Many famous people visited Vincennes over the course of the 20th century, be they political figures, entertainers, or entrepreneurs. One man who fell into the latter category was Arthur Chevrolet, one of the three Chevrolet brothers whose surname became synonymous with the automobile industry. Chevrolet was in the city on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1930, to speak at the Vincennes Rotary Club’s noon meeting in the dining room of the Grand Hotel.
The story of the Chevrolet brothers was ultimately a tragic one.
Arthur Chevrolet was born in 1884 (although the alternate date of 1886 is sometimes given), a native of Switzerland. He and his brothers, Louis and Gaston, emigrated to the U.S. after the turn of the century and began building and racing automobiles. In 1911, Louis Chevrolet and William Durant, the founder of General Motors, co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
Durant and Chevrolet parted ways in 1915 with Chevrolet selling out to Durant, in what would turn out to be a colossal miscalculation. The Chevrolet Motor Company later became part of GM and Louis Chevrolet lost out on a fortune.
While Louis was starting his business, Arthur and Gaston were building and racing cars. In 1911, Arthur raced in the first Indianapolis 500 but didn’t complete the race due to mechanical problems. He tried again in 1916 with the same result. In late 1915, the three brothers partnered in the Frontenac Motor Corporation, which designed and built race cars.
Gaston Chevrolet was the winner of the Indy 500 in 1920 but was killed in a racing accident in November of that same year. He was only 28 years old. Also, in 1920, Arthur was badly injured in an accident while practicing for the Indy 500, thus putting an end to his racing career.
In 1928, Arthur and Louis began the Chevrolet Aircraft Corporation, designing a new aircraft engine.
Since he and his brother had started an aircraft business, Arthur Chevrolet’s speech in Vincennes centered around aviation. J. B. E. LaPlante chaired the Rotary meeting and introduced the distinguished visitor to the 100 members and guests present. In his 15-minute speech, Chevrolet admitted that he would rather be building a motor than speaking before an audience. He very optimistically predicted that in 15 years travel by plane would surpass rail travel, simply because planes were so much faster. He believed that the biggest obstacle for the public to overcome was the fear of flying, but he was confident that the engine they had developed would improve safety.
Their aircraft company was ultimately unsuccessful. While the brothers were skilled mechanical engineers, they were not good businessmen, which is why most of their undertakings failed. Later in the decade of the 1930s, both Louis and Arthur had fallen on hard times. Louis went to work at GM. He was 62 when he died of a heart attack on June 6, 1941.
Arthur Chevrolet moved to Slidell, Louisiana, where he worked for Higgins Industries, which built the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft used during World War II. Suffering from depression, he took his own life on April 16, 1946, at the age of 61.
Oddly enough, there was actually some dispute as to Arthur’s place of burial. Both Gaston and Louis are interred in Indianapolis’ Holy Cross Cemetery. For years it was believed that Arthur also rested there in an unmarked grave. In 2011, Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials even erected a headstone for him on the site. Records later showed that the actual burial there was Arthur’s son, Arthur, Jr., who died in 1931 and that Arthur, Sr. was interred in the Catholic cemetery in Slidell in an unmarked grave. The exact location is unknown, since the cemetery records were lost in Hurricane Katrina.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.