1918 Chevrolet 490. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
In the 1880s, Billy Durant, a charismatic entrepreneur from Flint, Michigan, teamed up with hardware merchant Dallas Dort to parlay a stylish little road cart into the world’s largest carriage company. But with success, Durant became restless, and seeing a future for the automobile, he bought Buick in 1904. With visions of a grand automotive empire he established a new holding company which he called General Motors in 1908.
He quickly went on an ambitious acquisition binge which brought Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and others into General Motors. Alas, he soon over-extended himself, and by 1910 had lost control of GM to the bankers.
Undaunted, Durant started again. In 1911 he established another holding company called Republic Motors, a kind of new General Motors. In Flint, he was instrumental in organizing the Mason Motor Co. to build engines, and the Little Motor Car Co., with cars powered by Mason engines.
He then established a new company called the Chevrolet Motor Co. in Detroit, and gradually lost interest in Republic. Racing driver Louis Chevrolet was hired to design a new car to be called the Chevrolet.
The Louis Chevrolet-designed Classic Six wasn’t the kind of car that Durant had wanted. It was large, expensive, and had a six cylinder engine, but since the public announcement had been made, Durant proceeded with production. Durant and Louis Chevrolet would soon part company, although the Chevrolet name stayed.
Both the Chevrolet Classic Six and the Little car were offered for sale. The lower priced four cylinder Little sold better, although Sixes would be offered for several years. The Little was continued only until a new, smaller Chevrolet could be designed.
This new, light, Series-H Chevrolet appeared in 1914 bearing the soon-to-be-famous bow-tie badge. It was powered by a 2.8 litre (170 cu in.) overhead valve four cylinder engine, and its two series had the intriguing names of Baby Grand (touring) and Royal Mail (roadster). In 1915 a dressed up model called the Amesbury Special joined the lineup. They were the first Chevrolets to sell for under $1,000.
These Chevrolet models were well received, and Durant was ready to take aim at Henry Ford’s all conquering Model T. The car he planned for this assault was the Chevrolet Four-Ninety, a stripped down version of the Series-H. It was shown at the New York Motor Show in January 1915, and went into production in June.
To aim directly at Ford, Durant said the new car would be priced at $490 (the source of its name), the same as the Model T touring. Its introductory price was $550, however, although it was reduced to $490 later when the electric starter and lights were made a $60 option. Henry Ford responded by reducing the Model T to $440.
The Four-Ninety was in some ways more modern than the Model T. Its four-cylinder engine had overhead valves, compared with the Ford’s side valves, although both developed 20 horsepower. And the Chevrolet had a regular, three-speed transmission with a floor-mounted shift lever, compared with Ford’s pedal-operated, two-speed planetary transmission. One characteristic of the Chevrolet was that its rear axle tended to be fragile, and emitted a drone that soon became known as the “Chevrolet hum.”
The Ford and Chev were about the same size; the Four-Ninety’s wheelbase was 2,591 mm (102 in.), compared with the Model T’s 2,540 (100).
Chevrolet’s new Four-Ninety was well received, with over 46,000 orders taken within weeks of introduction. Its success allowed Durant to quietly start buying up General Motors stock, and on September 16, 1915, he triumphantly announced to a GM board of directors meeting that he was again in charge of General Motors. He had used Chevrolet to regain control from the bankers exactly seven years after he had originally incorporated GM. He would bring Chevrolet into GM as a division in 1918.
The Four-Ninety continued to be manufactured, with improvements along the way. Chevrolet’s annual sales climbed from 13,600 in 1915 to over 115,000 in 1919. But while this was impressive for a new car, it paled beside Henry Ford’s 1915 sales of a half million Model Ts, which rose to 820,000 by 1919.
By late in the decade GM’s brilliant new research director, Charles Kettering, was developing an air-cooled four cylinder engine. Until it was ready the Four-Ninety was allowed to languish.
Four-Ninety production ceased in 1922, replaced by the new “Copper Cooled” (air cooled) Chevrolet. This proved to be a technical disaster, prone to overheating and detonation. Only 759 Copper Cooled cars were built, and all except two were recovered and scrapped. Chevrolet quickly reverted to the Four-Ninety’s water
The Chevrolet Four-Ninety lasted longer in GM than Billy Durant did. When he recovered control of GM Durant had gone on another spree of buying and over-production, and by 1920 he had again lost control of GM to the bankers, this time for good.
Although not an outstanding car, the Chevrolet Four-Ninety’s lasting legacy was that it helped Billy Durant engineer one of the most unexpected take-overs in automotive history.