Chevrolet turns 100 on November 3, and it looks much better than most 100-year-olds. Despite the influx of Asian and European nameplates, Chevy retains its place as one of America’s top-selling brands. It still can lay claim to being “The Heartbeat of America,” as it once billed itself.
In Colorado, Chevrolet got off to a fast start after its introduction. By the beginning of the 1920s, according to Bud Wells in The Colorado Car Book, Chevrolet was one of the top-selling brands in the state. Nationally, Chevrolet was selling more than a million vehicles a year by 1927.
Few people know the history of Chevrolet in Colorado better than A.J. Guanella of John Elway Chevrolet in Englewood. A.J. has been part of the Chevrolet family since he started dusting parts bins part-time in 1949. When he graduated from Englewood High School in 1951, A.J. went full-time and in the years since (except for a short stint in the U.S. Navy) he’s stayed with one brand. “Chevrolet was the backbone of America,” he said recently, remembering the days when 51 percent of General Motors’ business came from Chevrolet.
“Chevrolet had the foresight to build the right cars at the right time,” he said, noting that Chevrolet is still leading with the development of the extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt, the 1911 North American Car of the Year. The Volt’s range of 379 miles on a charge is a natural for eco-conscious Colorado drivers.
A.J. gets most enthusiastic, though, when he talks about what the Chevrolet business was like after World War II. “There weren’t any cars from 1941 through 1945,” he remembered. Burt Chevrolet “… survived doing service, and converted the showroom to a tire recap plant.”
By 1949, when he joined Burt, “There were cars. If you had a car in your driveway, you had everything. And chances were that you had a Chevrolet. The car was everything. If you wanted to do anything you had to have a car.” Guanella started in Burt’s parts department and worked his way up through the ranks at Burt to management and part-ownership. The dealership was sold to Elway and his partners recently– but Guanella is still very active.
Almost since the beginning, cars were more than transportation. They were entertainment. The 1922 Chevrolet could be equipped with a Westinghouse radio for an additional $200. And by the 1950s drive-in restaurants and theaters were popular. The Scotsman on 49th and Federal was a storied teen hangout for cokes and french fries. Cruising on Denver’s Sixteenth Street was a Friday and Saturday-night ritual.
Cars were about privacy, too. Necking at the drive-in movie theater was an American institution. Eyes twinkling, Guanella remembered the post-war Chevy, “It was a motel on wheels, but … T.V. kind of slowed things down.”
Few brands have been celebrated in popular culture as much as Chevrolet. From 1954, when Dinah Shore sang that Americans should “See the USA in your Chevrolet,”on television’s “Dinah Shore Chevy Show,” through Young Jeezy’s “My Camaro” last year, songwriters have woven Chevrolet into their music, including Elton John in “Crocodile Rock,” and Prince in “Little Red Corvette.” Perhaps best known are the iconic ’57 Chevy featured in Don McLean’s “American Pie,” The Beach Boys’ “409,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets.”
Remember “Route 66?” The show’s true star was the Chevy Corvette and the show’s theme music topped the 1962 charts. Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” described Chevrolet so well it was turned into Chevy Trucks’ theme song for more than a decade. Who would have imagined it back in 1918, when Chevrolet introduced its first truck?
There have been many pacesetting developments in Chevrolet’s first 100 years, including the all-metal body 1933 Chevrolet; the 1953 fiberglass body Corvette; the 1959 El Camino, that married a car with a truck; the 2004 Silverado hybrid, the world’s first full-size hybrid pickup; and now, the electric Chevrolet Volt.
A.J. Guanella anticipates a new century of Chevrolet consumers wanting different cars than their parents, but still wanting cars. “There’s still a love affair with automobiles.”