There is surely no other brand name more closely woven into the fabric of American popular culture than that of Chevy.
The Chevrolet story that began one 100 years ago this week has become emblematic of American life and its varying fortunes over the last century.
Chevy’s great era was the 1950s. It was a time of growth and national optimism and Chevy was a part of it. America grew up in a Chevy. They have been celebrated in song over the decades and invariably with a sense of nostalgia for a different time.
Don McLean’s opaque but haunting American Pie entered our collective consciousness in 1971 with its wistful longing for a simpler age that ended abruptly “the day the music died”. Lines such as “bye-bye Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry” made it one of the most discussed, dissected and universally memorable popular songs of all time.
The Chevrolet story itself began in Detroit on November 3, 1911. William Crapo Durant, an automotive visionary and founder of the General Motors Holding Company, had just been ousted by the company’s bankers. He joined forces with Louis Chevrolet, a dashing Swiss-born racing driver, and together they set up Chevrolet (“pronounced “Shev-Ro-Lay”) a new carmaker named in Chevrolet’s honor and, no doubt, an attempt to trade on his ‘brand’.
Chevrolet boomed, outflanking rival Ford with a range of models and was later folded into GM with Durant briefly regained control. By the 1960s, the era of the fabulous, bullet-shaped Corvette Stingray, Chevrolet accounted for about half of GM’s 60% share of America’s car market.
The now iconic Chevrolet bowtie logo first appeared in 1913 but its origins are hazy. Popular legend has it that impulsive Durant saw the design in a wallpaper pattern on a French hotel room wall and ripped a piece off. Another story has it that Louis Chevrolet fancied a logo in a stylized version of the Swiss cross in honor of his homeland.
Probably the most convincing account of the bowtie’s origin comes from more recent research by historian Ken Kaufmann*. He presents a case that the emblem is based upon a logo for “Coalettes”, a coal-based domestic fuel. According to records Durant’s wife is reported as saying that the emblem was first seen by Durant while they were vacationing in Hot Springs, Virginia. She is quoted as recalling: “We were in a suite reading the papers, and he saw this design and said ‘I think this would be a very good emblem for Chevrolet’.”
Disillusion set in during the 1970s. Different values took over. The company began to churn out nondescript rust traps such as the Vega and its reputation, along with the quality and design of its cars, went into a long tailspin, ending in GM’s bankruptcy and bail-out in 2009. Chevy’s market share was just 12.7%.
Even though a steady stream of attractive small cars has begun to restore Chevrolet’s fortunes, such as the Cruze, perceptions are slow to catch up. The brand still has a long way to go before it means anything again.
As for Louis Chevrolet, he lost all his earnings in the stock market crash of 1929. Without income, he went to work as a line mechanic in a Chevrolet factory. He died nearly penniless on June 6, 1941 but he bequeathed his name to the world.
*In his blog post “Chevrolet Bowtie History” Ken Kaufman writes: This past year I have been reading that great Southern newspaper, The Constitution, from Atlanta Georgia…when I ‘spotted’ this Coalettes bowtie ad, I think I experienced the same excitement Durant did almost eighty years ago, when he might have ‘spotted’ the same ad in the same paper. The date of this Constitution ad was November 12, 1911, nine days after the Chevrolet Motor Company was incorporated.
- 100 years of Chevy: An improbable journey to American icon (usatoday.com)