There are few better known brands than Chevrolet. Millions own the internationally respected vehicles, but few realize the iconic company originated with three racing brothers — Louis, Gaston and Arthur Chevrolet.
Of Swiss heritage, their story exemplifies the diverse foundation of American society.
Louis Chevrolet was the oldest, born on Christmas Day 1878. While still in school, he began racing bicycles and at 16 was building and selling bikes of his own design. When the first automobiles began appearing, his interests shifted from bicycles to cars.
That led to apprenticeships with two European car companies, exposing a natural mechanical ability that inspired him to migrate first to Canada, then America, in pursuit of opportunity in the early 20th Century’s fledging automotive industry.
In New York, Louis gained such renown as a mechanic that he was pursued by several automobile companies. He accepted an offer from Fiat. That proved to be a fortuitous choice, as Fiat gave him the chance to race on its factory team. He won his first time out on May 20, 1905.
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By this time, Louis Chevrolet was earning enough money to send for his two brothers to join him in his automotive ventures. They too displayed an aptitude for mechanics, and while Gaston Chevrolet was too young, Arthur Chevrolet was also was caught up in driving the monstrous cars of that day.
Louis Chevrolet moved from Fiat to Buick with continued success. Becoming one of the most acclaimed drivers in the nation, he attracted the attention of automotive entrepreneur and General Motors founder William C. Durant.
In a complex bit of business wrangling, Durant had lost control of General Motors and hoped to reverse his fortunes by capitalizing on Chevrolet’s name. With Louis Chevrolet, Durant formed Chevrolet Motor Co. in 1911.
The first Chevrolet, designed by Louis Chevrolet, was introduced in 1912. It sold for $2,150 and was aimed at the luxury car market. It succeeded. Three-thousand cars were sold the first year, 16,000 the next two, and profits surpassed $1.3 million.
Durant, however, wanted Louis Chevrolet to design a cheap car to compete with the Ford Model T. Louis Chevrolet vehemently disagreed. The Chevrolets were known for their stubbornness and in 1916 Louis Chevrolet parted ways with Durant, selling him his shares and the Chevrolet name.
The decision cost Louis Chevrolet millions as Durant eventually regained control of General Motors and made Chevrolet the flagship model.
After the Chevrolet Motor Co. debacle, Louis Chevrolet enlisted his brothers and formed the Frontenac Motor Co. to design and build race cars and engines. They immersed themselves in racing technology and Frontenacs became the most successful machines in championship auto racing.
They entered the first two Frontenacs in the 1916 Indianapolis 500 with Louis Chevrolet, who resumed his racing activities after curtailing them while he was involved with Durant, driving one and Arthur Chevrolet, who had raced in the first 500 in 1911, handling the other.
When racing at Indianapolis resumed in 1919 following World War I, the brothers picked up where they left off. They were so successful that Monroe Automotive Co. branded Frontenacs as Monroes and entered a team in the 1920 500 with Gaston Chevrolet as one of the drivers.
Monroes and Frontenacs made up a third of the 500 field that year and Gaston Chevrolet won the race. In 1921, Tommy Milton won the 500 and the national championship in a Frontenac.
The Chevrolets also designed and manufactured many speed components. Their famed Fronty Ford heads turned Ford Model T engines into tigers, with thousands sold. They were so effective that some competed at Indianapolis and for years provided short-track racers with a reliable, powerful and inexpensive engine.
The story of the Chevrolet brothers ended tragically.
Only months after his Indianapolis 500 victory, on Nov. 25, 1920, Gaston Chevrolet died in a crash at the Beverly Hills, Calif., board track.
Louis and Arthur Chevrolet continued to race, but lost their fortunes during the 1929 Wall Street crash. Louis Chevrolet was forced to take a job on the assembly line at the company that still bore his name. He assembled Chevrolets until his death on June 6, 1941.
Arthur Chevrolet worked as a mechanic until 1942 when he moved to Slidell, La., to do design work for Higgins Industries, which manufactured PT boats during World War II. On April 16, 1946, he took his own life.