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A rare photo of all three mustachioed Chevrolet brothers together: Louis seated in the car, Arthur and Gaston, respectively, standing to the right.

A rare photo of all three mustachioed Chevrolet brothers together: Louis seated in the car, Arthur and Gaston, respectively, standing to the right.

The Chevrolet Brothers – Louis, Arthur, and Gaston – were destined for greatness in automotive history but sadly, not wealth.

Louis Chevrolet
Unless you’re a racing enthusiast, Lois Chevrolet is probably best known to you as one of the founders of the Chevrolet Motor Company. He was born on Christmas Day 1878 in Switzerland.  As the son of a watchmaker, he showed an early interest in mechanics but little aptitude for school work, preferring instead to work for his father.

Like most young boys, Louis Chevrolet became caught up in the popular hobby of the time: bicycling. He rode, repaired, and raced bikes — winning 28 events — and continued to work on bicycles until he discovered the next new craze of the age: automobiles.

In 1900, Louis emigrated from Switzerland to Canada, and then to New York. Once in the US, he quickly established a reputation as a race car mechanic and driver.  On May 20, 1905, Louis won his first road race on a cinder track in Morris Park, New York. Once he’d made enough money, Louis sent for his two brothers in Switzerland to join him.

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Louis raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 1915, 1916, 1919 and 1920. He finished seventh in 1919, but dropped out before halfway in the other three races.

In 1907, Louis met W.C. Durant (historically considered to be the “father” of General Motors). Durant noticed Chevrolet’s talent and put him to work designing Buick concept cars. This partnership led the Buick Racing Team to many victories.

Together, Louis Chevrolet and W.C. Durant founded the Chevrolet Motor Company in 1911 and it’s Louis who’s credited with designing and building the first Chevrolet automobile.  Unfortunately, sometimes genius + genius = disaster, as was the case with this partnership. W.C. believed that the company should make their cars cheaper to compete with the automotive market.  Louis wanted his cars to be built for the upscale customer. This disagreement led to Louis’s resignation in 1913.

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Louis Chevrolet chose to return to his first love: racing.  By 1917, he’d built a new, advanced race car, and with it, he again became a leader in the automotive racing.  In 1926, Louis completed his first laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the official pace car driver.  During his auto racing career Louis won 10 races in Indianapolis and 27 major races elsewhere, making him the most successful driver in his family.

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The Chevrolet brothers founded the racing-car design company, the Frontenac Motor Corporation, in 1916. It was initially successful, but after WWI, their machines proved to be increasingly obsolete and the brothers lacked the financial resources to regain competitiveness.

Louis, along with his brothers, eventually formed the Frontenac Motor Corporation in Indianapolis in order to build high-performance engine heads.  However, the corporation was fated to go out of business. Having lived on slim means since, Louis Chevrolet passed away on June 6, 1941, at the age of 63.  In 1952, Louis was elected to automobile racing Hall of Fame.

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Arthur Chevrolet
Still quite accomplished but perhaps less well known was Louis’s brother, Arthur. Arthur’s birth year has been listed in different sources as 1884 and 1886. Arthur also became involved in automobile building and racing when he joined Louis in the US in the early 1900s.

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Arthur raced in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911, and again in 1916. He didn’t finish either race.

Arthur Chevrolet drove in the 1911 inaugural Indianapolis 500, although mechanical problems forced him out of the race and he failed to finish. He made another attempt at the Indy 500 in 1916. Driving a Frontenac, Arthur qualified for the race but was forced out after 35 laps when the car developed mechanical problems. His driving career ended during practice rounds for the 1920 Indianapolis 500 when he was severely injured in a crash.

Arthur Chevrolet persevered in the auto industry after his racing career.  In 1928, Arthur filed with the US Patent Office for an “Overhead Valve Engine.” A patent was awarded on January 21, 1930. Despite Arthur’s talent for automobile and aircraft design (in particular, the Chevrolair engine) he had little gift for finance and was often pushed out of business endeavors before he could reap the rewards. By the 1930s, Arthur was financially broke and suffering from bouts of debilitating depression. He committed suicide in 1946. In 1990, Arthur was inducted to the inaugural class of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum.

 

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Gaston Chevrolet’s Frontenac had finished 10th (three places behind Louis) in the 1919 Indy 500. In the 1920 race, he won the prestigious race with an average speed of 86.63 mph — a very impressive speed for the time.

Gaston Chevrolet
Youngest brother, Gaston Chevrolet, appears to have been the dare devil of the trio. He was born in France in 1892. He was sent for, to come to America, in 1902 when brother Louis was already well on his way to establishing a name for himself as an automotive master. Gaston worked with brother Louis on design and building projects — eventually becoming an integral part of the team that pioneered the use of aluminum in racing construction.

Though he failed to qualify in the 1916 Indy 500 race, the youngest brother had finally gotten his chance behind the wheel. The 1917 season proved to be more fruitful, however, when Gaston finished third in a grueling 250-miler in the Cincinnati. (The race was won by his brother, Louis.) Later that season Gaston also posted two seconds and a third in sprint races at Chicago.

Though he was suspended from competition by the AAA in 1918 for running in some “outlaw” races, he regained his license in 1919 and became one of the leading drivers for the Frontenac team. He had just begun to establish his reputation as a winner with three straight record-breaking victories before his untimely death in a terrible crash at the Beverly Hills Speedway in 1920. Gaston was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002.

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A rather unceremonious grave site for these history-making automotive pioneers, volunteers have been tending the crumbling bench and moss-covered markers. Curiously, Louis’s grave always has a Matchbox car on the marker.

All three brothers are buried in Indianapolis’s Holy Cross and Saint Joseph Cemetery (coincidentally, in the same section as Harry Pierpont, Dillinger’s right hand man).
– Older brother Louis having died penniless at age 62 in 1941
– Arthur having committed suicide a week before his 62nd birthday in 1946
– And Gaston having lost his life in a racing crash in 1920

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The grave marker for Louis’s son, Charles, bears a surprising misspelling.

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The Chevrolet graves after a volunteer washed and repaired the bench and markers.

Though Louis is memorialized at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a monument, the current state of the Chevrolet graves seems like a slightly unfair extension of family tragedy. One ponders: If the Speedway, or the Chevrolet Corporation, knew about the site, would they care to assist in some way?

What are your thoughts on the Chevrolets and their legacy…
… or gravesite restoration?

Please comment below.

 

16 responses to “Friday Favorite: Driven to the Grave”

  1. Rebecca Bandy says:

    I’m sure both origanizations know about the burial site of the Chevrolet family. I think they should be contacted and asked if they could contribute some ongoing funds to maintain the intergrity of the markers. These gentlemen were the founders of an era in the historic automobile and racing industry. Someone cares…somewhere.

  2. Elizabeth Heil says:

    According to family lore, my grandfather, Walter Olin, had the first Chevrolet dealership in Indianapolis. It was called Marion Chevrolet.

  3. Louis Mahern says:

    I’ve been visiting those graves for over 60 years. My brother, Tim, died in 1949 ans is buried no more than 75 feet from the Chevrolets. My father, grand father and sister are also buried near by.

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    That’s a fun fact! Have you looked in the old Gazetteers and directories in the State Library to see if your grandfather’s business is listed or if he placed an ad?

  5. Lisa Lorentz says:

    I hope so too, Rebecca! Thanks for reading.

  6. Les Gordon II says:

    Sometime in the mid 1960’s I came upon an elderly gentleman who had a 1928 Chevrolet that had only 12 miles on the odometer. When I saw the Chevrolet in his carriage house back in 1965-1966, I was out seeking an antique car to purchase. The Chevrolet belonged to a man who was first an acquaintance and who subsequently became a friend. His name was Nolan J. Six. Mr. Six lived in a house facing White River that was located on 2130 E. 75th Street just west of Keystone in Indianapolis. The Chevrolet was sitting in the southeast corner of the carriage house behind a 1923 Model T Ford, which was sitting behind a 1939 Nash. Sometimes when I visited Mr. Six, he and I used to take trips to the grocery store in the Nash. Unfortunately, I was never able to buy any of the cars. Mr. Six always said that the cars were to go to his nephews and unfortunately I had to respect his wishes. About once every two or three months when I visited Mr. Six we would go out to the carriage house and I would put oll in the cylinders and crank the Chevrolet to keep the motor free.

    During the past forty plus years I have often wondered “what happened to the Chevrolet?”. I did several Google searches and last year I located the current owner who has written the story of the “Forgotton Chevrolet” and has it posted on the following website. http://www.theforgottenchevy.com/index.html The current owner is in the process of correcting some of the information on the website by updating the history of the Chevrolet to include information that I and a grand-nephew of the original owner have given him. The current owner is now able to present “the rest of the story”.

    We learned that the 1928 “Forgotten Chevrolet” was purchased at the “Marion Chevrolet Company” in Indianapolis.

    The “Marion Chevrolet Company” located at 1040 N. Meridian Street, on the southwest corner of 11th & Meridian Streets, had been a Chevrolet dealer from as early as 1926 through 1928 when the name was changed to “Olin Chevrolet” for the year 1929. Walter G. Olin was president. Robert D. Johnson served as Secretary/Treasurer from 1926 through 1929. By 1931 the dealership was renamed the “Johnson Chevrolet Company” with Robert D. Johnson as president. Mr. Johnson had also been president during the year of 1927 when the dealership was named “Marion Chevrolet Company”. The dealership remained at the 1040 N. Meridian Street address until 1934 when they moved across the street to the vacant building on the southeast corner of 11th and Meridian known as 1035 N. Meridian Street. The “Johnson Chevrolet Company” remained at the 1035 N. Meridian Street address until sometime during the mid to late 1970’s when the building was demolished. The 1035 N. Meridian Street building was the three (3) story brick building that had previously housed the “Marmon Automobile Company” local dealership until Marmon declared bankruptcy in 1933. The Marmon automobile was manufactured in Indianapolis from 1902 through 1933.

  7. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Fascinating background, Mr. Gordon. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Michael Moffatt says:

    This article, which adds to the excellent article you’ve written, is quite interesting, too. http://www.indystar.com/story/life/2014/05/22/chevrolet-brothers-indy/2328028/

  9. Les Gordon II says:

    I would like to hear more about the history of the “Marion Chevrolet” dealship in Indianapolis.

  10. Jim Arnold says:

    I would like to share my story. On Monday May 30′ 2016 My wife (Diane) and I met my siblings at St. Joseph cemetery to visit my Mom’s gravesite and talk over the previous week and of course the race!! My two brothers and I are all Marines. Mom was a Navy nurse who met our Dad (A Marine) after he was wounded in Guadalcanal and sent to the Naval hospital in California!! Wow they met there. Anyway at the cemetery we usually talk, pray and then walk around. Our Grandfather is buried about 10 steps from his daughter. We have a number of cousins buried a little over 20 yards away and walked over to see them. As I was coming back my brother said look at that old stone bench that is crumbling. Now this bench was 30 feet from Mom’s grave. As my eyes looked at the bench they quickly saw the name Gaston!!! Wow!! Wow! Then Louis. Wow!! My Mom has been gone for 26 years and I have been to her gravesite many times. Probably not as much as I should but many!! I never new that Gaston was buried that close to my Mom!! Lucky him.

  11. Mr Wolfe says:

    This is fascinating stuff. I learned of this a few years back and have visited the cemetery a few times. It made me wonder just how and where these three lived, worked and played here in our Indianapolis backyard. Using old census records I’ve uncovered a few home addresses for Louis and Arthur. W. 36th Street and Central Avenue respectively. Nothing on Gaston, however.
    Curious too about the name on the urn. Charlot. Turns out Charlot is French or Charles the younger or Charles the child. Makes sense.

  12. Michael Lakin says:

    Thanks for the history Mr. Gordon. My “uncles” Dave and Paul Johnson later owned and operated Johnson Chevrolet for many years. My father bought his first car there (a used ’37) in ’39 and bought many cars from them in subsequent years. In the mid ’70’s they sold the business and it became “Circle Chevrolet.” Uncle Dave and Paul operated a car leasing business there after they sold and I picked up my first car, and brand new 1978 Chevette, there in 1978 with Uncle Dave’s assistance with the paper work. So the building was there until mid 1978 at the least.

  13. Bev Johnson says:

    Bev Johnson (Dave’s daughter)
    read this and is interested in touching base with you.

  14. Rob Franklin says:

    Great write-up, I love the details of history I find on the city I called home most of my life. To think of my days as a teen driving a hot rod Chevy around Indy and had no idea of the Chevrolet family history and connections. Fortunately I found this after I read an article in Motor1 (pure web hit, no affiliation) with pictures and full write-up of the new grave site memorial. Seems like some people agreed and took initiative to improve the historically important site.

  15. Michael Lakin says:

    I SOOOO wished I’d seen this back then, as Bev passed away Nov. 9th 2017 a few months later. Would have loved to touch base with her.

  16. Mitch McGrath says:

    There names were Chevrolet but they built and raced Fords.

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