Louis Joseph Chevrolet was a racer, engineer and the man who gave his name to the Chevrolet
automobile. He was born on Christmas Day
, 1878 in Switzerland
, and was the son of a watchmaker
who taught him the basic mechanics
Though he had little formal education he had a knack fror making mechanical things work. He built and raced his own bicycles, and his interest in engine design was fed through work at the Darracq and De Dion factories. In 1900 he emigrated to America. He spent some time working as a mechanic for De Dion and Fiat. in 1905 Fiat lent him one of their race cars and he won his first race against impressive competition. He modified the big Fiats and won often that year, beating the famous Barney Oldfield.
In 1906 he met Walter Christie who is best known for the Christie Suspension which became very popular in tank design, including the famed T-34. But Christie was a racer then, and built an impressive front wheel drive race car with a 200HP Darraq engine, which he drove to 119 MPH. His reputation as a driver who was both fast and fearless grew and led him to contact with William Durant.
Durant had lost control of General Motors in 1910, and wanted to build another empire. He commisioned Louis to design and build a car that would carry his name. It went into prduction in 1912, and sold quite well. The first Chevrolet was a luxurious car, Durant wanted to compete with the Model T. Contractually, Durant ownd the name and he got his way, but the two parted company in 1914 and with it Chevrolet's association with the company that still bears his name.
Louis chose to begin racing under the name of Frontenac, a name taken from a 17th Century governer in French-controlled North Africa. Successive associations with Albert Champion --- of spark plug fame-- and Stutz helped fund his increasingly successful racing team, which included his brothers Arther and Gaston..The association with Stutz led to the Frontenac passenger car in 1922, which was intended to rival the Duesenberg Model A. The car was excellent, but Louis signed a bad contract which led to his losing that company as well., as he filed for bankruptcy in 1923..
The Frontenac cylinder head for the Ford Model T, saved his fortunes and launched the hot rod industry. The head made the T-bone quite fast for the era.
1n 1926 he got into the airplane business with the 'Chevrolair' engine, and had associations with aviation pioneer Glenn Martin, but nothing lasting came from either. He also reentered the car business indirectly, through Dominion Motors. Again, shady dealing characterized the business end, and the car failed. By the 1933, Louis Chevrolet could only find work as an ordinary mechanic. In 1934 he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and moved to Florida for health reasons. He died in Detroit on June 6, 1941, of complications from a leg amputation.
Chevrolet was a fine racer, but his fame was particularly great as a car builder and team manager. He built the Monroe race car that carried his brother Gaston Chevrolet to victory in the 1920 Indianapolis 500. His Fronty fords, using Model T-blocks, finished fifth in the 1923 "500". His race cars were robust and served for many years on the dirt track circuits.