Extra! Extra! Chevy Began As An Import
Okay, I may be stretching a point here. It may be like making the argument that the wheel bearing is connected to the muffler. Still, technically, the origins of Chevrolet are as an import.
The story kicks off on Christmas day, 1873. The was the day that Louis Joseph Chevrolet was born in Switzerland. By 1900, Chevrolet, and his brothers Arthur and Gaston, had firmly established themselves as very talented mechanics in France. That was also the year that his employer, DeDion-Bouton, sent Louis to the United States to set up a sales and service branch for those automobiles in New York City. His brothers followed shortly afterwards. Five years later the brothers were working as mechanics and developmental engineers for Fiat Motor Company in New York.
It was in the employ of Fiat that Louis began his racing career. His performances and first place finishes in prestigious events such as the Vanderbilt Cup Race provided Fiat with a sales boost, and Chevrolet with national name recognition. In 1905 he bested the legendary Barney Oldfield three times. From 1906 to 1908, after Arthur and Gaston joined the race team, the Chevrolet family garnered international headlines for their racing prowess.
Meanwhile, in 1907, the swashbuckling entrepreneur William C. Durant was building an automotive empire named General Motors on the foundation of Buick, a company he had recently acquired. Durant was a master of marketing. So recognizing the value of the Chevrolet name, he lured Arthur and Louis from Fiat to establish a factory race team to promote Buick. Buick sales soared and GM soared, in spite of the economic recession but storm clouds were forming on the horizon. Durant had over extended the company, first with the acquisition of automobile and parts manufacturers, and then in the acquisition of overvalued companies as he competed against Benjamin Briscoe who had used Maxwell-Briscoe as the foundation for the United States Motor Company, a GM type tiered manufacturer.
As a result the GM board of directors pushed Durant from the company. Durant, however, had friends in high places with deep pockets. He also had a reputation for making money and so he set out to establish an all new automobile manufacturing company. First he acquired the Little Motor Car Company and the Mason Motor Car Company. Next he dusted off an engine that Louis Chevrolet had designed in 1909 while employed with GM. Then he facilitated an arrangement with Chevrolet. Now he had a company, recognized name association, and a technologically advanced engine. He also had willing and eager investors. On November 3, 1911, Durant’s fledgling automotive enterprise was reorganized as the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
From its inception Durant and Chevrolet were at odds about the direction of the company. Durant wanted to manufacture a low priced car to compete head to head with Ford, and to use the company as the means with which he would regain control of General Motors. Chevrolet wanted to build a more prestigious vehicle that was fast, a sports car in the luxury car price range. In 1914, Louis left the company but Durant remained in control of the enterprise as well as the Chevrolet name.
Durant used Chevrolet as a basis for a series of complicated corporate maneuverings and stock swaps to regain control of GM in 1918. Shortly afterwards Durant repeated previous failures, over leveraged the company and was forced form the company by the board of directors. Chevrolet remained as a GM division.
There are two more chapters of note in the early history of Chevrolet. After Durant was forced from GM in 1920, the board of directors set out to salvage the company. The first step was evaluation of company assets and recommendations for the trimming of dead wood. The Chevrolet division was added to the chopping block but at the eleventh hour Alfred Sloan Jr., executive vice president, intervened. Then in 1922, a radical new air cooled Chevrolet resulted in the first automotive recall. Once again the decision was made to cull Chevrolet from GM and once again Sloan intervened.
The rest, as the old adage says, is history. Chevrolet would continue as an important component in the success of GM. It would also evolve to become an American icon forever linked with apple pie, hot dogs and patriotism.