When Bill Durant hired the Chevrolet brothers to race for him, he never realized that later the success of their own car would put him right back in the GM saddle.
It all began in 1909, when William C. Durant, creator of General Motors, was juggling with a score of simultaneous irons-in-the-fire. The brothers Arthur and Louis Chevrolet one day visited Durant at Flint, looking for a job. The great man staged a dirt track race for the two brothers, which was won by Louis. It was Arthur, however, who got the job as Durant’s chauffeur, because of his more conservative style of driving. Soon, both Louis and Arthur were given a place in the official Buick racing team and found themselves in company with such famous drivers as Louis Strang and Bob Burman.
But Louis Chevrolet had more talents than could be satisfied by driving a race car. He dreamed of designing and building a light automobile along lines popular in France; he figured that with rapidly improving roads in the U. S. this car was bound to succeed. Durant, impressed by his visionary ideas, agreed to finance Louis’ experiments, and pretty soon Chevrolet was working on two different models--a four- and a six-cylinder.
When Durant lost control of General Motors in 1910, he bought out the Flint Wagon Works and organized the Little Motor Car Company. The latter was incorporated in October, 1911, as a namesake of William H. Little, one-time general manager of the Buick Division of GM, under Durant. A small, low-powered four-cylinder model was produced and offered for sale at under $700, in competition with Ford; but meantime Louis Chevrolet finalized his tests and came up with a Model C (bearing his name) which Durant accepted for production.
In November, 1911, the Chevrolet Motor Company of Michigan was formed, with Louis Chevrolet as one of the principals, and the groundwork for production was laid at a small plant in Detroit. During that year, and even before the Company was incorporated, Chevrolet built five test cars that underwent various modifications. Now the newcomers went so far as to buy land opposite the Ford factory and announced on a huge billboard that a new Chevrolet plant was to be erected there. This scheme was abandoned when Durant realized that the Flint factory of the Little Company offered far greater scope for expansion; but meanwhile, work on the Chevrolet progressed rapidly in the rented premises on West Grand Boulevard and toward the close of 1912 the first production car rolled off the line. Known as the Classic Six, the original Chevy was a six-cylinder touring car that weighed 3,500 pounds and cost $2,150. Its appeal to the public was instantaneous and almost 3,000 of these cars found their way to customers. The demand did not diminish even after the model was retained for 1913, with a $350 price increase. (Chevrolet also came out with another touring car called the Little Six, which weighed 2,375 pounds and retailed for $1,475.)
Notwithstanding this success, the Chevrolet plant proved to be operating un-economically and found itself in the red, while the Flint Wagon Works showed a profit on the other car. At this time the engines for both the Chevrolet and the Little were being supplied by the Mason Motor Company. Durant therefore revised his estimates and planned for greatly increased production of the Little, which was to add a six-cylinder model to its line. He also transferred Chevrolet operations from Detroit to the premises in Flint.
It was the Chevrolet, however, and not the Little which captured public fancy and by the end of 1913, close on to 6,000 Chevrolets were in use.
For 1914, the Classic Six and the Little Six Chevrolets continued in production and were joined by two new models--the Baby Grand touring car and Royal Mail roadster, both of them four-cylinder, 24 hp cars with valve-in-head engines and a very modest price range of from $750 to $1,000. World War I brought about a sharp revival in business activity, and with it more spending money, so that Chevrolet had no trouble selling for cash every single car it could possibly build. Strangely enough, the final 1914 production schedule allowed for 5,000 Chevrolets, while in fact, 5,005 were sold.
William C. Durant now began to recoup financially and moved his offices to New York, while the company opened Chevrolet sales outlets in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. Shortly thereafter, this territory was enlarged to include Kansas City, Atlanta and Oakland. To Durant, all this success was primarily a means to an end--the end being somehow to regain control of his lost General Motors empire. He liquidated the Little Company, upon which the Chevrolet’s fortunes had been founded, and concentrated solely on this moneymaker. For 1915, the Baby Grand and Royal Mail were retained on the four-cylinder, 24 hp chassis, and a second roadster was added, called the Amesbury Special. This was the costliest model of the lot, retailing at $985; its weight was 2,300 pounds.
During 1915, Chevrolet sales rose to over 13,600 cars, representing a production increase of more than 160 per cent. Yet this was only the beginning.
The 1916 Chevrolet program achieved the apparently impossible by producing a new model inspired by Durant, known as the 490. This model also had the four-cylinder, 24 hp engine, yet cost only $490! The 490 was offered at one price, whether with touring or roadster body, and became the greatest hit of them all. That year the Amesbury Special roadster was dropped and an additional Royal Mail roadster with a torpedo deck was substituted for it. The original Baby Grand touring car and Royal Mail roadster were retained, but the 490 outsold them easily. Chevrolet sales for 1916 reached the fabulous figure of 70,701 cars, or more than 14 times the 1914 output! That year, Chevrolet took over the Mason Motor Company and assumed direct control of engine production.
William C. Durant was now within visible distance of achieving his dream to get back at the helm of General Motors; while the Chevrolet, after starting in an antiquated plant with hardly any money behind it, was on the way toward making a tidy profit of over $6,000,000!
It took two more years for the Chevrolet Motor Company to merge with General Motors and acquire at the same time controlling interest which put the wizard Durant back in the saddle.