Louis Chevrolet never found a way to make money from his talents, skills and experiences. That his name lives on as one of the most famous names in the automobile industry is attributed more to its romantic sound than the man himself.
The name "Chevrolet" is thought to be a French corruption of "goat's milk." Louis Chevrolet was born on Christmas day 1878 in Swiss Jura, the center of the French dairy industry region. The son of a watchmaker, Chevrolet showed a similar mechanical aptitude at an early age. He showed no inclination for school, however, and his parents were happy to encourage his wage-earning pursuits.
Chevrolet began a career in bicycle repair and soon the muscular six-foot youth was racing bikes. In his first three years he won 28 competitive events. He built bikes until he discovered cars. Chevrolet became an auto mechanic in the pioneering French auto industry. He jumped from job to job, gaining valuable experience, before coming to Montreal in 1900.
Chevrolet worked as a chauffeur in Canada for six months before coming to New York, his ultimate destination. Driving hard-steering, rough-riding racing cars required a great deal of muscle at the turn of the century. The hulking Frenchman was ideally suited to this pursuit. Slowly he established his reputation as a mechanic and a racer, winning his first road race on a cinder track in Morris Park, New York on May 20, 1905.
Chevrolet brought his younger brothers Arthur and Gaston to America and left for Flint, Michigan to drive for W.C. Durant, founder of General Motors. Chevrolet drove a Buick in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 but a broken camshaft put him out of the race early. Meanwhile Durant split from GM and privately hired Chevrolet to make the car of his dreams. Chevrolet was a consulting engineer, not an officer, in the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
When the Chevrolet Classic Six reached production in 1912 there were 275 other automakers in the United States. The first Chevrolet was envisioned as a rich man's car, not the best-selling American car it would become. The Classic Six was big, powerful and pricey. It carried a sticker of $2150, out of the reach of all but the wealthy.
Durant realized he needed to compete with cheaper cars he could sell at high volume. Chevrolet believed his name only belonged on a big, impressive automobile and resigned in October, 1913. He sold his stock, securities which would have made him a millionaire many times over, when he left.
Durant would never miss him. The rough-hewn, uneducated Chevrolet did not fit in with the polished wheeler-dealers in the early auto industry boardrooms. Durant hated the man, but loved the name. He was soon putting the Chevrolet name on many of his brands of cars. Meanwhile, General Motors reorganized with Chevrolet becoming its leading division.
Without even his name Chevrolet formed the Frontenac Motor Corporation. By 1917 he had a new and very advanced racing machine, complete with an aluminum engine block, but no production system. Seeking a regular paycheck he signed on as vice-president and chief engineer for a new company called the American Motors Corporation. He helped develop their American Beauty but when development got under way his services were deemed expendable.
The Monroe Company next hired Chevrolet to build a race car. He updated his Frontenac racer and with his brother Gaston at the controls, won the 1920 Indianapolis 500. Tragically Gaston would die before the year was out in a fiery crash on a boardwalk raceway in Beverly Hills, California.
With the prestige garnered from his Indianapolis victory Chevrolet obtained backers to incorporate Frontenac Motors but the company went bankrupt with his cars still on the design table. Another car company failed in 1924 and Chevrolet turned to boat racing, winning the Miami Regatta in 1925. But the victory did not translate into widespread success.
In 1929 Louis and Arthur Chevrolet left the auto business altogether to form the Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Company with a new engine of their design but lost the business to Glenn L. Martin. Finally in 1934, out of charity and a moral obligation towards the man who gave their best-selling car its name, General Motors put Louis Chevrolet on their payroll.
Illness forced Chevrolet to retire in 1938. He and his wife lived in a small Florida apartment but the humid climate accelerated his decline in health and he returned to Detroit for a leg operation in early 1941. Complications forced a complete amputation from which Chevrolet never recovered. He died on June 6, 1941 at the age of 63. He was buried in Indianapolis, scene of his greatest racing triumph.