In 1972, General Motors built 5,740,440 cars and trucks in the United States; more than half of these, 3,068,444 to be exact, carried the Chevrolet name. Many more vehicles bearing the Chevrolet name were produced by GM plants in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Argentina, and even by Isuzu in Japan.
Chevrolet, the car named after a Swiss-born racing driver, is beyond doubt the vital backbone of General Motors. The lives of two great men of the motor industry were linked together by the birth of the Chevrolet Motor Company. One was the Flint, Michigan industrialist, William Crapo Durant, born in Boston in 1861.
The other was Louis Chevrolet, who was born in Switzerland in 1878. Chevrolet was thirty years old, and recognized as a talented mechanic and an outstanding racing driver, when he and his brother Arthur were hired into the Buick company in 1908 by Durant, who was then assembling the ingredients of his greatest creation, General Motors.
At first the Chevrolets served Durant and his enterprise as chauffeurs and racing drivers for the successful Buick team but, in 1910, Durant pressed his expansion too far too fast and lost control of Buick and General Motors. This didn't stop the irrepressible Durant, however.
Louis Chevrolet's Task - To Design And Build A Car Bearing His Name
In October 1910, he put Louis Chevrolet to work in a small garage on Detroit's Grand River Avenue. His assignment: to design and build a new car that would bear the name Chevrolet. Assisted by engineer Etienne Planche, Chevrolet prepared designs with engines of both four and six cylinders. Durant authorised them to go ahead with the six.
On 30 May 1911, the project was revealed in a release to the press: 'W. C. Durant of the General Motors company and racer Louis Chevrolet, one of the speed wonders of the day and a co-worker with Mr Durant in the manufacture and exploitation of fast cars, will establish a factory in Detroit for the manufacture of a new high-priced car
.' The story went on to refer to the forthcoming new car as a 'Durant-Chevrolet.'
The 1912 Chevrolet Classic 6
Billy Durant made good this promise on 3 November 1911, when he organized the Chevrolet Motor Company of Michigan. By that time Chevrolet and Planche had completed their first prototype cars, powered by a 4·9-liter T-head six. A large garage was rented on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard to begin assembly of the 1912 Chevrolet Classic 6 from purchased components. Priced at $2150, this first Chevrolet was indeed an expensive car for its day. Nevertheless, the small shop somehow managed to build and sell 2999 of these cars in 1912.
There were quite a few more twists and turns in the road travelled by the early Chevrolet car and company. Engines for the cars were made by another new Durant enterprise, the Mason Motor Company in Flint. Several former Buick employees were involved in both Mason and another new Flint firm, the Little Motor Car Company. Little entered the market in 1912 with a small roadster powered by a four-cylinder Mason engine and priced at $650.
Production of Little cars got off to such a lively start that Durant decided to base Chevrolet manufacture in Flint too, instead of building a big Ford-style plant in Detroit. The necessary total production capacity was achieved by setting up assembly plants around the country.
Chevrolet manufacture was moved to Flint in August 1913 and put under the control of the executive who was running Little. Louis Chevrolet was overseas when some of these changes were made and on returning he saw that a merger between the Little and Chevrolet product lines seemed inevitable.
Finding this not to his liking, he left the world of Billy Durant in December 1913 to pursue his own interests. The 1914 line of Little and Chevrolet cars included closely-related L-head sixes, the Little Six and the Chevrolet Type L. There were also new fours derived from the Little roadster.
Chevrolet was still the more costly, and became dominant as production of Littles was ended during 1915. The Little roadster left its mark on the design of the appealing Chevrolet Royal Mail, on the new Model H chassis for which Mason had designed an overhead-valve, four-cylinder engine in late 1913.
This 2.8-liter four was the first of the three basic engines, each outstanding in its way, that have powered Chevrolets to marketing success. In September 1915, Billy Durant pulled his mini-empire together by organizing the Chevrolet Motor Company of Delaware, which took over the stock of all his Chevrolet-related companies.
By promoting the merits of this new firm, Durant encouraged holders of GM shares to exchange them for stock in Chevrolet. General Motors had not been paying dividends since 1910, so its shares had lost their appeal. In this remarkable way, Durant used Chevrolet to regain a controlling interest in General Motors.
On 2 May 1918, Chevrolet was officially merged into the GM organization, the last of GM's five car divisions to be added. In October 1915, Durant moved Chevrolet directly into strong competition with Ford by introducing the 490, so named because it was priced at $490 with an open body and without an electrical system.
This placed it just above the Model T in price. Spurred by the success of the 490, Chevrolet factory sales leaped to 70,701 in 1916, then to 125,882 in 1917. They dropped, then bounced back to 150,226 in 1920, accounting for 39 per cent of GM's North American vehicle sales.
Chevrolet lost its most ardent advocate within General Motors late in 1920, when Billy Durant was forced out of the company for the second and final time. GM was rescued from financial collapse by the du Pont family, whose Pierre S. du Pont became President of GM and General Manager of Chevrolet.
At this time a consulting firm was hired to survey the GM properties. Their verdict on Chevrolet was that it could never be made a competitor to Ford, and should be liquidated! Alfred P. Sloan Jr argued persuasively against this, and was in favour of keeping and building up Chevrolet.
Shortly after that a policy was adopted to make Chevrolet the lowest-priced GM automobile. Expensive Chevrolet models, like the V8 introduced in 1917, were dropped from the range. It was audacious to think that Chevrolet could ever challenge Ford.
In 1921, Chevrolet, losing money at the rate of $5 million a year, had only 4% of the vehicle market, against Ford's 60%, but instead of trying to compete directly with the immortal Model T, Chevrolet aimed just above the Ford in both equipment and price. This policy provided a name for the successor to the 490 that was introduced in 1923: the Superior.
In a boom car-sales year, it lifted the Chevrolet sales total for 1923 to 480,737 units, under the direction of a new General Manager, William S. Knudsen, who held that post until 1933. Only 759 of those 1923 Chevrolets were of a revolutionary new design, the air-cooled or 'copper- cooled' model, and fewer than 100 of them had actually reached the hands of the public before they were all called back to the factory in June 1923.
High hopes were voiced for this unique $725 model, which was to be built at the rate of 50,000 a month. Its fan-cooled engine was the latest product of Charles F. Kettering, but the 20-horsepower 2.2-liter unit was not entirely satisfactory and the idea of a major changeover to air cooling was dropped.
Instead, an improved Model K (an earlier car) was rushed into production for the 1925 model year. Chevrolet started thinking about switching to a six-cylinder engine in 1925, after it had helped to design a new small six for the Oakland Division called Pontiac.
Chevrolet's six had to suit the division's slogan, 'Valves in head, ahead in value', so engineer O. E. Hunt endowed it with pushrod-operated over-head valves, three main bearings and a capacity of 3.2 liters which produced 46 horsepower. The new six was introduced in December 1928 as the International model. This durable and easily-repaired engine became the second of the three great Chevrolet power units.
In 1927, Chevrolet won first place in US car sales when Ford shut down its lines early to convert to the Model A. That was also a milestone year for Chevrolet with its first annual output of more than a million vehicles, 1,001,880 to be exact. Ford took the sales lead again in 1929 and 1930, and Chevrolet bounced back to first in the depression year of 1931.
With the exceptions of 1935, 1957, 1959 and 1970, Chevrolet has been number one vehicle producer in the world ever since. Harley Earl and his GM stylists first made major changes in the Chevrolet line in 1933, which also saw the division of the range into Master and Standard lines, the latter being a shorter, lighter version. At $455, the depression-era Standard was the lowest-priced Chevrolet ever made.
In 1934, independent front suspension, known as 'knee action', was first fitted. It was the system developed in France by Andre Dubonnet. From 1935 until 1940, however, buyers could have a solid front axle if they wanted it. In 1939, a more conventional coil and wishbone front suspension was introduced.
It was 1935 that marked the end of a Chevrolet tradition, the open four-door touring car. In that year the last phaetons were built, only 1160 leaving the plants. Chevrolets were extensively redesigned in 1937, when a single wheelbase of 2855 mm replaced the previous differentiation between Master and Standard models.
GM Helps Juan Manuel Fangio
The 'Blue Flame' six-cylinder engine was totally re-designed too, with four main bearings and 3.55-liter engine producing 85 bhp. This engine went into production in a new plant at Tonawanda, New York. One of these engines, in a 1939 Master 85 coupe, played an important role in Chevrolet history. General Motors of Argentina helped a 20-year-old racing driver get a race-prepared car of that type in 1940.
The driver, a certain Juan Manuel Fangio, became nationally famous in 1940 when he won the incredible 5900-mile road race from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru and back again, he and his Chevrolet averaging 53.6 mph over some of the worst roads in the world. In the next two years, Fangio won four major races in a row with his solid-axled coupe. Fangio last raced a Chevrolet at the end of 1949, when his career as a Grand Prix driver was well under way.
What would be the shape of post-war Chevrolets? Remembering the business slump that followed World War 1, GM executives felt at first that it would be a good idea to introduce a smaller, lower-priced car after World War 2. A special design team created such a car and built several prototypes of it.
A factory in Cleveland, Ohio, was set up to make it, but when it was seen that car demand would remain strong, the decision was made to set aside the small car or 'light car', as it was known, and instead begin work on a completely restyled Chevrolet to be introduced in 1949.
The First In Its Class With A Fully Automatic Transmission
As part of an overall changeover of GM's smaller 'A-bodies' in 1949, the new Chevrolets had flush front wings, a curved windscreen and a lower bonnet line. With T. H. Keating as its new General Manager in 1939, Chevrolet set another all-time sales record at 1,550,669 cars and trucks. The 1950 Chevrolet became the first car in its class with a fully automatic transmission, the first Powerglide drive with a torque converter.
That contributed to another record year, selling 2,108,273 units, some 300,000 of them equipped with Powerglide. Testing a 1951 Chevrolet, Motor magazine reported that it 'corners easily and steadily, under complete and precise control, at quite brisk speeds
', and found themselves 'regarding the Chevrolet not simply as being good value, but also as being a good car
If there has ever been a secret to the. success of Chevrolet, that's exactly what it is. In 1952 and 1953 the Chevrolets, whether of good value or not, were dull cars compared with most others. Something was being done about this, however, because Edward N. Cole had been appointed Chevrolet chief engineer in 1952.
Cole actively supported the idea, first proposed by Harley Earl, that Chevrolet should build a sports roadster. This was the Corvette, shown as an experimental car early in 1953 and put into production, with its revolutionary glass-fibre body, later that same year.
The 3rd Great Engine From Chevrolet
Only a few years later, thanks to Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette had become an extremely good sports car. Ed Cole also set to work to transform the standard Chevrolet. The results of his labours were evident in the new 1955 model.
It had a smooth new body with a wrap-around windscreen, Ferrari-like grille, anti-dive front suspension, 12-volt electrical system, and a new V8 engine that astounded the industry with its simplicity, cheapness and lightness. Starting out at 4.35 liters and 162 horsepower, this V8 became the third great engine in the history of Chevrolet. With fuel injection, in 1957 it became the first American production car engine to develop one horsepower per cubic inch.
Chevrolet sales reached a new peak in 1955 with 1,821,695 cars, and a total of 2,213,888 vehicles. In 1956, Ed Cole was made the General Manager. 1958 was another year of dramatic change, indeed the most complete in Chevrolet history.
The cars were all new with an X-pattern frame, coil spring rear suspension, optional air springing, a completely new 5.7-liter engine option, bodies that were strikingly lower and longer, and a new series designation, the Impala - destined for future fame. But America wasn't much interested in any of the 1958 cars and this was Chevrolet's poorest post-war sales year, only 1,543,992 cars and trucks leaving their factories.
The Corvair - Deliberately Different
The even more flamboyant 1959 model moved still further away from the more rational cars that buyers were looking for then - and which Chevrolet hoped to provide. Chevrolet's economy car made its bow in 1959; this was the controversial Corvair. The division's first production car with integral body/frame construction and a rear engine, it was deliberately planned to be different enough in design from the big Chevrolet to prevent it stealing sales from its own stablemates.
Its clean lines were extremely successful, influencing the looks of many other cars around the world, but the air-cooled and independently sprung Corvair was a costly car to produce and this, more than any other factor, led to Chevrolet's decision early in 1965 to phase it gradually out of production, just after the car had been restyled.
Development Of The Chevy
The last Corvairs were made in 1970, so a troubled life came to an end. The Corvair had some very good sales years, especially in its sporty Monza versions, which were even offered with turbo charged engines. But it started off very slowly, and Chevrolet started work at once on a much simpler 'economy car', the Chevy which was introduced for the 1962 model year.
It was the first production car to be fitted with single-leaf rear springs, and it was powered by all-new four and six-cylinder engines. The six was soon to become the basic Chevrolet engine and indeed the basic GM six, while the Chevy II was transformed into the Nova, in which V8 engines were also offered.
Yet another car was added to the growing Chevrolet family under the general managership of Semon E. Knudsen, son of the Knudsen who had headed Chevrolet forty years earlier. It was the Chevelle, Chevrolet's entry in the move to a new size of car called the 'intermediate', being part-way between the full-size cars and the compacts. At first a rather bland car, the Chevelle later gained both style and power to become one of the best-selling car lines in the industry.
Countering The Popularity Of The Mustang
Chevrolet men at first considered Ford's Mustang to be a response to the Corvair Monza, but eventually they realized they had to have a Mustang of their own. This was the sporty four-seater Camaro, which did not appear until 1966. The Camaro gained great respect among real car enthusiasts with the introduction of the 5-liter Z28 option, a firmly-sprung car, with excellent handling and performance. This won two Trans-Am racing championships in the hands of Mark Donohue.
A new Camaro appeared early in 1970 and was another exceptionally handsome car from the styling studios of Bill Mitchell. Yet another great Chevroler engine came along during the 1960s - it started as a 7-liter racing engine for stock cars at Daytona in February 1963 and first appeared in production early in 1965 as a 6.5-liter V8. It was nicknamed the 'porcupine', for the way its push rod-operated valves were angled in two planes, away from each other, to combine good breathing with a compact combustion chamber.
In 7-liter and, later, 7.4-liter form, this outstanding engine has powered many high-performance Chevrolet cars, especially the Corvette, Camaro and the Monte Carlos that would fare well in NASCAR stock car racing. aluminum-block versions of the engine were to form the power behind the successes of McLaren cars in Can-Am racing from 1968 to 1971. Varied models and high performance helped Chevrolet set another record in 1965 with the factory sales of 2,585,014 cars and 3,203,958 vehicles in all.
In 1966, Elliott M. Estes took over as General Manager. He came from Pontiac, and was followed in 1969 by another ex-Pontiac engineer, John Z. DeLorean
. It fell to DeLorean to introduce yet another new line of Chevrolets, the Vegas, which the division hoped would ward off the latest attacks by the smaller imported makes.
It broke new ground with a cylinder block for its 2.3-Iitre four-cylinder engine that needed no liners for the high-silicon aluminum cylinder bores. Other Vega features were a belt-driven overhead camshaft and an integral body structure. Added to the popular Vega line for 1974 was a new model with a Cosworth-designed 16-valve aluminum cylinder head and Bendix electronic fuel injection.
The Chev Blazer
Expert in trucks as well as cars, Chevrolct moved in the late 1960s to hold its place as a builder of recreational vehicles. In 1969 it introduced the Blazer, a versatile four-wheel-drive vehicle, and in 1972 it began selling a small pickup truck called the LUV - for light utility vehicle. This set a new precedent for Chevrolet by being imported from Japan, from the firm in which GM has a partial interest, Isuzu.
Yet another new line of cars was put under the Chevrolet dealer's roof in 1970 with the introduction of the Monte Carlo, a 'personal car' to compete in the Grand Prix/Thunderbird segment of the market. It helped Chevrolet become, in 1971 and 1972, a consistent seller of more than three million cars and trucks a year in the United States.
Prototype Wankel Rotary
The world looked forward to another innovation from Chevrolet, in the mid '70s, the first American passenger car powered by a Wankel rotary engine. This would have marked the end of the first phase of the experiments of General Motors and Chevrolet, sparked by Ed Cole.
Although a prototype rotary-engined Corvette was shown in 1973, Wankel development was stopped in 1975 and when the European-style sub-compact Chevette appeared in the same year it was entirely conventional. In many ways this car was typical of the cosmopolitan approach of America's most enterprising and sporting manufacturer.
A Word On Louis Chevrolet
THOUGH THE CAR THAT BORE HIS NAME became America's best-selling make in 1929, Louis Chevrolet had remarkably little to do with its success. Indeed, as an engineer with a taste for high quality, he was probably somewhat chagrined to be associated with such a low-cost, volume-production car. Precision engineering was, indeed, in his blood, for Louis Chevrolet, who was born on Christmas Day, 1878, was the second son of a Swiss watchmaker.
In the mid 1880s, the family emigrated to Beaune, in the heart of the Burgundy wine- growing country in France. Young Louis's first job on leaving school was in the wine cellars, where he showed his latent engineering skills by devising a new type of pump for transferring the wine from vat to vat.
Soon, however, he was working for a local cycle shop and racing bicycles for pin-money. Chevrolet subsequently decided to make the motor industry his career, and travelled to Paris, where he worked for Mors and De Dion Bouton before emigrating to Canada in 1900 with his brother Arthur.
Neither Quebec nor Montreal had anything to offer Chevrolet, and soon he was working for the New York branch of De Dion Bouton. When this company folded, he joined the Hol-Tan company, an importing agency run by partners called Hollander and Tangeman.
They specialized in the better Italian cars like Fiat and, later, Lancia. Here Louis had his first opportunity to try a racing car, a 1905 Fiat, setting up a new mile record at the Morris Park racetrack. This was the first of many successes, and brought him to the attention of motor magnate Billy Durant, who was then in the process of organising what would become General Motors.
Durant invited both Arthur and Louis Chevrolet to show their paces in an impromptu dirt-track race behind the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan. Louis won, Arthur was offered the job of chauffeuring Durant, and both brothers were asked to join the Buick works racing team. Louis soon became established as one of America's leading racing drivers, winning several long-distance events in 1909; the same year, he led the Vanderbilt Cup race until eight laps from the finish, when a broken steering connection forced his retirement.
This was just one of the many crashes in his 15-year racing career, during which he is estimated to have spent an aggregate of three years in hospital recovering from injuries he had received on the track.
In 1910, Louis Chevrolet persuaded Durant that a market existed for a European-type light car, and developed the Classic Six which became the first production Chevrolet model, but only two years later he parted company with General Motors after a blazing row with Durant, which hinged on the fact that Billy wanted to turn the Chevrolet into a cheap model to rival the Model T Ford, while Louis planned it as a low-volume quality car
However, Louis Chevrolet wasn't out of the motor industry for long: in 1914, he formed his own company, the Frontenac Motor Company, building four and eight-cylinder racing cars. He also designed the Cornelian cyclecar for the Blood Brothers Machine Company. The Frontenac cars were built in the Monroe Car Factory in Indianapolis; and it was at Indianapolis that the Monroe-Frontenacs gained their most impressive victories. Though Louis drove there, he was dogged by mechanical failures, and his best performance was seventh in the 1919 '500'.
It was his young brother, Gaston though, born in 1892, whose meteoric career was crowned by victory at Indianapolis. Gaston, who had followed his brothers to America, first appeared as a racing driver in 1917 but was suspended after a few months for taking part in non-sanctioned races. Back in action, he came tenth in the 1919 Indy, won several major track events and then won the 1920 Indianapolis by over six minutes without even stopping to change a tire .
A few months later, in a board-track race in California, young Gaston was involved in a crash with another competitor. Both cars burst into flames, and their drivers received fatal injuries. Louis Chevrolet was so deeply affected that he gave up racing; but now he moved into the booming go-faster market, building special cylinder heads to hot up Model T Fords.
And it was the Chevrolet-modified 'Fronty-Fords' that dominated dirt-track racing during the 1920s. In 1929, Chevrolet began work on aircraft engines, but the Depression put an end to this venture and, by 1933, he had been forced to take a job as an ordinary mechanic with the Chevrolet Motor Company.
He gave this up the following year, after his son, Charles, died. From then on, his life was dogged by disaster after disaster, including the loss of all his designs and drawings in a fire at his sister's house. Though he managed to find work as an engineering consultant during the 1930s, Louis Chevrolet's health was breaking down under an incurable illness. He died on 6 June 1941, and was buried beside his brother Gaston, at Indianapolis.