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
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
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
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.