History/News/Commentary from K. Scott Teeters

More Interesting, Little Known, Seldom Talked About Chevrolet History

Dateline: 11.8.11

So, what became of the three Chevrolet brothers, Louis, Gaston, and Arthur?

The Chevrolet Brothers: Louis Chevrolet, Gaston Chevrolet, & Arthur Chevrolet

We might be learning more about Chevrolet than their public relations department would like us to know. One of my favorite car blogs is from Hemmings Motor News. Every day they serve up a heap’n, help’n of automotive history and fun. Today they posted an interesting story about the final resting place of the three Chevrolet brothers – Louis, Gaston, and Arthur. As Chevrolet rolls into their centennial celebration year, I’m sure there’ll be all sorts of special features, articles, videos, and books. So, let the fun begin!

Louis Chevrolet in his senior years.

Regardless of what your favorite auto maker happens to be, there’s no argument that “Chevrolet” is one of the all-time top iconic brands in American popular culture. Although the name may well have originated in France, it turns out that Louis Chevrolet emigrated from Switzerland. But first, he went through Paris, then Montreal, before arriving in Brooklyn in 1901. Louis had two younger brothers, Arthur and Gaston.

 

The Chevrolet car company story is fairly well known. Louis teamed up with William Crapo Durant to form the Chevrolet Company in 1911. Louis and Willy had a falling out in 1915 and Willy sold his shares in the company. With some interesting money machinations, Durant used his funds to eventually buy the controlling shares of General Motors, the company he had lost a few years before. Then in 1917 Durant bought out Chevrolet and folded the name into his General Motors company. (This is starting to sound like a Gordon Gekko story!) Louis took his money and got into the auto racing business, but went broke by the time of the 1929 stock market crash. Needing a job, Louis ended up as a line mechanic in a Chevrolet factory. Although he was a mechanic first, it must have been a humiliating experience.

 

Here’s the first turn at the first Indy 500 in 1911. Arthur Chevrolet is somewhere in there.

What became of the other two brothers whose name became a cultural icon? Gaston Chevrolet first raced in the 1919 Indy 500 and came in 10th place. But it turned out that 1920 was Gaston’s year – sort of. He won the 1920 Indy 500 with an average speed of 86.63-mph – a very fast speed for the day. Later that year, Gaston was killed in a race at the very dangerous, one-mile board track in Beverly Hills, California. Ironically, because of the points structure at the time, Gaston posthumously won the  AAA National Championship. He was only 28-years old.

All three Chevrolet brothers raced at the Indy 500. But it was Gaston that won the 1920 Indy 500 race. Yes, that’s Louis with his brother Gaston.

 

 

Arthur Chevrolet didn’t fare too well either. You could say that “racing” was definitely in the family. Arthur raced at the first Indy 500 in 1911 and again in 1916. Louis, Gaston, and Arthur got into the race car business in 1916 when they formed the Frontenac Motor Corporation. The enterprise had some initial success but lost its edge after WW I and was never able to be competitive again because of a lack of funding. Arthur had one more shot at the Indy 500 in 1920 and was seriously injured in a crash, ending his racing career.

But Arthur was no dummy. In 1928 he filed for a U.S. Patent for his “Overhead Valve Engine” and was awarded the patent on January 21, 1930. In 1929 Louis and Arthur started the Chevrolet Brothers Aircraft Company with their own, “Chevrolair”  engine design. The company never took off (pardon the pun) and was taken over by their investors. Arthur and Louis took one more shot in the racing world by helping to develop the Sprit car. That was pretty much it for Arthur, but you can’t say they were quitters! In 1946, with Louis and Gaston gone, and broke at the age of 61, he committed suicide.

So, Gaston was killed in 1920 at the age of 28.
Louis dies broke in 1941 at the age of 63.
And Arthur, also broke, takes his own life in 1946 at the age of 61.

How ironic and sometimes cruel fate can be. The three men, whose namesake eventually became an American cultural icon, never profited in a big way from the Chevrolet automobile enterprise. By the time Louis had to get a job on the assembly line at Chevrolet, Willian Durant had long since departed from the company. But someone had to know who Louis “Chevrolet” was. Alfred P. Sloan was running General Motors when Louis was working the line and had to know that Louis was now an employee. Surely the company could have given the two surviving Chevrolet brothers a stipend to keep the men living with some modicum of dignity.

All three Chevrolet brothers are now buried together at Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis. And up until recently, Arthur had been in an unmarked grave. I guess we could say…

Life isn’t always fair.
Fate can sometimes be cruel.
And Business is Business.

Scott

 

 

2 Responses to More Interesting, Little Known, Seldom Talked About Chevrolet History

  • “But someone had to know who Louis “Chevrolet” was. Alfred P. Sloan was running General Motors when Louis was working the line and had to know that Louis was now an employee. Surely the company could have given the two surviving Chevrolet brothers a stipend to keep the men living with some modicum of dignity.”

    Back then there was no “heritage” or “public relations factor” such as now so Louise would have had to been happy with just having a job even at a factory named after his given last name. Remember that during that era there was no social security etc so you worked or you starved. People did not question the “history” of a company and just believed the company’s story. Any reporter who would have made a stink about it would have never covered another GM story and the newspaper/magazine which would publish said story would have never gotten any more GM advertising again.

    Much the same happened with the surviving Harley family members of Harley-Davidson, who, while Willy Davidson continued being employed at the company in the design area, they did not have such success.

  • Hi EconoBiker,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, things were very different back then. Also, in retrospect, those guys probably never imagined the Chevrolet thing would go where it did. Have you seen the new Corvette Daytona prototype video? If not, here’s a link…

    http://www.corvetteblogger.com/2011/11/16/chevrolet-unveils-2012-corvette-daytona-prototype/#more-8208

    Do you think Louis Chevrolet would be a little ASTONISHED at what he old company is doing these days on a race track?

    I think he’d LOVE IT! – Scott

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