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The first 100 years of one of America's greatest car companies

How two visionaries created a giant

By

1915 Chevrolet 490

The 1915 Chevrolet 490 sold for $490 - $5 less than Henry Ford's Model T. This was the car William Durant would use to make Chevrolet one of America's leading automakers.

Photo courtesy of GM

The year was 1910, and Henry Ford had shown the world how the automobile could be made affordable to the middle class. Dozens of other automakers had sprung up around Detroit, Michigan, and the other industrial cities of the east. Among the many automakers in Detroit, William C. Durant had founded General Motors. But this year, Durant was forced out of his position as founder and President by the bankers who held the fledgling GM's debt. Durant had to find a way back, and he thought he saw what he needed in a dashing and popular race car driver named Louis Chevrolet. Durant's dream was to go head to head with Ford and the Model T, and beat Henry Ford at his own game. Durant and Chevrolet got together and on November 3, 1911, the two men founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.

The next year, Chevrolet produced its first car, called the Series C Classic Six. The Classic Six was a conventional high-end car as they were produced in that era. The new car sold for $2,150, which is comparable to about $50,000 in today's dollars. The customer enjoyed 40 horsepower from a 300 cubic inch six-cylinder engine, and a top speed of 65 MPH. It was a gentleman's car, affordable only by the wealthy.

The Classic Six design wasn't going to get Durant where he wanted to go - being a niche automaker for the rich was a dead end in a crowded market. So in 1913, Durant brought out a new line of cars that sold for less than $1,000. The "Royal Mail" roadster sold for $750 and the "Baby Grand" touring car sold for $875. These were four-bangers, designed to bring the cost of a Chevrolet to just a little bit over a Ford. But Durant wasn't done - as the Chevrolet name became known for quality and performance, he planned to bring prices down even further and cut into Henry Ford's bread and butter.

But Durant's vision was running head-on with Chevrolet's desire to be a revolutionary design engineer. Chevrolet wanted to make great, fast, cars and didn't care too much about how expensive they were, or about competiting with Ford anywhere but on the race track. The conflict created a rift between the two founders, and Louis Chevrolet decided to sell his shares in the company, cut all ties to Durant and Chevrolet Motor Car Company. That was fine with Durant, who now had everything he needed.

In 1915, Durant brought out the Chevrolet Model 490, which eponymously sold for $490. This was critical, because a Model T sold for $495. It was sheer marketing brilliance to put the price in the car's name - focusing on the advantage over Ford. Now with a winning company in his hands, Durant used Chevrolet as a lever to win back his control of General Motors. Durant merged Chevrolet into the larger company as a division, and he was back as the leader of GM by 1918. But it didn't last long - the bankers forced Durant out again in 1920. Durant went on to found another car company in his own name, but the stock market collapse of 1929 ruined the Durant company along with many other small-time automakers. Durant lost everything and wound up working as a bowling alley manager in Flint, Michigan.

The Chevrolet Motor Car Company - now part of GM - went on producing the kind of cars that Durant envisioned, however. Basic middle class transportation for the nation was the name of the game for those who could afford a car during the depression years of the 1930s. Chevrolet struggled, like all American companies, right up to the beginning of the second world war. After Pearl Harbor, the nation mobilized for the war effort and the last regular civilian Chevrolet came off the assembly line on January 30, 1942. From that day to the end of the war in 1945, Chevrolet factories made trucks and cars for the military, aircraft engines, and tons over tons of munitions. Over 500,000 wartime Chevy cars and trucks were produced, keeping the company going until peacetime.

After the war, Chevrolet got right back into the domestic market. A brief recession in 1946 didn't hurt the company too badly, because returning GIs had money and jobs now. The postwar boom was on, and no one wanted to be from a one-car family any more. Chevrolet was in the thick of the sales and marketing game, raising the luxury and performance of their cars every year.

The 1950s was a time as heady as the 1910s in the auto industry, with new ideas pouring out of GM's design centers under the direction of visionaries like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. Among those new ideas was the Chevrolet Corvette of 1953 - directly inspired by the European sports cars that came back to America with the returning soldiers. Chevrolet wanted a part of that world, and the Corvette was the ticket.

Or, they thought the Corvette would be that ticket - but it was too tame, too much of a boulevard cruiser with its half-hearted Blue Flame Six engine at 150 horsepower and two-speed automatic transmission. Another visionary stepped in at this time - Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Russian immigrant and race car driver as dashing as Louis Chevrolet, penned a famous letter to GM outlining the potential of the Corvette and the youth-performance-sports-car market. He was hired and the result was a change in the Corvette's personality in 1956, when it received the then-new small block V8 engine and a manual transmission. Duntov took the Corvette into sports car racing and never looked back.

The first Small Block V8 had been made in 1955, delivering 162 horsepower from a 265 cubic-inch (4.3-liter) engine with a two-barrel carburetor. As delivered in the Corvette of 1955, the 265 small block offered 195 horsepower, rising to 210/225 depending on carburetor choice in 1956. With the change to the V8 engine, the future of the Corvette was assured.

The small block in the Corvette grew to 283 cubic inches in 1957, and then to 327 with huge horsepower gains as the engine was developed. That same small block and the GM big block just kept going up and up with the power through the 1960s, powering the Corvette and the rest of Chevrolet's muscular lineup. V8 power reached a peak in 1967 with the 427 cubic inch L-88 engine at 560 horsepower, even though Chevy would only admit to 430 for insurance purposes. The Chevy Small Block has sold over 100 million units, and remains in production today - though that may come to an end in the next few years.

Since the 50s, over a million and a half Corvettes have been made and sold, and the car remains Chevrolet's "halo vehicle" - bringing some of Louis Chevrolet's elan and romance to the brand that still sells America's affordable family cars. Chevrolet sold 4.26 million vehicles worldwide in 2010. The total number of Chevrolets sold since November 1911 is more than 209 million, and Chevrolet management is predicting that 2011 will be the brand's best sales year ever. The second 100 years of Chevrolet looks to be starting out like the first - except now the company has the resources to fulfill both Chevrolet's and Durant's original visions.

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