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