As the United States car maker Chevrolet this year celebrates its 100th birthday, few Chevy fans will realise that it was a Swiss who was the spark plug behind it all.
Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, born in 1878 in the western Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, was hailed as a brilliant car designer and daredevil racer but he died in relative obscurity and never made a fortune.
“Just look at how old it is,” two children perched on their small scooter remark as they look at a Chevrolet model from 1919 parked in front of a fountain in the town, which is located in canton Neuchâtel.
It looks like something out of fiction as it stands next to a Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the latest in a long line of cars by Chevrolet, now a division of General Motors.
Say “Chevrolet” and you think of rides in a Corvette, hair blowing in the breeze and feet firmly on the floorboards in America’s wide open spaces.
Like Ford, the word conjures up myths that for many are synonymous with the new continent.
Some people say that the famous bow tie, the logo created by the co-founder of the brand, the industrialist William Crapo Durant, was a stylised version of the Swiss cross.
It’s one of many legends surrounding the car and its dashing designer, who became a kind of emblem of the American dream.
The Swiss enjoyed enormous popularity after crossing the Atlantic, both as a racing driver, winning several trophies, and also as an engineer. Chevrolet had been a bicycle engineer in France before arriving in the US and making his name in the sport car world.
Chevrolet’s name and talent did not fail to impress Durant, who went on to found General Motors. The two got together in Detroit, Michigan and created the car to which Chevrolet gave his name. The Swiss was the brains behind the first car in 1911, the luxury Classic Six.
He wanted it to be exclusive, with a moveable top, a powerful engine and a rear-view mirror. But the car was expensive and could hardly match up to the rival Ford T. Differences of opinion soon emerged between him and Durant.
Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, who was born on December 25, 1878, helped to put the watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds on the map. Not surprisingly, this year the town will be marking the car’s centenary.
One highlight will be a procession of 1,000 Chevrolets in June, and in November a statue of its famous maker will be unveiled.
“Tourist offices tell us that many people come to La Chaux-de-Fonds to have their photographs taken next to his house or his effigy. Unfortunately the house no longer exists and tourists are disappointed. But soon there will be the statue,” Laurent Kurth, mayor of La Chaux-de-Fonds, told swissinfo.ch.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is proud of its star. “[He was] reckless, resourceful and was a hard worker, like the people from around here,” said André Rochat, president of the organising committee of the centenary celebrations.
Never mind that Chevrolet only lived in the town for a few weeks, before his family moved to Bonfol, a small village in the Jura region of Switzerland, where he spent his childhood.
Then he left for the town of Beaune in Burgundy in France, where his father opened a watchmaker’s shop. But for La Chaux-de-Fonds, Chevrolet remains a local hero.
While Durant wanted to manufacture a car series that could be sold at low prices, the Swiss was more in favour of exclusivity and perfection.
Two years after the company was founded, disagreement between the two reached a high point and Chevrolet walked out, selling his stake and leaving his associate the right to use his name.
“It has to be said that he was a strong personality and independent like many people who come from mountainous areas,” Rochat said.
And so it was without Chevrolet that the car maker began to prosper. As for Chevrolet, he returned to his first loves: competing and engineering. He invented many car parts and even came up with a plan for an aircraft engine.
“Never give up,” were his buzz words. They stayed with him till the end of his life.
But after a series of disasters - the economic crisis of 1929, the deaths of both his brother and his son - and then illness, Chevrolet died poor and alone.
Ironically, his last job was at General Motors. While there was no happy ending for him, the factory he helped to found still flourishes. Chevrolet is the fourth-largest car maker in the world.
Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born on Christmas Day, 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds. He moved to Bonfol in the Swiss Jura region before moving to Beaune in France.
In 1898-99 he moved to Paris and worked as a car mechanic for De Dion-Bouton, which was then the largest car maker in the world.
He left France and moved in 1900 first to Montreal in Canada and later to New York, where he worked as a mechanic.
In 1905 he drove for Fiat and won his first car race, beating the world record for the mile in 52.8 seconds.
He co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911. It is now a part of General Motors.
Louis Chevrolet drove his last laps at Indianapolis in 1926 as the official pace car driver.
He died in 1941 in a suburb of Detroit.end of infobox
Chevrolet and Switzerland
Since 1996 La Chaux-de-Fonds has organised an international event to commemorate the renowned racing driver.
On June 19, 1,000 Chevrolets will come together in the town to celebrate the 100 years of Chevrolet. A statue will be erected in his honour in November.
There is a street in the town named after him. A square in Bonfol with a commemorative plaque is also named after him.end of infobox
(Adapted from French by Robert Brookes), swissinfo.ch