Did you know?

Did you know the cars that won the 1920 and 1921 Indianapolis 500’s were built at 33-37 West 11th Street in Indianapolis? This is not well known to the general public, and there is more to the story with Louis J. Chevrolet’s involvement.

William Small Building
William Small Building

The story starts with the construction of the William Small Company showroom in 1915 at 602 N. Capitol. Typical of its era, the building had a concrete frame, brick curtain walls, and tile block interior walls. At different times, the agency sold Chevrolet, Monroe, and Premier automobiles. Small had the foresight to purchase hundreds of cars from the factory prior to America’s involvement prior to World War I.

After he acquired the manufacturing rights to the Monroe Motor Car, the vehicles were built at the 11th Street from 1919-1923. At that time, he believed that sales could be stimulated by participation in racing. In summer 1919, he convinced Louis Chevrolet (the person for whom the Chevrolet is named) to come to Indianapolis to direct Monroe racing operations also at this site.

Under this agreement, Chevrolet built four Monroe race cars for Small’s use, and three identical Frontenac racers for himself to enter in the 1920 Indianapolis 500-mile race. By April 1920, their cars were entered in the Indianapolis 500. When time trials got underway, all of the Frontenacs demonstrated their speed by being among the 11 to qualify at better than 90 miles per hour.

Gaston Chevrolet and riding mechanic Johnny Bresnehan in
Gaston Chevrolet and riding mechanic Johnny Bresnehan in
1920 Indianapolis 500 winning Monroe

However, defective steering arms on three of the entries failed during the race. By mid-race Joe Boyer and Gaston Chevrolet were running first and second. Gaston won the race, becoming the first American to win at the brickyard since 1912. Joe Thomas finished eighth in another Monroe.

A little while later, Louis began working on two new eight-cylinder Frontenac cars for National Champion Tommy Milton and Ralph Mulford for the 1921 race. By maintaining a steady 92 miles per hour pace and brilliant driving in the turns, Milton overtook the cars ahead of him to win the 1921 Indianapolis 500 with an average speed of 89.62 miles per hour. Percy Ford drove a four-cylinder Frontenac to third place, and Mulford drove the other eight-cylinder Frontenac to ninth place. With this victory, Chevrolet became the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races.

Tommy Milton with Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet with
Tommy Milton with Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet with
1921 Indianapolis 500 winning Frontenac

Now you know the story of the happenings in the William Small building in late 1919 and the early 1920’s. In late 1921, Louis Chevrolet along with his brother Arthur and Cornelius W. VanRanst formed The Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to build high-performance Frontenac cylinder heads for Ford and Chevrolet racing engines. That’s a story for another day.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

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