Nothing says “Red White & Blue” like Chevrolet. For many years, Chevrolet dealers have catered to Americans who wanted a nice vehicle at an affordable price. From the family-friendly Chevrolet Impala to the work-ready Chevy Silverado, the bow-tie brand has been a transportation mainstay for generations of Americans. So let’s find out how this famous car brand got its start…
At the turn of the last century, a man named Billy Durant had transformed his wagon-building empire into a car-building empire. His company, General Motors, owned a slew of independent car firms including Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland (which later became Pontiac), and the Reliance Truck Company (predecessor to GMC Trucks). He had nearly every corner of the market covered, but he’d accrued a lot of debt in the process. After several banks denied GM the necessary financing to buyout the Ford Motor Company, the board of directors voted to fire Mr. Durant from the company he’d created.
Years earlier, Durant hired famous racing driver Louis Chevrolet to drive for his newly-formed Buick race team. The Swiss-born driver was so successful at getting attention for Buick, they eventually became the best-selling car in America. In an effort to duplicate his success, Durant hired Chevrolet to be the front-man for his new car company. Then he hired Buick’s chief engine builder, Arthur Mason, to create a powerful car, one deserving of its race-bred name. The first Chevrolet was introduced in 1912; it was an immediate hit. By 1915, Chevrolet was such a success that the DuPont family invested enough money in Chevrolet for Durant to regain control of General Motors. Essentially, Chevrolet bought General Motors.
In 1916, Durant’s quiet corporate takeover was complete. The company that he started was now back under his control, and to emphasize this point, Durant showed up to a GM board meeting unannounced, walked inside, and declared himself to be President. Although GM was unable to purchase Ford, Chevrolet was now able to go toe-to-toe with them in the low-price field. The Model T would remain king of sales until 1927, when Chevrolet finally surpassed Ford which had switched production to the Model A. Designer Harley Earl’s novel yearly styling updates helped Chevy to remain in the top sales spot for several more years.
Over the following decades, Chevrolet and Ford would go back and forth in the sales race. Chevrolet, however, maintained an edge, thanks to it’s colossal R&D budget and knack for style. In 1950, they were the first to offer an automatic transmission in a low-price car. A few years later, Chevrolet unveiled the sexy Corvette to a stunned crowd at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Compared to sports cars of today, the original Corvette was a bit of a pig. But at a time when TVs and telephones were considered luxuries, the 1954 Chevy Corvette was a rocket ship. Today, the C7 Corvette Stingray inspires just as much shock & awe, thanks to 600+ horsepower and a state-of-the-art chassis that couldn’t even be imagined in the 1950s.
The two men responsible for the bow-tie brand, Billy Durant and Louis Chevrolet, both wound up dying in relative obscurity. Durant was once again ousted from General Motors in 1920, and had to file for bankruptcy in the 1930s. Louis Chevrolet left his namesake company shortly after it was founded, and started or was part of several more companies which designed and made racing parts or race cars, including the Frontenac Motor Corporation and the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Corporation which produced the ‘Fronty-Ford’ race car in the 1920s. He also raced several of the cars he designed. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway inducted him into their Hall of Fame, and erected a Louis Chevrolet memorial in 1975.