Chevrolet was founded in Detroit, by racer Louis Chevrolet and General Motors founder William C. “Billy” Durant in November 1911, and soon earned a reputation for performance, durability and value.
Chevrolet’s early adoption of landmark technologies fundamentally changed the way the world looked at cars. From the very start, the focus was on delivering high end technology and features for its lineup of affordable cars and trucks. The first Chevrolet — the Series C Classic Six — came with electric starters and electric headlamps, a rarity even in luxury cars. In the decades that followed, innovations such as safety glass, fuel injection, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control systems were featured on Chevrolet models.
Affordable performance is a hallmark of Chevrolet. The early four- and six-cylinder engines were known for durability and performance, but it was the introduction of Chevrolet’s small-block V-8 in 1955 that ushered in an era of high-performance vehicles. For the next 50 years, it powered millions of cars and trucks. This legacy is still visible in the new generation small-block V-8s used in trucks and SUVs, as well as performance cars including the Camaro SS and Corvette today.
Chevrolet-powered race cars were immediate contenders in the fledging stock car and drag racing worlds of the 1950s, growing to dominate them in the next decades. Chevrolet is the highest winning brand in NASCAR and has collected more NHRA Pro Stock Manufacturers Cups than any other brand.
Chevrolet cars are some of the best known icons of American culture. The soaring fins of the 1957 Chevy Bel Air epitomized the Jet Age, the sleek 1963 Corvette Stingray was rated as one of the best-looking cars ever by automotive historians and the Camaro, introduced in 1967, brought great design and affordable performance, to younger customers.
Chevrolet design innovations helped drive changes and establish new markets in the truck segment. The Suburban, introduced in 1935, is the longest-running automotive nameplate in history. Its concept of delivering greater passenger and cargo capacity has remained true for 76 years.
In 1955, the special-edition Chevrolet Cameo Carrier introduced smooth rear fenders for the first time in a mainstream pickup. The styling gave the truck a flowing, upscale appearance, distinctly apart from the traditional “step side” design of other contemporary trucks. Soon smooth cargo bed sides, which became known as “fleetside” styling, were found on every truck on the market.
The Early Years
William C. “Billy” Durant (1861-1947) was a visionary automotive marketer, who founded General Motors in 1908. Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941) was a mechanic, pioneering engineer and a racer – he established a land-speed record in 1905, attaining 111 mph in special open race car – and was hired by Durant for high-profile races and promotional drives.
In 1910, Durant was forced from the company he founded, but he regrouped with other partners to develop a new car. Durant believed Louis Chevrolet’s reputation as a racer would help sell the car, so it was named after him. Chevrolet was founded in 1911 and its first car, the Series C Classic Six, was a large, finely crafted motorcar. Its large, 4.9L (299 cubic inches) six-cylinder engine produced 40 horsepower and enabled a top speed of about 65 mph. It sold for $2,150 or the equivalent of nearly $50,000 today, when adjusted for inflation.
Despite its high price, the Chevrolet was well regarded for its style, precision and comfort. Durant was also producing a smaller, more affordable car called the Little. Sales of both were strong, but Durant recognized the strength of the entry-level field and steered his company in that direction. The Chevrolet Series C and the Little were produced through 1913. In 1914, the basic Little platform was remade as the Chevrolet Model L and later that year, the Model H was introduced.
The refocused Chevrolet line was immediately successful, thanks to a value-driven price and a tough four-cylinder engine. Despite the company’s early success, Durant and Chevrolet differed on the philosophy of the company’s products. The gulf between them resulted in Durant buying out Chevrolet’s interest in the company in 1915. Customers ultimately validated Durant’s vision and Chevrolet sales continued to grow. The success enabled Durant to buy a controlling interest in General Motors in 1916. By 1917, Durant was back at the helm of GM with Chevrolet as a division.
Durant left General Motors in 1920 to establish another car company, and also becoming a prominent Wall Street investor. The stock market crash of 1929 however proved fatal for both endeavors and he was bankrupt by 1936. He died in 1947 and is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.
Louis Chevrolet also lost his fortune during the Great Depression. He returned to his vocational skills and worked as a mechanic at a Chevrolet factory in Detroit. He died in 1941 and is buried in Indianapolis, near the famous speedway where he forged his reputation as a fearless racer and innovator.
Into the next century
The electrically driven Volt leads Chevrolet into its second century. It is the world’s first mass-produced electric vehicle with gasoline-powered extended range of 379 miles. The Volt provides all the benefits of an electric vehicle without the range limitations— expanding the boundaries of performance and efficiency. It is redefining what a car means and exemplifies Chevrolet’s heritage of introducing advanced technology on value-driven products.
The forward-looking philosophy that nurtured Volt from concept to production is also responsible for products such as the Equinox and Cruze. Similarly, the Camaro and Corvette continue a six-decade heritage of offering high-performance value, affordable sports cars. On the truck side, Silverado delivers the greatest capability and better efficiency in the long history of Chevy trucks.
Cruze, Volt and Spark are products of Chevrolet’s growing global presence. Shared development procedures with engineering and design centers around the globe also help deliver safe and efficient vehicles. The Cruze, for instance, offers 10 standard air bags and the Cruze Eco model offers an EPA-estimated mileage rating of 42 MPG on the highway.
Chevrolet enters its second century with great momentum. The next 100 years will see Chevrolet developing automobiles to complement the needs of evolving societies and changing resources — all with its iconic style, performance and value.