WHEN CHEVROLET WAS A RACER'S NAME
by Larry Roberts
January 02, 1998
Racing enthusiasts know that the Chevrolet name has a long history in motorsports. "Bow-tie" engines have won countless championships in stock cars, sprinters, drag racing and even at the Indy 500.
But it's doubtful that many of these same enthusiasts realize that just after the turn of the century, Chevrolet was the name of a nationally-famous race driver rather than a make of a car or an engine. Actually, there were three drivers by that name; the brothers Arthur, Gaston and the most famous of the trio, Louis.
Louis Chevrolet was born in Switzerland exactly 120 years ago and was the eldest of the three brothers. At an early age, he started his mechanical education as a bicycle mechanic and then moved on to work in the factories of Mors, Darracq, Hotchkiss and De Dion Bouton. He came to Montreal at the turn of the century and gravitated back to De Dion at its U.S. headquarters in Brooklyn. He then went to work for the Fiat outlet in Manhattan and this marked the beginning of his racing career.
Louis was assigned by the company to drive a 90 horsepower Fiat race car by virtue of the fact that he had been a chauffeur in Canada and his first contest was at the Hippodrome in nearby Morris Park. Today, the Hippodrome would be labeled a "sports complex" where all sorts of sporting events were held. He won the first race he entered, a miler, against all comers. Later in the day, he won the three-mile main event against the then-famous Walter Christie and the even better-known Barney Oldfield.
In the course of his early career as a driver, Louis Chevrolet built a Darracq-powered Land Speed Record car which he drove to a world-record of 119 MPH in 1906. He also joined a traveling "troupe" of race cars and drivers that barnstormed around the country performing at county fairs and horse tracks. When his younger brothers were old enough to be on their own, he brought them over to join him. As time went by, Arthur and Gaston both became skilled drivers, but early day reports sometimes failed to mention which of the three brothers took the checkered flag first, stating simply that "...Chevrolet won at record speed."
When Louis became a team driver for Buick in 1907, he was hired by its CEO William Durant who later went on to form General Motors. After losing control of the corporation two years after it was formed, Durant needed a well-known name to attract retail buyers as well as the investment capital to form a corporation large enough to recapture GM. In 1910, Louis and Durant formed the Chevrolet Motor Company which the financier used to regain control of General Motors a few years later.
But Chevrolet wasn't cut out to be a corporate giant and in 1914 he formed the Frontenac Motor Corp., ostensibly to produce high-class touring cars. But in truth, his energy was directed toward fielding a team of Cornelian race cars for the Blood Brothers Machine Co. His designs were winners, but the Blood Brothers soon redirected their own energies toward the production of specialized auto parts and Chevrolet was back designing and building his own race cars. He was an early advocate and user of aluminum in race engine construction and his 1916 Indy racer used an alloy block, head, pistons and various other ancillary parts in an age where cast iron was the material of choice.
Louis stopped driving after his brother Arthur was badly hurt at Indianapolis in 1920 and his second brother, Gaston, was killed in a track accident in California later that same year.
But Louis stayed in the race car business and produced high-tech conversions for Ford Model T engines that were competitive until the end of the '20s when specially-built race engines like the Duesenberg and Miller overshadowed them.
Louis Chevrolet spent his declining years designing airplane engines and other mechanical devices and died in 1941 at age 63. And like so many other pioneers of the auto business, his name remains, but none of his achievements mark his place in the history of the industry.