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October 28, 2011

News & Features

Chevy turns 100 | 1911-2011
Chevy's history is a mix of economy, luxury and power

Detroit Free Press

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Founder Louis Chevrolet was a famous Swiss race-car driver. (General Motors)

Like its famous bowtie badge, Chevrolet's past and present intersect at several ironic points.

The car company that has come to stand for iconic Americana was founded by a European.

The disagreement that drove Louis Chevrolet from what would later become General Motors -- over the role of production and power in Chevrolet cars -- is at the heart of GM's corporate strategy today.

And the manufacturer that epitomized 1950s car bling and late-20th-century engine-growlers now produces a lineup of fuel-efficient, safe cars, including a hit electric vehicle.

The beginning
Chevrolet was co-founded by an already famous French-speaking Swiss race-car driver and engineer named Louis Chevrolet on Nov. 3, 1911, in Flint. His partner was ex- and soon-to-be-again General Motors chief William Crapo Durant, who wanted to trade on the famous racer's name.

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William Crapo Durant started the company with Chevrolet and eventually ran General Motors. (General Motors)

The first product? The six-cylinder luxury model called the Classic Six, one of only four Chevrolets that Chevrolet-the-man would design for the company (along with the Baby Grand, the Royal Mail and the L Light Six).

Initially a bicycle racer, Chevrolet started racing cars in 1905, setting a world record of 68 mph in his first-ever automobile race, the Three Miles in New York.

At that same time, he built his first racer, which enabled him to add 51 mph to his record, and earned him the nickname "the daredevil Frenchman." He went on to race for Buick, which is how he met Durant, but Chevrolet abandoned that life when his youngest brother died following a race accident.

A split
In 1914, Chevrolet left the eponymous company after arguing with Durant about what the company's future should be. Durant wanted to make inexpensive cars and lots of them a la Henry Ford; Chevrolet insisted they focus on "high-powered speed cars" and elite, expensive autos.

Chevrolet went on to start other car companies, which ultimately fell apart, and then worked as a mechanic. He died, still smarting from big losses incurred during the Depression, in 1941.

Durant, the man who drove Chevrolet away, was himself gone from GM by 1920. Decades later, the then-Detroit-based GM would blend the dichotomous approaches by producing both low-cost cars as well as more high-end automobiles, like the Corvette.

Durant's position crystallized in 1915 with the Model 490, named for its $490 price, $5 cheaper than the top-selling Ford Model T. That started a rivalry between the two companies that has stretched into the 21st century. Chevy outsold its Dearborn opponent for the first time in 1927 and held the position for two years.

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In 1915 the company debuted the Model 490, named for its $490 price. (General Motors)

In 1917, Chevy formally became a division of GM.

Modern Chevy
Now, 94 years later, Chevy is still GM's largest global brand, selling an estimated 4 million vehicles a year in more than 130 countries.

With that, it entered a period of much growth and innovation in the auto industry. Chevy's contributions included the world's first SUV (a station wagon called a Suburban Carryall) and the va-va-voom of fins and chrome that dominated the 1950s with icons like the Bel Air.

Corvette's debut in 1953 -- and a revamped version two years later with the soon-to-be-iconic V-8 engine -- was perhaps a nod back to Louis Chevrolet's previously dismissed vision for the company.

Chevy's place in the pantheon of all-American autos was solidified with the small Corvair in 1960, the Corvette Sting Ray in 1963 and the Camaro in 1967, as pony cars joined their muscled siblings.

The Corvair was a bump in the road, too. Ralph Nader demonized it in his 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed," which prompted the national car-safety movement.

In 2005, Chevrolet was relaunched in Europe, a jump aided by GM's 2001 acquisition of Daewoo Motors, which was well entrenched on that continent. The company made inroads there when it built a manufacturing plant in 1924.

Now, as Chevrolet celebrates its 100th birthday, it is getting a jolt of electricity with the extended-range electric Volt.

Also read, Part 1: Greatest hits: Chevrolet's 10 best define American automobiles. Part 3: Iconic brand leaves pop culture imprint. Part 4: Celebrating Chevrolet in song.

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