My first car was a 1962 Chevrolet Corvair. It had red paint, four doors and floorboards so rusty that my brother would drop empty beer cans through it onto the street below. I paid $400 for what eventually came to be known as Kip’s Folly and had to tow the damned thing to the junkyard after a bird’s nest in the engine compartment caught fire one Friday night.
I graduated to a Sequoia Green 1968 Chevelle a few years later. It had a 327 small-block V8, Muncie 4-speed transmission, dual Holley 4-barrel carburetors and a pair of Hooker headers that made it roar like a dragster. I loved that car despite the many speeding tickets I received because of it.
There’ve been other Chevys over the years. A Monza Spyder, a Chevy Impala and a Chevette Scooter whose paint was called Saddle Tan but my brother called something else. “It’s baby poop brown, Bro.”
And there was my 1968 Chevy C10 pickup truck. We jacked it up so high you needed a ladder to climb inside.
The Chevrolet bow tie logo has been used in one form or another since its creation in 1913.
Bow ties and businessmen
I didn’t know it at the time, but that 1968 model year signified the 50th anniversary of the iconic truck brand. And this year marks its 100th.
Chevrolet Motor Co. was founded in 1911 when retired race car driver Louis Chevrolet and one-time General Motors CEO William Durant opened the doors of what would soon be the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, although it would be seven years before the first truck was born.
Louis Chevrolet left his namesake company just two years after its inception. He returned to racing and also started the Frontenac Motor Corp., but was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy. He died penniless in 1941.
Louis Chevrolet returned to the racetrack soon after, but Durant stayed on. While at GM several years earlier, he’d attempted to purchase the Ford Motor Co., but couldn’t get a bank to loan him the $2 million down payment. “Too risky,” they said about investment in the fledgling automobile industry.
Adding injury to insult, the GM board soon sent Durant packing. Chevrolet was his attempt to get back into the car business.
He was successful. 1918 may have been the year that Chevrolet produced its first truck, but it was also the year that Durant regained control of GM (at least for a little while), after which Chevrolet became one of the automaker’s most recognizable and long-lasting brands.
Released in 1959, the El Camino was a direct response to the Ford Ranchero, introduced two years earlier.
The one-ton wonder
Chevy’s first truck was the One-Ton, built at GM’s plant in Flint, Mich., where the company still operates today. The One-Ton boasted wooden wheels; a 36-hp, 3.66 liter (224 cubic in.), 4-cylinder engine; and sold for $1,325 at a time when family income in the United States averaged $1,518 per year. Not all that different than buying a fully loaded Cadillac ATS-V today except that this “chassis only” model didn’t include seats, windows or doors. It didn’t even come with a truck bed.
Despite these crude beginnings, Chevrolet trucks were a big hit. By 1929, steel wheels were standard on its newly introduced Chevy International Series AC Light Delivery truck, as was the first ever overhead-valve, 6-cylinder engine. Best of all, an enclosed passenger cab was available for an additional $195 over the chassis-only price of $400.
This was also around the time that GM surpassed its archrival Ford. By 1930, the company announced it had produced 7 million vehicles globally and by the next year, it had earned the title of world’s largest automaker.
Pickup trucks went from functional to stylish later that decade when GM created its Art and Color department; it was led by design engineer Harley Earl, who would later become vice president of the company. With swept fenders and a shiny front bumper and grill, the 1938 Chevy Half-Ton enjoyed twice the horsepower and half the price of its 1918 predecessor.
Nomad means someone who roams, an activity that anyone sitting behind the wheel of this vintage car will be wont to do.
Taking to war
It wasn’t long, however, before GM ceased all commercial truck production. From January 1942 until August 1945, the automaker put its not inconsiderable might behind the war effort. GM’s Flint facility began making M-4 tanks, but soon moved production to the nearby Grand Blanc plant, which cranked out more than 11,000 Shermans by the end of the war.
They weren’t alone. GM’s Buick division produced 2,000 engines a month for the B-24 bomber, Pontiac built anti-aircraft guns, and Oldsmobile made 48 million rounds of ammunition and 140,000 machine guns.
And Chevrolet? Its workers, most of them women, built everything from military trucks and ambulances to wing sections and fuselage components for aircraft manufacturer Grumman, not to mention the armored half-tracks that General Patton rode into Tunisia during the North Africa campaign.
All in all, GM supplied close to 1 million trucks, 400,000 diesel and aircraft engines, 40,000 armored vehicles and countless munitions in its effort to supply Allied forces, leading military historians to wonder whether the war’s outcome would have been quite different without the support of GM and other leading manufacturing companies.
Happier times came for all, of course, as World War II drew to a close and Chevrolet went back to building more peaceful wares. Its “Advanced Design” series trucks featured the now classic rounded profile and five-bar horizontal grill as well as such niceties as a wider cab with a three-person bench seat, fresh air heating and defroster system, and in-dash AM radio.
This was followed by Chevrolet’s Task Force generation, which introduced the first V8 engine and 12-volt electrical power, followed by the Action Line, the vehicle series that transformed pickup trucks from workhorses to comfortable, all-purpose cruising machines.
The following decades would see the introduction of countless new truck models. There was the Cameo Carrier, an early version of the half-truck, half-car El Camino; the C30 one-ton “dually” with Chevy’s first ever crew cab; and the C10 pickup that I once owned and still miss, despite its leaky head gasket.
1969 is often called the year that everything changed. For Chevrolet, it meant a bold new body style with the K-5 Blazer.
There’ve been Silverados, Centennials and Colorados, Suburbans and Blazers, S10s and Tahoes, never mind an even longer list of passenger cars and crossovers. I won’t take this opportunity to pick on the Chevy Citation, and my Chevette Scooter I’d just as soon forget, but the automotive world would be a poorer place without the Corvette Stingray LT-1 and the ZL1 Camaro, a car that my father once owned until my brother crashed it.
So here’s to you, GM, and a very happy 100th birthday to Chevrolet! Let’s all hope for another 100 years of American-made automotive excellence.