The tragic untold story of Chevrolet founder, Louis Chevrolet

Every car name on the road today — with the exception of the newborn electric cars — has a story to tell. Ferrari has one, as do Ford, Chrysler, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lamborghini, and the list goes on. But unlike Enzo Ferrari or Henry Ford, the story of Louis Chevrolet is a bit of a tragedy. He was a passionate petrol engine owner, but his ride – though full of ups and downs – was nothing short of impressive.

Chevrolet It is one of the best brands in the automotive industry. In fact, it was a household name before you and I were even born. However, the Chevrolet story begins with an immigrant mechanic who imagined speed. Mr. Chevrolet proved his power on the track and started to become famous. His fortunes changed when he suddenly decided to leave the company he co-founded. Since then, it’s been a life of failed attempts and desperation for the Swiss racer, who eventually ended up working at a Chevy plant in Detroit as a simple mechanic.

Imagine life when the company that bears your name mints millions while you are left struggling to make ends meet. But how did a Swiss bike mechanic with no automotive background build one of the world’s largest car companies? What forced Louis Chevrolet out of his own company? Let’s find out.

The beginnings of the life of Louis Chevrolet

Louis Chevrolet was born on December 25, 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The second child in a family of nine, Louis Chevrolet was part of a modest family and often helped his father, who was a watchmaker. Soon, economic problems began to afflict the family, and Louis Chevrolet with his parents and six brothers decided to move to France.

Things didn’t seem to get any better, and Lewis had to drop out of school and work in a bike shop. He soon learned the basics of bike and buggy repair and eventually designed his own bike which he entered in local races. He was so good at practice that he often finished first. Later, he designed another bike which he named the Gladiator. It was so impressive that it caught the attention of a manager at the Darracq car-making plant, and he encouraged Lewis to join the company. During his time at Darracq, Lewis mastered the basics of internal combustion and four-stroke engines. With the money he saved, Louis Chevrolet was finally able to fulfill his dream of going to America.

In 1901, he worked in an engineering workshop in New York before moving to the Brooklyn operations of French automobile manufacturer Dion Bouton. But his big break would arrive in 1905 when he started working for Fiat. Louis Chevrolet’s time at Fiat, part of the company’s racing team, helped him better understand the engines and establish himself as a racer. His first assignment was a timed event at Morris Park, and to everyone’s surprise, Lewis broke the one-mile world record. His next big event featured some of the best racers in the country. Lewis Chevrolet survived, achieving first place and a front page advantage in the New York Times. His racing career continued while he drove Buick cars, and he became a friend and partner of Buick owner William C. Durant, founder of General Motors.

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Chevrolet car company

Thanks to what he learned from Fiat and Buick, Louis Chevrolet built a top-valve six-cylinder engine in his machine shop, paving the way for something bigger. At the moment, Louis Chevrolet has already become a famous figure in the automotive world in the United States, with many victories and multiple records. William Durant sought to market Louis Chevrolet’s image as a fearless racer and used his engineering expertise to build an automobile company. In 1911, William Durant, with Louis and his brother Arthur Chevrolet and two investment partners, started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.

The strategy was simple. While the Chevrolet brothers designed the vehicles, Durant was focused on marketing them. Several months later, Classic Six (also called Type C) was born. The car featured a 4.8 liter straight-six and could reach a top speed of 65 mph. But their $2,250 price tag ($65,000 in today’s money) means very few are sold. While Chevrolet wanted to keep building fast cars, Durant disagreed and wanted the company to focus on high-volume, lower-priced cars that would rival Ford’s Model T.

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The fall of Louis Chevrolet

After the informal feud, Durant restructured the company without Lewis’ approval. This, along with some comments on Lewis’ character, made him angry. Then he proceeded to make perhaps the biggest mistake of his life. Louis Chevrolet sold his stake in the company to William Durant.

Lewis had success in racing after starting the Frontenac Motor Company and was due to launch his first passenger car. But his brother’s death and the Wall Street scandal followed by the Great Depression led to serious financial problems. Louis Chevrolet was found poor and unemployed during America’s worst economic crisis. Meanwhile, Chevrolet became a rapidly growing brand, overtaking Ford. Aged and left with no options, Lewis returned to Chevrolet, starting work on the assembly line as a mechanic before succumbing to his health problems and eventually dying in 1941.

Sources: Chevrolet Media

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