Louis-Joseph Chevrolet (December 25, 1878 – June 6, 1941) was a Swiss-born American race car driver of French descent, founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911 and later, the Frontenac Motor Corporation in 1916 which made racing parts for Ford's Model T.

Early life and career

Born in 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a center of watchmaking in northwestern Switzerland, Louis Chevrolet was the second child of Joseph-Félicien and Marie-Anne Angéline, née Mahon. Looking for work, the family eventually moved to Beaune in France, where Louis spent his teenage years and started in bike racing. He began working for a French car company but soon emigrated to the USA, where he also married. He and his wife Suzanne had two sons. Louis died in 1941 and was buried in Indianapolis.

Louis Chevrolet was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. In 1886, Chevrolet's family left Switzerland to live in Beaune, in the Côte-d'Or département of France. It was there as a young man Louis developed his mechanical skills and interest in auto racing.

Early career

He worked for the Roblin mechanics shop from 1895 to 1899, at which time he went to Paris, where he worked for a short time before emigrating to Montreal, Quebec in Canada in 1900 to work as a mechanic. The following year, he moved to New York City, where he worked briefly for a fellow Swiss immigrant's engineering company, then moved to the Brooklyn operations of the French car manufacturer de Dion-Bouton.

In 1905, he was hired by FIAT as a racing car driver, and a year later became employed by a Philadelphia company developing a then-revolutionary front-wheel-drive racing car. His racing career continued as he drove for Buick, becoming a friend and associate of Buick owner William C. Durant (founder of General Motors). He raced at the Giants Despair Hillclimb in 1909.

With little in the way of a formal education, Chevrolet learned car design while working for Buick and started designing his own engine for a new car in 1909. He built an overhead valve six-cylinder engine in his own machine shop on Grand River Boulevard, Detroit.

Chevrolet car company

On November 3, 1911 Chevrolet cofounded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company with Durant (by now ousted from General Motors) and investment partners William Little (maker of the Little automobile) and Dr. Edwin R. Campbell (son-in-law of Durant). The company was established in Detroit, choosing as the company's logo a stylized Swiss cross, to honor his parents' homeland.

Chevrolet had differences with Durant over the design and in 1915 sold Durant his share in the company. By 1916 the profits from the Chevrolet company allowed Durant to repurchase a controlling stake in General Motors, and by 1917 the Chevrolet company that Louis had cofounded was folded into General Motors.

Auto racing

By the mid-1910s, Louis Chevrolet had shifted into the racing car industry, partnering with Howard E. Blood of Allegan, Michigan to create the Cornelian, a state-of-the-art racing car, which he used to place 20th in the 1915 Indianapolis 500 automobile race. In 1916, he and younger brothers Gaston and Arthur Chevrolet started Frontenac Motor Corporation, designing and producing a line of racing cars. They became well known for, among other things, their Fronty-Ford racers.

Louis also drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times, with a best finish of 7th in 1919. Brother Arthur competed twice, and brother Gaston won there in 1920 in one of their Frontenacs, going on to win the 1920 AAA National Championship.

Later life

Chevrolet lost all his previous earnings in the stock market crash of 1929 and was reduced to running a bowling alley in Flint. He died nearly penniless on June 6, 1941 in Detroit and is buried in the Holy Cross and Saint Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Louis Chevrolet Memorial

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum in Speedway, Indiana, features a memorial at the entrance to the building dedicated to the accomplishments of Louis Chevrolet. The memorial, sculpted by Adolph Wolter and designed by Fred Wellman was created during 1968–1970 and installed in Spring of 1975. The centerpiece of the memorial is a bronze bust (32 × 17½ × 16½ in.) of Chevrolet wearing a racing cap and goggles, it rests on a marble and granite square base (59½ × 21 × 30 in.).

A marble and granite exedra (70 in. × 28 ft. 4 in. × 91 in.) serves as a seating area to reflect on Chevrolet's accomplishments which are showcased in four bronze reliefs (each: 19 × 47 × 1½ in.). The reliefs depict:

  • Chevrolet with Durant and the first Chevrolet passenger car in 1911.
  • Chevrolet's first winning car at Indianapolis, driven to victory in 1920 by brother Gaston Chevrolet, with four Speedway pioneers in the background – Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, L. H. Trotter, and T. E. Myers.
  • Chevrolet's second Indianapolis winner, driven by Tommy Milton in 1921, with Eddie Rickenbacker, Col. Arthur William Sidney Herrington, Louis Schwitzer and C. W. Van Ranst.
  • Chevrolet's 1923 Barber-Warnock Fronty Ford at the Speedway with Henry Ford at the wheel and Louis standing alongside, flanked by Barney Oldfield and Harvey Firestone.

They are all inscribed with identifying text and a bronze black on the back of the base is inscribed:

Erected Under Auspices Of
Speedway Old Timers
Chevrolet Memorial Committee
William B. Ansted, Jr., Chairman
A. W. Herrington, Honorary Chairman
Frank Bain Chairman Ex-Officio
Charles R. Keogh Treasurer
Fred Wellman, Secretary
Al Bloemaker Karl Kizer
Clarence Cagle F. E. Moscovics
Herman Deupree Lee Oldfield
Ray Harroun Louis Schwitzer
E. V. Rickenbacker/MCMLXXI

The front of the base is engraved:

Louis Chevrolet

The original funding plan for the memorial requested 200 gifts at $200 each, and more than 58% of the donations needed to fund it were provided that way. The memorial cost $40,000.

In 1994 it was surveyed as part of the Smithsonian's Save Outdoor Sculpture! program and its condition was described as "well maintained."