DETROIT — For a century, Chevrolets have won America’s love with their safety, convenience, style and speed – even if sometimes they were clunky or had problems with rust or their rear suspensions.
Chevy, which lays claim to being the top-selling auto brand of all time, celebrates its 100th birthday today.
For most of its life, Chevy stayed a fender ahead of the competition by bringing innovations such as all-steel bodies, automatic shifting, electric headlights and power steering to regular folks at a low cost.
Chevy also embedded itself in American culture. Snappy jingles and slogans dominated radio and television, and bands mentioned Chevys in more than 700 songs. No other automotive brand has come close to the adoration that Chevy won from customers, especially in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The American car from the mid-1930s to the end of the ’60s was a Chevrolet,” said John Heitmann, an automotive history professor at the University of Dayton and author of a book about the automobile’s impact on American life. “It was the car of the aspiring American lower and middle classes for a long period.”
On the way to selling more than 204 million cars and trucks, Chevy also helped ruin General Motors Corp.’s reputation. In the 1970s, it began cranking out rust-prone, nondescript cars with gremlin-infested engines and transmissions. Now it’s in the midst of a comeback, selling better-quality vehicles with 60 percent of its sales coming outside the United States.
Chevrolet Motor Co. was launched Nov. 3, 1911, in Detroit when Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-born race car driver and engineer, joined ousted GM founder William “Billy” Durant to start a new brand.
Their first car was the stylish and speedy Series C “Classic Six.” It had a powerful six-cylinder engine at a time when most cars had only four. It came with an electric starter and head lamps, which were a rarity. But at $2,150 ($50,000 today, when adjusted for inflation), it was out of reach for most.
In 1915, Durant bought out Chevrolet. A year later, the company sold about 70,000 cars, giving Durant enough cash to take control of GM. He later made Chevy a separate division of the company.
A banner year was 1955, when GM design head Harley Earl created a car known for its beauty and speed. The Bel Air was powered by a small V-8 engine.
With the 1960s came another sales boom, led by the Corvette Sting Ray, the Impala family car and the Camaro. There were failures, too, such as the Corvair of the 1960s and the Vega of the 1970s.
GM is trying to recapture the magic. New ads with the slogan “Chevy Runs Deep” feature the brand’s history, and marketing head Chris Perry says new products are fueling the comeback.