Written by Mark DeSantis in collaboration with Ralph J. Kramer
Although fans of the NHRA sometimes refer to funny car driver Dick Harrell as Mr. Chevrolet, ladies and gentleman, there really was a Mr. Chevrolet and his name was Louis Joseph, and he migrated to America with his 3 brothers: Alfred, Arthur, and Gaston Chevrolet.
The great Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born Christmas Day, December 25, 1878, in the Bernese Jura region of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. During his childhood he spends time in the villages of Bonfol and Beurnevésin, which were close to the French border. Around 1887, when Louis was around nine years old, the Chevrolet family left Switzerland to live in Beaune in the Côte-d’Or region of France. Gaston Chevrolet was born in Deaunt, France, Oct. 26, 1892 followed by Arthur in 1896 born in Bonfol. In Swiss fashion, Louis’ father Joseph worked in the watch and clock trade while Louis learned to repair and later race bicycles. Louis had gained intense interest in the repair of bicycles while working at the Roblin mechanics shop (1895-1898) which fixed carriages and bicycles. There he learned the basics of gears and mechanicals. As a teenager, he was a guide for a local wine cellar. An early account said he was impatient with the slow decanting of wine from cask to cask so he invented a wine barrel pump that speeded the process and was used extensively in the Burgundy region for decades. He would also build and sell his own bicycle called the Frontenac. This name would be later used for his race cars. There is an old Bonfol story that is told about Louis meeting American millionaire and racer William K. Vanderbilt. While on vacation in Europe, Vanderbilt was looking for a mechanic to repair his cycle. The story suggests that while getting his cycle fixed at Roblin, Vanderbilt observes Louis’ skill fixing his cycle and invites the young Chevrolet to come to America, suggesting that there was grand opportunity for someone with his abilities. Many young men of that era would compete in bicycle racing in the Hills of Beaune. Louis not only competed, but he won numerous bicycle races. During his teens, although in great physical shape, Louis loses interest in the bicycle and becomes a well-groomed, six foot chauffeur; a job which required driving and mechanician skills. Before the turn of the century, while at a waterfront tavern in Montreal, Chevrolet meets Henri-Emile Bourassa and stays at the Bourassa home for a period of time, before leaving for New York. Bourassa, who was from a family of cabinet makers, turned to automobiles and made his first car in 1899. Chevrolet who later wanted Emile to join him in Detroit, however remained in Montreal, his last car built in 1926 with a Rickenbacker chassis.
Louis known for racing the 2 wheel Darracq manufactured bicycles, leaves Roblin and was given a job in the mechanical shops of Mors and Darracq Company. Darracq built the well known Gladiator bicycles, however Louis was introduced to the Darracq internal combustion engine. This event would consume his interest and Louis began studying the 4 cycle engine. Some time later he worked for Hotchkiss and De Dion-Bouton, which also opened operations on Church Lane and 37th Street in Brooklyn, New York. During the turn of the century he migrated to Montreal, Canada and was able to employ work as a chauffeur and then migrated to the headquarters of De Dion-Bouton “Motorette” Company in Brooklyn.
During 1902, De Dion-Bouton “Motorette” Company closes and he loses his position and learns of his Dad’s passing and encourages his mother Angelina, and family to migrate to America. The family Chevrolet leaves Havre and arrives in Brooklyn, May 2, 1902 aboard the sailing ship S.S. La Savoie.
Louis eventually worked for Fiat in Manhattan. During 1902, now known for having great mechanical skills, Louis moves his new career into automobile racing after observing big car racing at the First Vanderbilt Cup Race on October 8, 1904. Two new 75 HP Fiats would race the Vanderbilt Cup with Paul Satori driving the Vanderbilt Racer and William Wallace driving the other. NYC Fiat distributor E. Rand Hollander assigned back up driver Louis to compete in his first race at the Hippodrome near Morris Park.
Louis first documented race was May 20, 1905 at the New York ACA speed trials driving William Wallace 90hp Fiat which Louis performed considerable mechanical work. He sets a new record driving the Wallace Fiat for the one mile lap was 52.4 seconds which bettered famed Barney Oldfield’s best time of 53 seconds. This performance allowed Chevrolet to be selected by the New York ACA as Walter Christie’s teammate as the Dr H.E. Thomas Trophy Race sponsored by Chicago’s ACA at the Harlem Track on May 27 where his Fiat developed mechanical troubles. The first race that Louis won (and beat Barney Oldfield) was the first heat at Yonkers, New York Empire City track. Louis Chevrolet would win 10 of the 11 races over Oldfield. On a wonderful 3rd of July, 1905 Louis marries sweetheart Suzanne Treyvoux at Saint Vincent de Paul. He would Honeymoon in Niagara Falls between races. His sons Charles and Alfred were born in 1906 and 1912.
Louis gained rapid fame in the automobile racing circles. In early January 1906, Louis would join Walter Christie at Speed Week at Daytona Beach, Florida (also known as Ormond Beach). Louis, solicited by the Darracq team would drive the powerful 200hp V8 Darracq, and actually held the world land speed record for a short time at 119 mph only to be topped later by Victor Hemery’s mechanic, Victor Demogeot, at 122mph. Louis later arriving in the Long Island and driving in the Vanderbilt Cup Races, which was held on the Long Island Motor Parkway from 1904-1910.
Louis with impressive credentials was selected as one of 5 Fiat Team drivers at the second Vanderbilt Cup Race on October 2, 1905. During early morning practice, he got into a patch of fog and ran into a telephone pole with the 110 hp Fiat. Major CJS Miller made his personal 75 hp Fiat available to Louis to finish the Vanderbilt Cup Race, but broke its axle on the seventh lap of the race. During 1908, Chevrolet appears driving a Matheson. Before the 1909 Vanderbilt Cup Race Louis agrees to establish a general automobile garage business in New York City named Chevrolet-Kenen Auto Company but the agreement never consummates.
On March 5th 1909, Louis and his brother Arthur were hired by Buick to join the Buick Race Team. During the last 2 years of the Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island, Louis drove his famous (1909) Buick Marquettes clocking the fastest laps of the race and nearly won the 1910 race, only to give the lead away to Harry Grant due to front suspension failure. The Franco-Swiss driver managed to beat fate and suffered many injuries from the Vanderbilt crashes. Louis went on to race and win the Harkness Gold Trophy in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in 1917. Louis averaged 110mph during the 100 mile race, which was absolutely flying in the early hand built cars. In this race he had beaten some of the best drivers back in the day. Prior to this race, Louis had prominent victories at Cincinnati and Chicago tracks.
As lead driver for the Buick Racing Team, William C. Durant, who thought the Chevrolet name had a pleasant sound, pursued Louis to join Durant’s new company, General Motors, and designed a six-cylinder automobile with fresh style, power and luxury. Durant wisely capitalized on the designer’s racing fame. Louis’ association with Durant, however, was loathing at best. When William Durant pressured Louis to add a lower priced automobile, Louis confronted Durant not wanting his name associated with a lower priced vehicle and parted from the company, selling his stock in GM, thus passing up an opportunity to become wealthy.
Louis returned to what he loved best, designing race cars and in 1915 drove a newly engineered car called the Cornelian at the Indianapolis 500. Louis, banned to use his own name on his cars, later returned to the name he previously used on his racing bicycles, the Frontenac.
In 1916, Gaston Chevrolet became a partner with his brothers in the Frontenac Motor Corporation. Driving a Frontenac race car, he competed in the 1919 Indianapolis 500, finishing in tenth place while brother Louis finished seventh. The following year, Gaston Chevrolet broke the European dominance at the Indianapolis Speedway, winning the race in a redesigned Monroe-Frontenac. In the process, he became the first driver in the history of the 500-mile (800 km) race to go the distance without making a tire change. Following his victory at Indianapolis, he competed in several more events, winning a 100-mile (160 km) match race against Tommy Milton and Ralph Mulford. Gaston married Miss Marguerite Bueron of Brooklyn on Oct. 27, 1916.
In 1920, the Chevrolet brothers: Gaston, Louis, and Arthur return to Indianapolis with the newly designed overhead cam Frontenac and won back-to-back races in 1920 and 1921 with Gaston at the wheel in 1920. Single and Dual Overhead Cam Fronty Fords appear using the Chevrolet Designed Frontennac Heads.
Gaston Chevrolet, now the 1920 points leader, traveled to the West Coast and entered the Beverly Hills Speedway board track in Los Angeles California. However, during lap 146, Gaston was seriousley injured and later died when Chevrolet’s and Eddie O’Donnell’s machines crashed together on the Speedway at the east end of the grand stand near the close of the 250-mile race for the 1920 championship. The accident occurred while Chevrolet, O’Donnell and Joe Thomas were fighting to make up the half dozen laps they were behind the leaders. Gaston was a mechanic for two years before he demonstrated at the 500-mile Memorial Day race at Cincinnati in 1917, where he finished third, that Gaston earns a driver of merit.
Louis, overcome with the loss of his brother, vows to never race again. Louis and his remaining brothers concentrate on car building and re-engineering engines and chassis of the day.
During the early and mid 1920’s, as noted car builders and owners, the Chevrolet Brothers racing cars enter the Gold and Glory Sweepstake races at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolois, Indiana. Louis having appreciation and no discrimination for the Black race car drivers of the day, prepares his Fronty Ford engines for the so called Colored Speedway Association drivers. Gold and Glory drivers such as John Simmons, Ben Carter, Bill Bottoms, Wild Bill Jefferies, and Bob Wallace would gain fame driving the Louis Chevrolet Fronty Ford and Frontennac cars. Wild Bill Jefferies would purchase a Frontenac race car from Louis Chevrolet, a design he had used in the Indy 500 for $12,000 and compete in the inaugural Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. Wild Bill would win the 1928 race in a Fronty Ford.
In 1929, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet would also form the Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Company with a new engine of their design but lost the business to Glenn L. Martin.
Prior to his induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, National Sprint Car Hall of Fame (1990) and Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1995), Louis proved he was a fierce competitor on the track during the early days of the American automobile. The following photo is a sample from the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Catalog and Speed Shop while in Indianapolis. Photo copyright M. Desantis.
Gaston Chevrolet is interred next to his brothers in the Roman Catholic Holy Cross and Saint Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.