Chevrolet: A Century of Cars

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Louis Chevrolet in a Buick racer, circa 1909.

Louis Chevrolet in a Buick racer, circa 1909.

Icon. Legend. As American as baseball and apple pie.

Few things reach that sort of status in life, but as Chevrolet prepares for it’s 100th birthday along with corporate parent General Motors, we think it’s a rather safe bet to say that the company started by Swiss-born racer Louis Chevrolet and William Durant in 1911 reached that point long, long ago. On November 3, 2011 – this Thursday – it will have been 100 years since the brand was registered for business in the United States.

And what a hundred years it has been.

Chevrolet was established for two reasons: to compete head on with Ford Motor Company, who’s Model T brought the car into the mainstream of American life; and to allow William Durant a way back into leading General Motors.

While we might think of the recent bankruptcy of GM that saw numerous brands shuttered was the first time the American company had financial troubles with creditors, it wasn’t. Durant founded General Motors, but he lost the company to bankers in 1910, likely due to the rapid-fire pace of expansion of the entity.

Even though it was extremely early in automotive history, Durant’s Durant-Dorn Carriage Company was able to take control of Buick, which was suffering financially. In 1908, he rolled Buick into General Motors. By the time the decade ended, GM included Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland. And William Durant was out.

The relationship between the founders began when Buick employed Chevrolet as a racer. Chevrolet did other things at Buick, since that’s where he learned to design cars and engines.

Chevrolet was Durant’s way back into the company. He steadily increased his holdings in GM as he worked to build the Chevrolet brand. In 1918, Durant offered GM shareholders an offer they couldn’t refuse: five shares of Chevrolet in trade for one share of GM stock, and he regained control of GM.

Chevrolet sold all of his shares in the company to Durant in 1915. And lost every penny he had when the stock market crashed in 1929. He went back to work as a line mechanic for Chevrolet to support himself, and in the end, Louis Chevrolet died broke and destitute in Detroit in 1941.

Durant also had a less than happy ending. The powerful DuPont family forced him out of General Motors in 1920, and subsequent business ventures were consistently failures.

Chevrolet, on the other hand, has seen ups and downs, and mostly ups. Even today, seven of every 10 cars that General Motors sells are models from Chevrolet. Buick, Cadillac and GMC provide the scraps.

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