All-American brand has made its mark on the global stage
Though Chevrolet has been quintessentially American, the brand has a long and storied history outside its native country.
As General Motors' bread-and-butter brand, Chevrolet carried the flag for the corporation in locales both near and far, starting with Canada. In doing so, Chevy became one of the most adaptable automotive brands, mutating into myriad iterations depending on local market needs.
When Alfred Sloan was expanding GM's global footprint, he used Chevrolet as a yardstick to make decisions about GM's overseas expansion. If it was too costly to build Chevrolets locally, GM would buy a local carmaker such as Vauxhall in England and Opel in Germany. Sloan believed in preserving local brands and traditions; where there were none, Chevrolet filled in the gaps.
But Chevrolet made its first move outside the United States long before Sloan corralled the organization.
From ax handles to Chevys
Chevrolet had its Canadian origins in the mid-19th century when a Tyrone, Ontario, farmer discovered he had a knack for working with wood. First he made a beautifully crafted ax handle and used the ax to clear his land. Then he built a horse-drawn sleigh. A neighbor offered to buy it. So Robert McLaughlin built a second sleigh just like the first one. The business grew into a carriage works in Oshawa, Ontario.
The Oshawa carriages developed a reputation for quality. Two of McLaughlin's three sons -- Sam and George -- got involved in the business that had become McLaughlin Carriage Co.
In 1905, Sam test drove several cars in the United States and decided he wanted to make Buicks in Canada, according to GM Canada's Web site. But he couldn't agree on terms with his friend Billy Durant, then a partner in Buick Motor Co.
In 1907, the McLaughlin sons persuaded their skeptical father to form McLaughlin Motor Car Co. Their engineer fell ill just as production was about to begin, so they revived discussions with Durant. They used Buick engines, and the McLaughlin automobile was born in 1908.
The McLaughlins brought the same painting process to their cars that they used for carriages, applying as many as 15 coats of paint to the bodies.
Meanwhile, Durant had fused Oldsmobile and Buick together to form GM in 1908, only to be ousted by his bankers in 1910. Undeterred, Durant formed a new car company with Louis Chevrolet, an ex-Buick race car driver from Switzerland. The new cars proved so popular Durant was able to regain control of GM by 1915.
Durant made plans to build a Chevrolet plant in Toronto, posing a potential threat to the McLaughlins. GM Canada's Web site tells what happened next: "One day while visiting New York, at lunch with Durant and a Chevrolet stockholder, Sam casually asked how the Canadian project was going. 'Why don't you give it to the McLaughlin boys, Billy?' piped in the shareholder. 'Well Sam, do you want it?' asked Durant. In two days Durant and the McLaughlins reached a deal."
Robert McLaughlin, still not convinced the horseless carriage would endure, nevertheless agreed to sell the carriage business to make way for production of Chevrolets alongside Buicks in Oshawa. Like the Buicks, the Canadian Chevrolets, made to McLaughlin's designs, had superior build quality and sold well.
In 1918, the McLaughlins sold their shares to GM, and GM Canada was born.
Chevrolet in Europe
Two key figures in Chevrolet's early history were Europeans: Louis Chevrolet (Swiss) and William S. Knudsen (Danish).
"It is not surprising that the company cultivated close contacts with 'the old continent,'" says GM's Belgian Web site.
The first European Chevrolet was a truck built Jan. 7, 1924, in Copenhagen, Denmark, by General Motors International. These Chevrolets initially were built from knockdown kits sent from Tarrytown, N.Y. The Danish Chevrolets were sold in Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Russia.
The second European Chevrolet plant, called General Motors Continental, opened in an old abbey in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1925.
GM built a factory in Switzerland in 1934. Chevrolet sold trucks in the United Kingdom even after GM bought Vauxhall in 1925. But Chevrolet largely withdrew from Britain after the truck boom collapsed with the onset of the Depression. Vauxhall remained as GM's main British brand.
Argentina and elsewhere
In 1924, GM began exporting the Chevrolet Double Phaeton to Argentina.
The cars were so popular that GM decided to begin assembling them there in 1925. They became known as the Especial Argentino. General Motors do Brasil started assembling Chevrolets in 1925. GM began building Chevrolets in Mexico in 1935.
Starting in 1918, GM began building Chevrolets in Australia using bodies constructed by Holden Motor Body Builders, the forerunner of the brand that is now the company's primary brand in Australia. GM merged with Holden in 1931 to form General Motors-Holden's.
The new company built a series of locally designed Chevrolets that American buyers never saw, including the Coupe Utility, forerunner of the 1950s U.S. El Camino, in 1934 and the Chevrolet Sloper Coupe in 1935. Those cars were prime examples of Chevrolet's malleability in adapting to local markets.
Alfred Sloan, that most rational of car executives, used dollars and cents as his yardstick when making business decisions for GM.
Writing in My Years with General Motors, Sloan explained why he didn't want to export an American-made Chevrolet to England in the 1920s. English tariffs, coupled with motor licensing fees that favored small-bore engines, made export uneconomical.
"Altogether, the fees, insurance, and garage charges on a Chevrolet touring car in England in 1925 came to one pound sterling a week (about $250 a year) -- all this before normal operating costs. By contrast, the owner of an English-made Austin had fixed charges of perhaps eleven shillings a week (about $138 a year) and his first cost was lower too."
That kind of bone-dry common sense led GM to buy Vauxhall Motors of Luton, England, in 1925 and Adam Opel in Germany in 1929 to make cars locally instead of exporting American Chevrolets.
Sloan wasn't a sentimental sort. So he allowed companies like Vauxhall, Opel and Holden to keep their cultures and brand names.
And that pragmatism may be one reason Chevrolet never became the universal global brand its crosstown rival Ford did.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at firstname.lastname@example.org.