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Cars > CorvairJim’s Garage > Blog > Happy Birthday, Chevrolet!

 

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CorvairJim

M –51
Norristown, Pennsylvania
United States

 

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Happy Birthday, Chevrolet!

By CorvairJim

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Cover photo for the 100 Years Of Chevrolet album
100 Years Of Chevrolet
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Today is November 3, 2011. Exactly 100 years ago today, industrialist William C Durant and famous race car driver Louis Chevrolet submitted the paperwork establishing the Chevrolet brand in Detroit, Michigan. This was Durant's first step in regaining control of General Motors, which had ousted him as chairman a couple of years before. Chevrolet and Durant Had a disagreement over which direction the new brand was to take. Chevrolet wanted to build a grand, high-end luxury car, while Durant had his mind set on a low-price competitor for the Ford Model T. His thinking was, when he regained control of G.M., he would already have no fewer than three upmarket brands in Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile. He needed an entry-level brand to entice the masses, and he saw the new marque with the name of the famous racer as the ideal way to do it. As a result of this disagreement, Louis Vhevrolet left the company that bore his name within the first couple of years. He went on to manufacture speed equipment for Model T's with his brother Gaston under the Frontenac name.

The first two years, Chevrolets were indeed big, luxurious cars, but by 1914, they were supplanted by loweer priced cars. The "Royal Mail" was marketed as a direct competitor to the Model T, and that was replaced by the 490 a couple opf years later. That model got it's name from it's price: $490, F.O.B. Detroit.

Chevrolet did take a brief detour form the inexpensive cars only mindset in 1917 and 1918, when they brought their first V-8 powered car to market. It was priced in the luxury car range and people had already come to associate the brand with entry-level cars, so it didn't sell well. The model was dropped after the two model years.

Another misstep occured in 1923, with Chevy's first foray into air cooling with the "Copper Cooled Chevrolet" line. These engines had copper cooling fins brazed to the individual cylinder barrels, which were supposed to keep the engine cool. Unfortunately, this concept failed - miserably. Chevrolet ended up recalling the cars and destroying them; Urban myth has G.M. hauling them out into Lake Erie on barges and dumping them in!. As I recall, only two are known to survive of the 500 built.

Chevrolet maintained a firm hold on second place in sales through the mid 1920's, but when the Model T was replaced by the more expensive Model A, Chevy took over as the sales leader. In 1929, the famous "Stovebolt Six" made it's debut, with the advertising line "A Six For The Price Of A Four", aimed squarely at the Model A. Chevrolet's new engine handily out-powered Ford's 4-cylinder, and when Ford fought back with a V-8 in 1932, it was purely a numbers ploy, since the Chevrolet 6 was more powerful than Ford's new 8! It didn't hurt that the 1932 Chevrolet's styling was WAY more elegant than Ford's. Harley Earl's influence was making itself known across all GM divisions by that point, and the '32 Chevrolet was sometimes referred to as looking like a "Baby Cadillac". Chevrolet maintained this image for many years, aping the appearance of either thew previous year's Cadillac or Buick up until after the war. This helped Chevy hold the leadership in sales through the 1956 model year.

In 1935, the longest running nameplate in automotive history first saw the light of day - The Chevrolet Suburban. This truck-based station wagon was novel for the time in that it boasted an all-steel body. Most station wagons relied on wood bodies until after WW II, but not the Suburban.

Another couple of firsts in the low-price field were the 1949 Bel Air "Hardtop Convertible", with it's fixed roof, pillarless styling, and the Powerglide fully automatic transmission, at a time when Ford and Plymouth offered only semi-autiomatic boxes.

The Motorama show of 1953 brought a surprise to the American motoring public in the form of a "Dream Car" called the Corvette. It had a fiberglass body on a modified standard Chevrolet frame. The people seeing the car fell in love with it, so much so that it was rushed into production... to a resounding yawn! Apparently, none of the other GM divisions wanted to let Chevy use one of their V-8 engines in the car, so it came to market with a hotted-up version of the tried-and-true inline-6, mated to a mandatory Powerglide automatic. Furthermore, it only came in Polo White with a red interior. More colors were available in 1954, but dealers still had a tough time selling them. In 1955, Ed Cole's legendary high compression, overhead valve Chevrolet V-8 hit the market, and combined with the availability of a 3-speed manual transmission it helped Corvette sales to an extent. Ford brought out it's Thunderbird 2-passenger "Personal" car that year, so Chevy had to continue making Corvettes beyond 1955 or be seen as knuckling under to crosstown competition. Good thing they did, because the Corvette went on th become THE American sports car while Thunderbird abandoned the 2-place market altogether by 1958.

1955 is best remembered for the all-new standard Chevrolet, the first of "The Hot Ones". This and the next two years are possibly the best-loved big Chevys of all time, with the iconic '57 Bel Air topping the list. After stumbling in sales for a single year in 1957, Chevy regained the top position in sales in 1958, a spot it wouldn't relinquish again for several decades.

By 1960, the compact wars were really beginning to heat up, andChevy was in the thick of things with their radical new Corvair, with it's rear-mounted, air-cooled horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder engine. This unorthodox approach was arrived at very logically: By putting the entire drivetrain behind the car's cabin, it allowed for greater interior room and a flat floor. The Corvair had very nearly the interior volume of a full-size Chevrolet, while it's competition like the Ford Falcon and Chrysler Corp's valiant (it didn't become a Plymouth until 1961) were basically just traditional American sedans reduced to roughly 4/5 their size with a corresponding reduction in interior room. Unfortunately, Americans wanted conventional cars rather than cutting edge thinking, so the Corvair didn't sell as well as expected. Chevy reacted by bringing ANOTHER entry to the compact field only tweo years later, the Chevy II series of utterly conventional compacts. Corvair was repurposed as a sporty compact, thus originating the modern "Sport Compact" merket segment. It succeeded so well at this new direction that Ford had to react to it by rushing a rebodied falcon to market in the middle of the 1964 model year - They called this car the Mustang!

In 1963, Corvette got it's first total redesign, gaining a fully independant rear suspension in the deal. Larry Shinoda's timeless design is considered by many, myself included, to be the best looking all-around Corvette design ever.

1964 brought yet another car to the Chevy lineup: the "Midsize" Chevelle. Then in 1967, Chevrolet answered the Mustang with their second sporty compact offering, the Camaro. Unfortunately, that pretty much sounded the death knell for the Corvair. Ralph Nader had already given the car an undeserved black eye in his famous work of fiction, "Unsafe At Any Speed", where, in the first chapter, he claimed that Corvairs tended to roll over easily. That claim was proven wrong in a government investigation years later, after the damagehad already been done. The second chapter dealt with the claim that the horizontal tail fins of the 1959 and 1960 full-size Chevys caused the rear end of the car to actually lift off the road at 70 mph... If he had checked his facts with NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, he would never had made that assertion - Johnson won the 1960 Daytona 500 in a '59 Impala at an average speed of nearly 140 mph. How do you suppose he managed to maintain speeds like that if his drive wheels weren't on the track?

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alwaysakid’s Profile Photo
alwaysakid
Nov 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm
Nice historical summary. And might I add that the famous and long-lived bowtie insignia came to Durrant when he saw a similar design on wallpaper!
 
vegavairbob’s Profile Photo
vegavairbob
Nov 3, 2011 at 6:39 pm
Nice timely post, Jim
 

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Cars > CorvairJim’s Garage > Blog > Happy Birthday, Chevrolet!

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