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The Swiss who gave his name to a car

Louis Chevrolet at the wheel of a Buick. Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Chevrolet is synonymous with cars that have been built by the million. But few Chevy owners might know that it was a Swiss who gave his name to the company.

This content was published on March 1, 2005 - 15:50

Louis-Joseph Chevrolet has been hailed as a brilliant car designer and daredevil racer but he died in relative obscurity and never made a fortune.

Chevrolet was born in the western town of La Chaux-de-Fonds on Christmas Day 1878.

His father Joseph-Félicien was a watchmaker, who left Switzerland with his family in 1886 because of an economic slump in the Jura region.

When Louis was seven and a half years old, the family crossed the French border and settled in Beaune, the main city of the Burgundy region.

The family remained poor and, as a result, the five children had to leave school as soon as possible to find work.

Bicycle shop

As a youngster, Louis showed his abilities in repairing mechanics and worked in a bicycle shop called Roblin.

His interest in bikes soon led him to take up racing and at the age of 22, he won his first major prize at an event over 6.4 kilometres in Paris. In his first three years, he won almost 30 competitive events.

He also built bikes, but it was not long before he left two and three wheels behind to take on the challenge of cars, moving to a garage in Paris to learn the business.

The story goes that the transition to cars was no accident. A few years earlier, Chevrolet is said to have helped an American motorist whose car had broken down near Roblin’s workshop.

The young mechanic was able to repair the engine, with the grateful American giving him a handsome tip and the advice to take his talents across the Atlantic. The name of the American was Vanderbilt.

Chauffeur

That is the way the story has been handed down. Whether it is true really doesn’t matter because Chevrolet did actually cross the pond in 1900 and first spent time in Canada as a chauffeur, which then demanded experience as a car mechanic.

After saving up enough money, he moved to Brooklyn where he worked in the workshops of William Walter, a compatriot from Biel.

The year 1905 was crucial for the future development of Chevrolet both as a racer and a designer, as well as a family man.

At his first race on May 20 at the Morris Park cinder track in New York, Chevrolet took victory in style, beating the world record for the mile by clocking a time of 52.8 seconds in an average speed of 109.7 kmh.

Apparently the prize was rather appropriate for someone born in La Chaux-de-Fonds – a watch inscribed with the name of the donor, a certain Walter P. Chrysler. Later that year, Chevrolet married.

Crazy Frenchman

Chevrolet’s fame spread swiftly, with some newspapers referring to him incorrectly as the "crazy Frenchman" for his daring driving style.

The following year he was to break another world record with a speed of 191.5 kmh in a "Big Bear" car with a Darracq V8 motor that he had helped develop.

His career on the track led him to race for Buick, where he became acquainted with William Durant, the future founder of General Motors.

Durant was quick to see the talents of Chevrolet and in 1911 the two founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, launching the "Classic Six".

But only two years later, they fell out and Chevrolet sold his shares, also giving up the right to use his name as a brand in the car industry again.

Chevrolet continued to work in the industry, notably founding the Frontenac company in 1914, before joining the American Motors Corporation.

Indianapolis 500

The Monroe company later hired Chevrolet to build a race car, which won the 1920 Indianapolis 500 with his brother Gaston at the wheel.

Despite the prestige from the victory the Frontenac company went under, with a number of cars on the design table.

In 1925 Chevrolet turned to boat racing and won the Miami Regatta at his first attempt but that victory also did not translate into success.

Finally in 1934, out of charity and a kind of moral obligation to the man who gave their best-selling car its name, General Motors put Louis back on the payroll.

Illness forced him to retire in 1938 and he died only three years later at the age of 62. He was buried next to his brother, Gaston, in Indianapolis.

As a tribute to the man and his name, Chevrolet was inducted in 1992 as a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

An international Louis Chevrolet event takes place annually from the western Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
This year’s event takes place September 2-4.

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In brief

Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born on Christmas Day, 1878.

He co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911. It is now a part of General Motors.

Louis Chevrolet took his last laps at Indianapolis in 1926 as the official pace car driver.

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