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Home > Featured Auto Makes > Chevrolet  (Part  1 2)

Chevrolet   Part 2: 1915-1925

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

Known as the “Cinderella Car” because of its skyrocketing success, the Chevy forced the Model T off the auto market.

Mention of Chevrolet immediately conjures up the name of an individual so closely linked with the fortunes and success of this famous company that the two have become synonymous in the history of the industry. For without William C. Durant’s visionary genius and financial wizardry there would have been no Chevrolet success story.

Durant, after a patient wait since his deposition from General Motors by the bankers in 1910, was now getting set for a fabulous coup that was to restore in heaping measure his former power and prestige.

On September 16, 1915, Chevrolet declared a Common Stock dividend of $50 a share--one of the largest ever paid out by an American corporation; and by December 31 the company balance sheet showed a working capital of nearly seven-and-a-half million dollars and a capital stock of about 20 million. Chevrolet already had addi­tional production facilities in St. Louis, Missouri, and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada--built up in five short years, starting virtually on a shoe­string. All this and a clear profit of six million dollars from the sale of the “Cin­derella Car!”

As part of a carefully prepared plan to regain control of General Motors, Durant had already incorporated the Chevrolet Motor Company of Delaware and this was the tinder he used to light a fire under the bankers who then ran GM.

Inexorable in his purpose, Durant now put out the word quietly that five shares of Chevrolet Common Stock could be ob­tained in exchange for one of General Motors; an offer which held good until January 25, 1916, when the ratio was re­duced to four to one. The result was amazing. Numerous GM stockholders with whom Durant had remained on friendly terms from the old Buick days, rushed to transfer their holdings. Many per­sonally, brought their certificates to Du-rant’s luxurious Broadway office in New York and did not even ask for a receipt!

First to introduce the self-starter in the low-price field during 1915, the Chevrolet soared to new heights of popularity a year later and expansion during 1916 continued at a breath-taking pace. A new assembly plant was built in Flint and others started at Fort Worth, Texas, and Oakland, Cali­fornia. Durant also bought out the Warner Gear Company of Toledo, Ohio, and a plant in Bay City, Michigan, for the production of small parts. Chevrolet output reached 70,000 units compared with under 3,000 cars in 1912.

Prior to this, Durant had proposed that the Chevy be taken in as part of the Gen­eral Motors family, but the overture had been turned down. He achieved his pur­pose anyway, but now did so on his own terms. Through the active exchange of shares, Chevrolet virtually gained control of GM, although the great Durant did not immediately re-assume the presidency. In­stead, he continued to work from behind the scenes, devoting part of his time to an­other pet project known as United Motors Corporation which was fast gobbling up small manufacturers of all kinds in the automotive equipment field.

Another reason for Durant’s reticence was his great regard for the ability of Charles W. Nash, then GM president. The two were old friends and had worked to­gether for years in the Dort-Durant Com­pany. Nash, however, although asked to remain, was not attracted to the idea of subordinating himself to anyone. Accordingly, on June 1, 1916, he resigned in favor of Durant who was to hold sway for an­other two years, when Chevrolet officially became a General Motors Division.

Meantime, Pierre S. Dupont of the pow­erful Dupont interests, was elected chair­man of the board--a move calculated to inspire confidence among the most con­servative and to enhance still further Chevrolet prestige.

In 1917, Chevrolet hatched one of the very few addled eggs in all its long and romantic career. A completely new V-8 overhead-valve model was produced--the first such car to appear in the GM group, some three years before the Cadillac V-8-- of which great things were expected. The under $1,500 price tag for so much automo­bile, plus the obvious advantages of this type engine in terms of power, torque and smoothness, should have made the V-8 Chevy a winner. Instead it was a flop, de­spite the sweet catalog promise that “In crowded traffic...you pick your way with­out labor or gear-shifting.”

The reason why it flopped was quite simple: this Chevrolet was not a good car, and the public--automobile-hungry though it was--somehow sniffed the fact with unerring instinct.

However, the continued steady sales of the ever-popular, four-cylinder, Model 490 Chevrolet during the two years that the V-8 was built, more than offset this failure. When the amazing Durant retired from GM for good in 1918, he left behind a monument to his ingenuity that has few parallels in the annals of the automobile industry.

The improved Model FB for 1919 and the Master Series Chevrolets of the early Twenties continued to assure the company’s uninterrupted success, though 1922 marked the advent of a still-born model, when the “Air- or Copper-Cooled” Chevy made its appearance. This one, an overhead-valve job with four separately cast cylinders, each surrounded by copper fins, was cooled in the Franklin manner, via a front-mounted turbine-type fan. An interesting feature, unusual for the time, was the “square” bore and stroke of three and one-half by three and one-half inches, “A type used many, many years ago, but superseded by the long stroke engine, or medium stroke, in every car on the market. . .”

The air-cooled Chevrolet featured bodies interchangeable with those of the good old 490 (which was still going strong), and the Touring Model cost only $725. Twenty hp was available at 1,500 rpm, while peak output was reached at 1,750 rpm on a com­pression ratio of only four to one, which gave this engine true docility for its size.

Several hand-built models were ex­hibited at the National Automobile Shows in 1923 and created some interest, but pro­duction never really got under way and it is doubtful whether any were actually sold. There was the little matter of the Franklin air-cooled patents which covered the field pretty thoroughly, and GM probably thought it prudent not to run the risk of becoming involved in litigation.

The “Superior” line of Chevrolets was another profitable move by a company that seemed to possess the golden touch. In 1922, for example, nearly 250,000 cars found their way to customers. For 1923, this total was almost doubled, with 480,737 Chevrolets coming off the line. The millionth Chevy was completed February 27, 1923, and still the pressure of demand continued.

June of that year also saw the opening of a pressed metal plant in Flint, Michigan, for Chevrolet body production, require­ments having outstripped even the manu­facturing capacity of the Fisher Body Corporation.

When William S. Knudsen became presi­dent of General Motors in January 1924, Chevrolet--now the greatest of all GM sub­sidiaries--had manufacturing plants in four cities: Detroit, Flint and Bay City, Michi­gan; and Toledo, Ohio. In addition, there were six assembly plants and 16 Chevrolet regional sales organizations blanketing the U.S. from coast to coast. Latest of the as­sembly units was in the Janesville, Wiscon­sin, factory of the Samson Tractor Com­pany, which was bought up and converted to passenger automobiles.

Chevrolet production for 1924 topped the 500,000 mark, and demand from Europe grew so insistent that it was found expe­dient to open assembly plants in Copen­hagen, Denmark, and London, England, where imported parts were built into complete cars. The London venture soon came under a serious handicap due to the crippling hp tax which dictated a trend toward smaller engines, and as a result this plant was converted to the production of light trucks, for which there was a big de­mand. The company’s first year of true leadership could be said to be 1925, for dur­ing that period the “Cinderella Car” achieved the distinction of becoming the world’s largest manufacturer of auto­mobiles equipped with three-speed trans­missions. At this time, the Chevy was giv­ing the obsolescent and much refurbished Model T Ford such a hard time that the intense competition was the determining factor in the appearance of the completely new Model A Ford, three years later.
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