Louis Chevrolet had a variety of talents: skilled race driver, inventor, gifted mechanic.
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.