Wheeler-dealer clashes with headstrong Swiss racer
Historians still argue whether Durant really expected a car from Louis or just wanted his name
Photo credit: GM CORP.
Louis Chevrolet and Billy Durant were an odd couple.
In 1911, Chevrolet, 32, was a headstrong 6-foot-1, 215-pound bear of a man. Just 12 years removed from his Swiss homeland, he already was a famous, if not wealthy, auto racer. Durant, 49, was a suave charmer with a Midas touch and money to burn. Four inches shorter than Chevrolet, he might have weighed 140 pounds soaking wet.
Louis wanted to design an automobile, but he needed someone with deep pockets to keep the dream alive.
Durant was that someone. But he, too, had a need. His was for a salable car line capable of generating the millions of dollars it would take to rescue the General Motors empire from the hated bankers who had taken it from him months earlier.
They made a deal.
"Billy said, 'We'll need a car.' So I built it," Louis would say years later.
Historians still argue whether Durant really expected a car from Louis or just wanted his name. Regardless, their conversations over the winter led to an early March meeting in Louis' small shop on Grand River Avenue in Detroit.
That appears to have been the seminal moment in the history of the Chevrolet brand.
Employee, not partner
The shop already was busy. Louis and his brother Arthur, along with designer Etienne Planche and engineer Henry Winterhoff, were tooling a high-powered four-cylinder engine for a small speedster. A large, luxurious, six-cylinder touring car Louis thought befitted his stature was being sketched. And Louis was eagerly preparing a Marquette/Buick racer for a June trip to Europe, where he was entered in the French Grand Prix.
Durant, still a member of the GM board of directors, was careful to avoid an appearance of disloyalty. But the cat escaped the bag when the Flint Journal ran a story from Indianapolis on May 30 that Durant and Chevrolet were planning a new car. Since Louis was in Indy managing Arthur's entry in the first 500-mile race, it seemed likely that he leaked the news.
Damage control took the form of a Flint Journal interview the next day with longtime Durant ally and former Buick General Manager William Little, who admitted that a new car project was imminent. He also made it clear that Louis Chevrolet was an employee, not a partner.
To smooth ruffled feathers and show Durant that his investment was good, Louis took what he said was a prototype of the big touring car but which must have been the racer or a version of the speedster on a pre-dawn spin outside Detroit a couple of days after returning from Indiana-polis. Hitting 110 mph going out, he was collared by a constable coming back. He delighted in telling Durant that the magistrate fined him $5 for speeding and $20 for impersonating a famous race car driver.
Durant wasn't amused.
Within the week, the other shoe fell. Little assumed control of the shop, ordered all work on the speedster to stop and canceled Louis' trip to France.
The move was the first in a rapidly developing sequence of events that clarified Durant's intentions.
The first Chevrolet would be a tweaked copy of the Model 22 Whiting runabout to be assembled in Flint, Mich., by Little Motor Co., which was incorporated Oct. 30, 1911. Engines would come from Mason Motor Co., which was incorporated July 31. All this was under license from Chevrolet Motor Car Co., which wasn't incorporated until Nov. 3.
Of the 6,053 initial shares of Chevrolet stock Durant assigned to founders and friends, Louis was awarded 100. To put that in perspective, Little got 2,000 and Durant's son-in-law, Ed Campbell, got 1,594.
Soon, billboards were appearing around Detroit announcing a new car, with Chevrolet's name spelled phonetically: Chevro Lay.
In July, Little had confirmed a lease in the name of the Chevrolet company on Corcoran Lamp Co.'s property in Detroit, which is where newspapers said a prototype runabout was completed Nov. 9. That's also where the big and expensive Classic Six, on the drafting table in March and the only one of Louis' designs to see production, eventually was assembled. Fewer than 500 were built. Two are known to survive.
Since photos still exist of Durant, Chevrolet and others posing with the big Six, it has been incorrectly assumed that that's the genesis car of the marque. Durant would groan at the thought. Louis would grin.