100 Years of Chevrolet

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  • Part 2 of an eight-part series of monthly newsletters celebrating the heritage, acknowledging the achievements and looking into the future of Chevrolet

The early years – GM takes over

Six years after he had lost control of General Motors, founder William C Durant used his Chevrolet stock to regain control of the corporation in 1916: incidentally the same year that Chevrolets began appearing on South African roads. Unsurprisingly, on May 2, 1918, Chevrolet joined GM.

That same year Chevrolet produced its first ‘truck’, a light-duty vehicle rated at half-ton based on a beefed-up chassis of the successful 490 saloon. By 1921 the company was offering half-, three-quarter and one-ton trucks in chassis/cowl as well as open, closed and canopy express configurations. Bodies were sourced from outside suppliers at this time.

In 1919, Chevrolet began building engines and components at a site in Saginaw, Michigan where production would last until 1991 – an impressive run of 72 years. The following year, Karl W Zimmershied took over from Durant as company head but lasted only a year before Chevrolet’s recently appointed production vice-president William S Knudsen took charge. Both the South African Post Office and Police Force bought Chevrolets and the first light-duty trucks appeared here in 1923.

A quest to produce a simple, low-cost, lightweight, easy-to-maintain engine led to the development and introduction in 1923 of a ‘copper-cooled’ 2,2-litre air-cooled engine developing a modest 22 hp (16,5 kW) at 1 750 r/min. But reality overcame theory and uneven air distribution throughout the engine led to its early demise. Only 759 were built and just two survive.

A more positive action was the opening of GM’s first European assembly plant, in Copenhagen, Denmark, building Chevrolets for sale in a number of Scandinavian, Baltic and European countries as well as Russia.

In-car entertainment became a reality when Chevrolet offered its first radio option in 1924, which was followed a year later by another innovation called ‘Vision Ventilation’ that was, in reality, a one-piece windscreen with an automatic wiper. In 1925, for the first time Chevrolet produced over 500 000 cars and trucks in a single year during which time the two-millionth Chevrolet was produced.

In 1924 more Chevrolets than any other model were sold on the SA market and by 1925 more than 4 000 had been bought (some with the aid of an innovative GM hire-purchase plan) and by the time GM established a plant in Port Elizabeth in 1926 it was estimated than one-sixth of all cars on the country’s roads were Chevrolets.

Much brand credibility was gained from a Chevrolet expedition from Cape Town to Stockholm in 1928. A Safari Truck was built in 1929, by which time 25 000 Chevrolets had been built locally in just 37 months. Of a daily GM output of 30 units, 22 were Chevrolets.

Meanwhile, other impressive events had taken place overseas. Starting in 1926, the first factory-built roadster pick-up was introduced while wood-spoke ‘artillery’ wheels were discontinued. In 1927 the rumble seat was introduced and more than one million vehicles were produced.

The following year saw Chevrolet as No1 in US sales for the second straight year, and the five-millionth Chev was produced. A new assembly plant on the outskirts of Bombay (now Mumbai) was opened to build cars, trucks and buses. Another new facility was established in Warsaw, Poland.

In 1929 Chevrolet introduced a “six for the price of a four” engine that became known as the ‘cast iron wonder’. The overhead-valve in-line six displaced 3,18 litres and delivered 46 hp (34,3 kW) at 2 600 r/min. The industry’s “any colour as long as it’s black” approach was broken when Chevrolet introduced colour paint on its car bodies.

The next decade got off to a good start with the acquisition of Martin-Parry in Indianapolis to build bodies for commercial chassis. Chevrolet was the USA’s No1 seller in 1931 and ’32, the latter despite a Depression-era production low of 394 000 units. M E Coyle replaced Knudsen as company head in 1933, and in the next year ‘knee action’ independent front suspension was introduced, as well as the first integral passenger car boot. The ten-millionth Chevrolet was produced on November 3, 1934, the company’s 23rd birthday.

In 1936 a coupé-express pick-up is offered with a cargo box built into the boot –effectively making this model the forerunner of the latter-day El Camino. Hydraulic brakes were introduced on Chevrolet trucks and the OHV six-cylinder engine was enlarged to 3,4 litres to help produce 79 hp (59 kW) at 3 200 r/min.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1937 when Chevrolets featured ‘Unisteel’ all-steel bodies and safety plate glass. Badge engineering literally took place when every Chevrolet was completely restyled to incorporate the Diamond Crown design. Two years later the ‘woody’ station wagon appeared, a look destined to become somewhat iconic… Sealed-beam headlamps appeared while running boards disappeared. In 1939 the 15-millionth Chevrolet was built and the following year General Motors’ 25-millionth car rolled off the assembly line – fittingly, it was a silver-painted Chevrolet.

On February 9, 1942, all GM civilian passenger vehicle production was ceased as attention turned to the war effort. During hostilities, Chevrolet built a variety of products including military vehicles, engines, guns and ammunition, forgings and castings. Light-duty truck production resumed in 1944 and civilian car production in 1945 with designs practically carried over from 1942.