Friday, March 18, 2011

Did you hear that 2011 marks Chevrolet's 100th anniversary? No? Well, let's take care of that right now.

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet. I’m not sure how many people know that. I mean, I’m a Chevrolet nut, I try to stay relatively informed, and I really haven’t seen or heard very much about this.

The biggest public acknowledgement of this centennial seems to have been at a press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year. I was there. It wasn’t that big. There was a pretty nice video that played before the press conference (that few people in attendance even paid attention to), and they offered free beer to journalists. Otherwise, they introduced a couple variations of the new Aveo replacement Sonic. Happy frickin’ birthday.

Maybe it’s because most of the people running things haven’t been there very long, and don’t care much about Chevy’s history. Maybe it’s because the “new GM” is trying to distance itself from the past. Who knows; maybe the general public just isn’t interested.

Well, I’ll tell you who is interested—me! I grew up in a Chevrolet house. My dad is retired from Chevy. I was brought home from the hospital in a new ’73 Caprice. Half my wardrobe has a Bowtie screen printed on it somewhere. There are multiple Chevrolets in the driveways of nearly everyone in my immediate family, and now that they’re at capacity, my in-laws are getting in on the act. Does this 100th anniversary seen like a big deal to me? You better believe it.

Chevrolet, the car company, was founded by William Durant. You know him as the founder of General Motors, but he was a bit of an eccentric, and at the time, he had been (temporarily) ousted from the General. The first car was the 1911 Chevrolet Classic Six.

Chevrolet, the name, came from auto racing star Louis Chevrolet. Along with his brother Gaston, the Swiss-born Louis was a popular personality with a good reputation. He was just the kind of guy Durant needed to partner-up with to help reestablish his good name.

But just as the board of General Motors had trouble getting along with Durant, so too, did Louis Chevrolet. In 1915, he sold his shares of the company back to Durant, and the company went on to be one of the greatest brands in America.

Durant had already made so much money with Chevrolet, that by 1916, he was able to buy the majority of shares in General Motors and become the president of the company. Chevrolet then became part of GM, and continued on to do battle with archrival Ford forever more.

With the combination of desirable, affordable cars, and the memorable, sometimes soul-stirring advertising from agency Campbell-Ewald, Chevrolet became the perennial number-one selling car company in spite of some stiff competition. By 1922, Chevrolet had already built 1-million vehicles.

Chevrolet was successful, in part, because of some truly innovative ideas. Things like electric headlamps and self-starters were unheard of in cars of this price range in the late teens/early 20s. The first built-in car radio was installed in a Chevrolet in 1924. The small block V8, introduced in 1955, is the gold standard by which all automotive power plants are judged. And out-of-the-box small car creativity has been the hallmark of Chevrolet with everything from the Corvair to the Vega to the Citation to the Volt.

The reason Chevrolet is looked upon so fondly by enthusiasts, however, is because of their considerable performance heritage. With the emphasis on fuel mileage and efficiency, this probably isn’t the thing that the new GM wants to be associated with as much today, but it casts too big of a shadow to ignore. Sure, Chevrolet has always been the affordable, frugal choice in the GM lineup, but their dedication to all-out performance is the stuff of legend.

Take the Corvette. When it came out in 1953, it was an almost exact clone of a Motorama dream car. Mouthwateringly beautiful, those first Corvettes were more style than substance, with suspension and mechanical bits straight from the aging full-sized car’s parts bin, and an uninspiring Stovebolt under the pancake hood.

But it didn’t take long for the Corvette to come into its own. That brilliantly engineered 265-c.i. V8 became available throughout the Chevrolet lineup in 1955--and it woke a sleeping dragon in the lightweight Corvette. When new, modern styling and roll-up windows came along in 1956, the Corvette became more than just a novelty car. And when an independent rear-suspension and ultra-sophisticated engineering went into the redesigned Corvette in 1963, it securely established its position as one of the best sports cars in the world.

How about the Camaro? Chevrolet’s answer to the wildly popular Mustang had some pretty wild popularity itself when it debuted in 1967. From there on, it became an affordable alternative to the Corvette—a four-seat, two-door masterpiece of performance and design. The Camaro is still pushing boundaries to this day with the announcement of the 550-hp, 2012 ZL1.

Chevrolet’s bread-and-butter has always been its full-sized offerings. Descendants of that first Classic Six include the chrome-drenched Bel Airs of the mid-‘50s, the opulent Impalas that began in 1958, and the Cadillacesque Caprice that floated off the line for the first time in 1965. Whatever the era, Chevrolet has always provided modern, stylish, affordable cars suitable for business people and families alike. The Impala is still built today, but the choice of chic suburbanites would more likely be a bejeweled new Malibu.

And of course, Chevrolet has always been good at building trucks. These days, the Silverado usually ranks as the #2 selling vehicle in America behind the Ford F-150 (GM trucks would often take the top spot if you factored both Chevrolet and sister truck GMC production). They’ve been building them since 1914, so they know what they’re doing. And their range has included everything from the small LUV pickup from 1972-1982, to the Bison heavy-duty semi from 1977-1988.  Offerings like the venerable Suburban were pioneers in the SUV craze.

Today’s Chevrolet is different than it used to be, but not as much as you might think. Cars like the electric-hybrid Volt snag all the headlines, but there’s still some good old-fashioned performance stuff there if you’re paying attention. The Corvette is the best it has ever been, and it comes in several flavors for discriminating tastes and budgets. The critically acclaimed Camaro is about to be offered in its most potent form in history. A new Silverado HD is wowing heavy-duty truck buyers. And cars from the new Cruze to the Malibu are meeting the needs of families everywhere.

Of course, there are some things that have changed greatly. Campbell-Ewald was fired as Chevrolet’s primary ad agency in 2010 after 91 years of stellar service. It was replaced by Publics Worldwide—for like two months—then that was replaced by Goodby, Silverstein and Partners.

Both Chevrolet and General Motors seem to change managers and key personnel as often as the counter staff at the local Burger King. Right now, Daniel F. Akerson is the new Chairman and CEO of General Motors, accepting his position in January. He’s only been a GM guy since 2009, and most notably was the Chairman of Nextel.

Jim Campbell is now the head of Chevrolet. He actually has been around awhile, starting with Chevrolet in 1988. But he’s treading on thin ice, because things change almost every day at General Motors, and they are very cognizant of how things look to the general public in the front office.

Of course, that’s because GM took those darned government loans. Nevermind that much of what led to that unfortunate situation was out of their control. Nevermind that if GM had gone out of business, millions of people would have lost their jobs and it would have crippled America as we know it. Nevermind that they are repaying this loan ahead of schedule. People are having a hard time forgiving it. And that is showing up in things like Chevrolet’s marketing and advertising. And it may just have to do with why we aren’t hearing much about Chevrolet’s 100th anniversary.

Except here. Below is a great slideshow of Chevrolet promotional photos and advertising, from the fist car in 1911, right up through some of today’s more interesting offerings. Your blood will flow Bowtie blue after looking through this tiny fraction of Chevrolet’s overwhelming and amazing history.

I am also including the video that was played on the big LED screen at the Chevrolet press conference at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

1 comment:

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