which led to his first opportunity to drive in a race.
On May 20, 1905, he drove a 90-hp Fiat in his first major race, at the Hippodrome in Morris Park, N.Y. He won. In his first year, he beat legendary driver Barney Oldfield three times, which made him one of racing's rising stars.
Chevrolet continued to race and design race cars. His younger brothers, also skilled but not quite as good as Louis, followed in his footsteps. Louis Chevrolet met fellow racer Walter Christie in 1906 and agreed to help build a front-drive V-8 race car.Chevrolet's racing prowess caught the eye of Billy Durant, and Louis and his brother Arthur were invited to audition to be Durant's chauffeur. Durant chose Arthur for the job because he took fewer chances. But Louis was asked to join the Buick racing team.
After Durant lost control of General Motors in 1910, he asked Chevrolet to design a car for him. Chevrolet Motor Co. was born — but Louis Chevrolet was merely an engineer with a famous name to lend, not a dominant figure.
Durant and Chevrolet split on strategy. Chevrolet wanted prestigious high-priced vehicles, but Durant wanted to compete at the low end of the market, against Henry Ford.
Chevrolet left the company in 1913, selling the stock that would have made him a millionaire many times over.
Four years after starting Chevrolet Motor Co., Durant had several assembly plants and wholesale offices in the United States and Canada. He quietly traded his Chevrolet stock for GM stock, and in 1916, he announced to the GM board that he was in charge.
Louis Chevrolet went back to racing and building cars. He founded Frontenac Motor Corp. with backing from his friend Albert Champion, but the friendship and the partnership ended. Chevrolet eventually filed for bankruptcy.
"It was over a bumpy and rocky road that Louis Chevrolet traveled the last years of his life. ... In 1933, with all his funds evaporated, he and his family were forced to return to Detroit to seek a job. Ironically, he was able to find work with the Chevrolet Division of GM as a mechanic," said the September 2000 issue of The Gentlemen of General Motors published by McVey Marketing and Advertising Inc. of Flint, Mich.
His troubles continued.
Most of his drawings, records and memorabilia that were stored at a sister's home were destroyed in a fire. His health deteriorated. His eldest son died.
Chevrolet suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and retired to Florida. He died in 1941 at age 63 and is buried in Indianapolis.