Chevrolet 100 years: Reborn in the USA

Iconic American brand celebrates its wild ride through a century

This 1957 Chevrolet Corvette is what Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into  space, drove when he reported for space programme training in April 1959. Photo / Supplied
This 1957 Chevrolet Corvette is what Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, drove when he reported for space programme training in April 1959. Photo / Supplied

Americans drove them to the levee and worked on their night moves in their back seats.

For a century, Chevrolets won America's heart with their 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 car brand ever with more than 200 million sales, celebrates its 100th birthday this month.

For most of its life, Chevy stayed just ahead of the competition by bringing innovations such as all-steel bodies, automatic shifting, electric headlamps and power steering to regular folks at a low cost.

Chevy also embedded itself in American culture, sometimes changing it by knowing what people wanted to drive before they did.

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.

On the way to selling more than 204 million cars and trucks, Chevy invented the sports utility vehicle and an electric car with a generator on board to keep it going when the batteries died.

But it also helped ruin General Motors' reputation for many. In the 1970s, it began cranking out rust-prone, nondescript cars with gremlin-infested motors and transmissions.

Now it's in the midst of a comeback, selling better-quality vehicles as a global brand, with 60 per cent of its sales coming outside the United States.

Chevrolet Motor Co was launched on November 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 when most cars had only four. And it came with an electric starter and headlamps, which were a rarity. But at US$2150 (US$50,000 or $62,944 today, when adjusted for inflation), it was out of reach for most people.

Their next car, the "Little", was smaller and less expensive, with a reliable four-cylinder engine. It was far more successful.

But the founders clashed over the future of the company. Chevrolet wanted to pursue his dream of building high-performance cars, while Durant was determined to cater to the masses. In 1915, Durant bought out Chevrolet, who returned to racing.

A year after Chevrolet's departure, 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.

While Fords were made of wood and canvas, Chevys were steel, giving drivers more comfort and safety. Chevy had independent suspensions for each wheel that made cars ride and handle better.

And it mass-produced modern hydraulic brakes, which stopped cars with less effort and didn't pull to one side like the mechanical brakes used by Ford, according to historians.

By 1927, Chevy overtook Ford as America's most popular brand, selling more than one million cars that year. Through a combination of innovation and affordability, Chevy was the top US brand for 52 of the next 83 years.

In 1950, it became the first low-priced brand with an automatic transmission. But while most Chevys were practical, cheap and cost little to maintain, these vehicles also lacked a stylistic distinction from other brands.

That all changed in 1955, when GM design head Harley Earl created a car known for its beauty and speed.

The Bel Air was among the first car models that could be customised. Two-tone paint, four-barrel carburettors and AM radios with rear speakers were all available - for a price.

Chevy's timing was good. The Bel Air hit the marketplace in the flush years after World War II, just as the US was becoming more car-centric.

Chevy sold 1.49 million or more of the cars from 1955 through 1957, the period that many consider GM's finest.

With the 1960s came another Chevy sales boom, led by the Corvette Sting Ray, the Impala family car and the muscular Camaro.

The Sting Ray, the Corvette's second generation, came with hidden headlights and jet-like looks. Even though relatively few were sold, it cemented Corvette as a cool brand.

But in the mid-60s, Chevy's hot streak went cold. Safety problems surfaced with the Corvair, a compact car with the engine in the rear.

On early models, the suspension couldn't handle the rear weight and the car could spin out of control. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader publicised its problems in his book, Unsafe at any Speed.

Throughout the 1970s, a variety of Chevy models gained notoriety for their reliability problems. The timing couldn't have been worse. It coincided with the rise of Toyota and Honda, which earned kudos for reliability.

Cheap petrol and a robust economy in the 1990s gave birth to a truck and SUV boom, and this helped Chevy regain some prominence. Chevy, which invented the SUV in 1935 with the Suburban Caryall wagon, sold more than 3.8 million SUVs in the 1990s.

But Chevy's lacklustre line-up of cars later proved to be a problem. When gas prices spiked in 2008, truck sales plummeted. Buyers looking for gas mileage found little in Chevy's long-neglected car line-up. Battling a financial crisis and a recession, GM was weighed down by expensive union contracts and too much debt. GM, and its rival Chrysler, had to be saved by a government bailout and bankruptcy-court reorganisation.

GM shed its Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab brands so it could focus precious marketing dollars on Chevy. The gambit paid off.

A leaner GM is making billions again, led by Chevrolet models such as the compact Cruze, the crossover SUV Equinox and the electric Volt.

More than four million Chevys were sold last year, or half of GM's total sales. Worldwide, it ranks fourth behind Toyota, Volkswagen and Ford.

It's unlikely any car brand will be admired again like Chevy was in the 50s and 60s, but GM is trying to recapture the magic.

From accessories to customers

A 1922 Chevrolet advertisement was one of the first aimed at women. It said that year's model was "especially suitable" for wives to "drive the family provider to and from the station or the children to and from school".

Dannielle Hudler who became Chevy's first female director of car advertising in 1985, said the brand's marketing from the early 1900s through World War II aimed to convince women that they could drive cars.

It wasn't until the 1980s, when women headed to the workplace in large numbers, that marketing and advertising to women began in earnest, Hudler said.

"Women finally became the customers instead of accessories," she told US Automotive News.

One of the first attempts to sell trucks to women appeared in 1983. The ads showed the Chev Blazer's versatility, with a woman loading the rear deck with flowers. And it played on the word "blazer" to indicate that it was a fashion statement.

The 1991 "Like a Rock" campaign for the Silverado pick-up came at a time when there was a huge migration toward using trucks for personal use and a move away from the historic ads that pictured trucks in the mud with stoic men.

A Texas dealer told the company: "I'm having women in heels and short skirts buying pick-up trucks, and that's not pictured in the ads."

Cool ride muscles its way to top

Chevrolet has helped to shape the automotive landscape.

It has come up with some memorable nameplates. Monikers such as Nomad , Impala, Apache, Chevelle, Camaro, Corvette, and Bel Air defined their segments in the United States.

But which was the best Chevrolet? Was it the 63 split-window Corvette or the fuel-injected 57?

As part of the brand's centennial celebration, Chevrolet's website has been running a competition to pick the best Chevrolet out of 16 contenders.

And the winner is ... the 1969 Camaro. By 1969, the Camaro was extremely popular. And though this was the final year of the Camaro's original design, it went out with flying colours.

The 69 Camaro paced the Indianapolis 500 for the second time. It was the first and only year the legendary aluminum ZL1 engine was offered, and the Z28 SS/RS performance package qualified the 69 Camaro to compete in the Trans-Am racing series.

It's still considered one of the hottest-looking rides of the classic muscle-car era. It had a 290bhp (215kW) rating but tested at close to 400bhp (298kW) and appeared in films such as Almost Famous and Better Off Dead.

Hybrid champion

US talkshow host Jay Leno has more than 200 vehicles in his custom-built garage. But the one he uses the most is his hybrid Chevrolet Volt.

Why? For starters, he hasn't had to fill the Volt's petrol tank since December 2010, even after 16,000km.

Leno likes saving pennies at the pump. "You get the first 40 miles [65km] free," Leno told US Automotive News from The Tonight Show studios in Los Angeles.

"So when I go to work every day that's 28 miles (45km), and I plug it in at work. Then I go shopping, run errands, pull in the driveway; that's 40 miles (64km) so I plug it in.

"It's pretty amazing because you can actually check that on the computer on the car."

Volt operates as a pure battery electric vehicle until its plug-in battery capacity is depleted, at which point its 1.4-litre petrol engine powers an electric generator to extend the vehicle's range.

Leno doesn't see the Volt's all-electric competitors changing any time soon.

"I have a 1909 Baker Electric, and it goes 80 to 100 miles (130-160km) on a charge. The brand-new Nissan Leaf electric goes 80 to 100 miles on a charge.

"But the idea is electricity is like sex. People have no compulsion about lying about if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

"I like electricity when I need it and gas when I need to use it. With Nissan, you need two cars, one to get around town and the other to go on long trips.

"With the Volt, you don't. You can drive to San Francisco. It's just that after 40 to 50 miles - okay, you have a gas car again. It's silly to throw 150 years of internal combustion out the window. We don't dislike the engine.

"Let's come up with a better fuel. And until we do, let's do this hybrid thing. You can't do much better than that."

Leno thinks the Volt technology could revitalise Chevrolet's reputation and save the American car industry.

"Engineers are now back in the forefront," he said. "When I was a kid, Oldsmobile built Oldsmobile engines; Pontiac built Pontiac engines; Chevrolet built Chevrolet engines.

"In terms of profit, each division tried to outdo each other. Then in the 70s and 80s they tried to go to a generic one-engine-fits-all type thing.

"To me that was kind of the downhill point. But now you've got engineers stepping in again."

The 61-year-old comedian has had a lifelong affinity for Chevrolet but has been more hands-on with its cars in the past 10 to 15 years.

He has made several public appearances on behalf of vehicles such as the Corvette and the Malibu, and he counts Ed Welburn, General Motors' global vice-president of design, among his friends.

His loyalty to homegrown US brands also means making trips to Detroit to make the rounds of the motor show.

"I root for American manufacturers the way other people root for Manchester United or the New York Giants."

- with AP

- NZ Herald

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