Louis Chevrolet, car designer and racing driver

Louis Chevrolet was born on 25 December 1878 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He began his working life making bicycles but soon became fascinated by the fledgling automobile industry. In 1900 he emigrated to Montreal in Canada, where he worked as a chauffeur and mechanic. Then in 1901 he moved to New York and began working for the Brooklyn agency of the French car manufacturer, De Dion-Bouton.

Chevrolet was soon driving in auto races; and thus began his career as a racing driver. His enduring international racing car legacy is shown in a series of colour photographs taken at Pukekohe racetrack during the 1973, 1974 and 1975 New Zealand Grand Prix by motor-racing enthusiast, auto-journalist/photographer (and mobile librarian) Gerard Richards. Gerard remembers that ‘the main race at these meetings was for Chevrolet V8 powered single seaters for the coveted New Zealand Grand Prix title’, featuring F5000 cars like Chris Amon’s Talon Chevrolet single seater, although there were also support races featuring Chevrolet Camaros, Holden Monaros and Pontiac Firebirds. Gerard’s racing car photos have been mounted as 35mm slides and have now been deposited with Sir George Grey Special Collections.  They have recently been published on Kura Heritage Collections Online.

Image: Gerard Richards. Chris Amon’s Talon MR2 Chevrolet F5000, Pukekohe, 1975. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-042.

Louis Chevrolet’s enduring passion for speed led him to drive initially for the New York Fiat agency but then also for his friend William C. Durant, the owner of the Buick Motor Company. In the early days of motoring, car company owners raced their cars to promote their brands (Henry Ford even drove in this crazy and dangerous pastime) and Durant sponsored his driver Chevrolet to boost sales of Buicks. Interestingly, Durant had created the Buick Motor Company by combining horse drawn buggies from the Flint Wagon Works with Buick engines!

Image: Gerard Richards. Red Dawson's Chevrolet Camaro, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-013.

Durant was one of those ambitious men who sought to dominate the automobile industry and would eventually become the nemesis of his erstwhile friend, Louis Chevrolet. In 1908 Durant founded General Motors and raised enough capital to swallow up most of his early competitors: Buick was now joined in the General Motors garage by well-known names like Cadillac and Pontiac. However, Durant’s expansionary strategy soon caused him to overextend himself and in 1910 he was squeezed out of General Motors by disgruntled stockholders.

Image: Gerard Richards. Warwick Brown's Lola T300 Chevrolet F5000, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-015.

Chevrolet followed his friend Durant when he left the company. Since 1909 Chevrolet had been building four- and six-cylinder engines and he now suggested that he could design a small, luxurious touring car. In 1911 he and Durant formed the Chevrolet Motor Car Company to manufacture his tourer. Chevrolet’s design showed his skill as a precision engineer. However the car was quite expensive for the time and Durant found another cheaper design he wanted to manufacture under the Chevrolet brand. Louis would not compromise quality for price so in 1915 he sold Durant his share of the company and started McLaughlin’s Company in Canada, where he manufactured his luxury Chevrolet tourers.

Image: Gerard Richards. Frank Gardner's Chevrolet Camaro, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-016.

By 1916 Durant had made enough money from sales of his cheaper Series 490 Chevrolets to repurchase a controlling stake in General Motors. Durant now merged the Chevrolet Motor Company to become a division of General Motors. Two years later Durant’s General Motors bought all the outstanding Chevrolet stock from the McLaughlin Car Company, which was now merged with the Chevrolet Car Company to become General Motors of Canada. To this day, Chevrolet Motors has remained part of General Motors Corporation.

Image: Gerard Richards. Red Dawson’s Chevrolet Camaro, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-017

Image: Gerard Richards. Dexter Dunlop's McRae GM1 Chevrolet, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-021.

After losing his brand name to the capitalist Durant, Louis Chevrolet returned to designing racing cars. Chevrolet formed the Frontenac Motor Company and produced four racing car designs. His most successful early design was the Frontenac Cornelian racing car. Louis Chevrolet also drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times. His best finish was when he came seventh in 1919. Both Louis and his younger brother Gaston raced in Sunbeams, achieving some third placings in 1916. Gaston won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920 in a straight eight-cylinder Frontenac and went on to win that year’s American Automobile Association National Championship. Another Chevrolet-designed car, a Monroe-Frontenac, won the Indianapolis race in 1921. But by that time, Louis had given up racing when brother Gaston was killed in a Los Angeles race crash in November 1920.

Image: Gerard Richards. Gary Pederson's Begg FM4 Chevrolet, Pukekohe, 1973. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-024.

Louis Chevrolet later tried to design a line of successful Frontenac passenger cars but lost a lot of money doing so. He lost more money when he had to assume the Frontenac Corporation’s debt after the Stutz Motorcar Company stopped manufacturing Frontenac cars during the 1922 depression. After the Frontenac Motor Company failed, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet began manufacturing special cylinder heads for modified Model T Fords, which they called Fronty-Fords. The Fronty-Ford Company prospered for a while, but the Chevrolets’ good fortune would not last. When Ford started producing Model As the company could not commercially manufacture matching modified cylinder heads. The Fronty-Ford Company faded away in the early 1930s.

Image: Gerard Richards. John Riley's Chevrolet Camaro Trans Am, Pukekohe, 1975. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-038.

During the late 1920s Louis Chevrolet had also been working on an efficient aero engine called the Model D-333.  He set up another new business called the Chevrolet Aircraft Corporation to manufacture his engines, but it was managed badly and failed during the Great Depression. Sadly, Louis Chevrolet was forced to return to work as a minor mechanical consultant for the General Motors Corporation’s Chevrolet Division in 1934. He remained working there until a cerebral haemorrhage forced him to retire in 1938. He died in Detroit on 6 June 1941.

Image: Gerard Richards. Jim Murdoch's Begg D18 Chevrolet F5000, Pukekohe, 1975. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-039

Image: Gerard Richards. Red Dawson's Chevrolet Camaro, Pukekohe, 1975. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-041.

But Chevrolet’s racing legacy lives on. In 1955 General Motors produced the Chevrolet Bel Air with a new high compression V8 engine. Gerard Richards says this engine ‘was a game changer in motor sport [because] it proved very suitable for modifying to develop increased horsepower…. During the famous era of the Trans Am (sedan racing) Can-Am (sports car racing) and the F5000 (single seaters) racing series in the USA in the 60’s and 70’s the Chevy racing engine became a legend.’  In Gerard’s photos the modified, fuel injected Chevy engine can be best seen in the rear-view of Chris Amon’s Talon Chevrolet V8 (see first photograph above), but the Chevy V8 engine also powered the Chevrolet Camaro. Gerard says that ‘saloon racing in New Zealand and other countries during this time became hugely popular with motor sport fans. The Chevrolet Camaro was the weapon that a lot of racers chose.’

Auckland Libraries hold many reference books about Chevrolets and other General Motors car brands. There are also websites on Chevrolet the man, Chevrolet engines and Chevrolet cars. In Australia and New Zealand, General Motors are best known for its Holdens. In Europe General Motors is represented these days by Vauxhall and Opel luxury cars and have recently re-introduced Chevrolet to their brand stable.

Image: Gerard Richards. Jack Nazer's Vauxhall Victor Chevrolet, Pukekohe, 1975. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1627-037

With special thanks to Gerard Richards for information about the provenance of his photographs, and Chevrolet cars and engines in motor sport in New Zealand.

Author: Christopher Paxton, Heritage Collections