Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac

December 25, 1878 – Louis Chevrolet is born

Louis Chevrolet, namesake to Chevrolet Motor Car Company, was born on this day in 1878 in Switzerland. After immigrating to Paris as a child he became fascinated with bicycle racing and mechanics. He spent his early adulthood working in various mechanics shops before moving to Canada and then New York by 1900. There he found work at the Brooklyn operations of the French car manufacturer de Dion-Bouton, giving him a chance to hone his automobile engineering skills. He would soon discover a passion for driving.

Above: Louis Chevrolet: Top: Chevrolet driving a Frontenac

The growing sport of automobile racing captured the world’s awe, and Chevrolet was no exception. First hired in 1905 by FIAT, two years later he became a driver for Philadelphia based Autocar. Some historians believe Autocar recruited him more for his engineering skills than his driving abilities to assist with development of a secret front wheel drive race car.

By 1909 Chevrolet had signed on with Buick as a driver. There he became friends with the company’s owner, William Durant, who recently founded General Motors. While at Buick, Chevrolet became more involved in engineering processes, despite a lack of formal education. He even created an overhead valve engine in his personal machine shop in Detroit.

In any case, Chevrolet’s success on the track made him a star. He raced alongside other greats of the time, including Bob Burman. The two designed the 1910 Buick Special 60, building two in total. These specially made race cars, known colloquially as Buick Bugs, were victorious in multiple races.

buick race cars in 1910
The Buick Bugs

After being kicked to the curb outside of GM headquarters in Flint, Michigan, Durant approached Chevrolet about starting a new car company. The two co-founded Chevrolet Motor Company on November 3, 1911. Durant’s hope to use Chevrolet’s racing reputation to sell cars flopped when the namesake decided he’d rather build more luxurious vehicles. In any case, Chevrolet sales boomed. Before long Durant used the new companies success to re-take control of General Motors. Louis split after selling his stock, creating Frontenac Motor Corporation with his brothers in 1916 to build racing parts for the Ford Model T.

After Frontenac cars won the 1920 and 1921 Indianapolis 500s, Chevrolet tried to sell his company to Stutz Motor Company. The deal never came to fruition and Frontenac closed its doors in 1921, a year after Louis brother Gaston died driving one in a Los Angeles race.

Louis Chevrolet memorial
Louis Chevrolet memorial, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By Tcotrel CC BY-SA 3.0

Louis and his surviving brother Arthur later began to dabble in aircraft engines, founding Chevrolair. Bad business dealing cut them out of profits after the Chevrolair 333 engine hit the market as the Martin 4-333 Bomber. However, in 1934, Chevrolet once again found himself in the car business.

Chevrolet became a consultant for General Motors, where he remained until 1938 when a cerebral hemorrhage forced his retirement. He retired to Florida but passed away in 1941 on a visit to Detroit. He is buried next to his brother at a cemetery near Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Chevrolet is recognized as an automotive great, having earned an induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1969.

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