Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Our Chevrolet Monte Carlo is still in a sick bay, 250 miles away. My husband suspected all along that repairs needed following an unfortunate incident when he was obliged to drive over a metal object lying in the road, would take much longer than I, naively, had envisioned. Maybe we'll get the call to go reclaim our car this week.....maybe not.

The name Chevrolet has been spinning around my head during the past week. I got to wondering whose name it was, originally, and what kind of person they were. I clearly recall that my mother, back in the late 1940s had a watch bearing the name Chevrolet, and my Dad remarking that he'd always thought Chevrolet to be the name of an American car manufacturer, not a watchmaker.

The Chevrolet family member whose name has been forever absorbed into the US car industry was Louis Chevrolet, born on 25 December 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, just south of the French border. He was son of a watchmaker. Chaud-de-Fonds is at centre of the Swiss watch-making industry, also in an area important to the dairy industry. Chevrolet, the name, is thought to be a derivation of French words for goat's milk : chèvre (goat) & lait(milk).

Louis Chevrolet himself is not a figure as alive in public memory as a contemporary of his, Henry Ford, but his surname is still, and will probably always be, one of the Big Two names in the recently troubled US automotive industry.

What of the man behind the name, a man whose motto was "Never Give Up"?

Louis was described by contemporaries as a "big man", at least 6 ft. tall and 195 lbs; neither well-educated nor skilled in business practice, a bit of a rough diamond by all accounts, but a guy with an innate talent for reparing, inventing and developing all things mechanical, beginning with the humble bike.

When his family moved to Beaune, France he worked in a bicycle repair shop and began racing bikes and winning competitions. Still a teenager, he invented a wine barrel pump and manufactured a bicycle he called the Frontenac, named after the 17th Century governor of France's North American colonies. He would, much later, later use that name for a company set up with his two brothers, and on racing cars. Louis, inspired by a de Dion powered tricycle, joined the firm as a mechanic. He also worked in the Roblin mechanics shop before moving to Paris and soon after emigrating to Canada in 1900.

Natal chart of Louis (set for 12 noon in the absence of information as to his time of birth) shows a practical guy (Sun Mercury, Venus and Moon, unless born in the last hour of 25 December, all in Earthy Capricorn. Jupiter at 9 Aquarius, in helpful semi-sextile to Sun/Mercury/Venus provides the tipping point from straight-ahead practicality into the fairly rare, though still practical, skill of inventiveness. Creative Neptune in harmonious trine to the Capricorn planets is a further echo of this. Mars, at 00 degrees of Sagittarius, in semi-sextile to the Capricorn group, from the other side of Capricorn, adds an adventurous and competitive ingredient to his nature....hence his gravitation towards racing.

The story behind his arrival in the USA may or may not be true, but it's told that a member of the famous American Vanderbilt family was travelling in France when his car broke down near the bicycle shop where Louis Chevrolet was employed. The owner of the shop couldn't start Vanderbilt's car but Louis came forward and solved the problem. Vanderbilt is said to have been impressed, advised the talented young mechanic "Come to America. There's work for you there. When you come, look me up."

Louis Chevrolet did travel across the Atlantic a couple of years later and arrived in Montreal. He worked there as a driver-mechanic and chauffeur as well as continuing his racing endeavours and learning English. After a year or so he moved to New York, worked first for a Swiss immigrant's engineering firm, then in the factory of de Dion-Bouton, French car manufacturer in Brooklyn.

Louis continued his racing career first for Fiat, later for Buick, and in the course of his adventures met Buick owner William C. Durant, founder of General Motors.

Lack of much formal early education was no deterrent to Louis, he rapidly learned car design while working for Buick and those innate skills, possibly inherited from his family background of precise watchmaking discipline, came to the fore. He built an overhead valve six-cylinder engine in his own machine shop in Detroit, then moved to Flint, Michigan, continued designing engines and began working with William C. Durant. The pair founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company of Michigan. Durant and Chevrolet, though able to work together on some levels, were very different personalities.

Chevrolet, unsophisticated and brash, had the necessary mechanical skills, Durant was the smooth, business-minded partner. Durant wanted Louis to build a car to compete with Henry Ford's Model T, a low-cost car "for the masses", but Chevrolet wanted to put his name on a big impressive car.

Louis Chevrolet at the wheel of his prototype for the 1912 Chevrolet Series C Classic Six (Photo from Max Chevy Magazine)

By 1912, Chevrolet had produced the luxury Classic Six, selling for $2,150, a vast sum in those days. At this point Chevrolet and Durrant split, but within a year Durrant had bought back the lilting name - Chevrolet - into General Motors, this name he coveted to mark his product.

The Chevy logo, now so well-known, came into being in 1913. Stories of its source have become muddled through time. Take your pick: it was copied from a wallpaper design in a Paris hotel room; it was copied from a newspaper advert for Coalettes; it was drawn on a dinner napkin in a restaurant by Durant; it's a stylised version of the cross from a Swiss flag (reflecting the name Chevrolet's origins).

Louis Chevrolet moved on to concentrate on the racing car industry, which, I guess, was his real love. In 1916 he and his two brothers started the Frontenac Motor Corporation, becoming known for "Fronty-Ford" racing cars. Louis continued to drive, competed in the Indianapolis 500 four times, coming 7th in 1919. His brother Gaston won in 1920 in one of their Frontenacs.

Louis dabbled in designing racing boats and aircraft, but losses in the stock market crash of 1929 left him practically penniless. His story came full-circle as the need for income drove him, ironically, to take a minor job as a line mechanic in a Chevrolet factory.

After having suffered several strokes, it was complications after the amputation of his leg that caused his death in 1941, aged 62. His erstwhile partner William C. (Billy) Durant, the ambitious industrialist, outlived him by more than 20 years, but he didn't exit in a wave of glory either. The Great Depression hit and Durant’s heydays ended. He declared bankruptcy in 1936, died in relative obscurity in 1947. General Motors, his creation, has lived on as the largest car company in the world, and because of this the name Chevrolet lives on in the motor industry.

Throughout his career Louis Chevrolet lived according to his motto "Never Give Up," it is inscribed on his memorial at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
(Photo from britannica.com)


Wisewebwoman said...

Very interesting, T. Did not know Chevrolet was the name of an actual person!
I do hope your car gets revived and soon.

anyjazz said...

Fine research. Very interesting facts I had not known before.

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ Me too - on both counts! :-)

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~~ Thanks - I enjoyed the exercise (mental, that is).

Anonymous said...

GP: Very good journalism, T. And an original way to overcome the emotions of your struggle to get your own Chevy back. After this effort it should come rapidly, I hope for you!

Twilight said...

Anonymous/Gian Paul ~~ Thank you GP! I'm hoping for a call from the repair shop today or tomorrow, but don't feel particularly optimistic.

Diane said...

In the part of the US I live in, there is an actual cultural divide between Ford and Chevy owners, not unlike that which separates the mayo and Miracle Whip users. Each as assured of the superiority of his brand as the other. IMHO: mayo and Chevy. Great post and I hope your Chevy comes home soon.

Twilight said...

Diane ~~~ That's surprising - in one way, but not in another. I've noticed that in the USA people tend to divide into 2 camps on the slightest pretext - on any issue whatsoever, more noticeably so than in the UK, anyway.

Thanks for your good wishes re our Chevy of which we're very fond indeed.

If I have divided interests it's between US brands and brands from overseas. Whether living in UK or USA I've always favoured home brands, even though in other ways I'm quite the opposite of nationalistic. ;-)