The 490 made Chevy a bargain player
Photo credit: GM CORP.
Nameplates such as Corvette, Bel Air, Camaro and Silverado have defined Chevrolet through the decades. But it was a basic car with a dull black finish, single door and low introductory price that helped establish Chevrolet in its early days.
The debut of the Chevrolet 490 in 1915 cemented the brand as a "value" player in the chaotic early years of the auto industry.
The first Chevrolet to go on sale in 1913 was a giant six-cylinder, $2,500 beast. Few Americans could afford the Classic Six, and it faced stiff competition from Buick and others in the small quality-car market.
It wasn't until the 1914 introduction of the lower-priced H-series cars -- priced at $750 and $850 -- that Chevrolet began to gain ground.
And then came the 490, a car championed by Chevrolet chief Billy Durant and cleverly named for its $490 price, to compete squarely with the popular Ford Model T.
It was designed by A.T. Stuart, who left Buick in early 1915 to become Chevrolet's chief engineer.
Durant, the ultimate salesman, pulled out the stops for the 490 launch.
Ads first appeared in New York newspapers on Jan. 2, 1915. It debuted as a prototype at the New York auto show in early 1915 and went on sale June 1. A former Maxwell-Briscoe plant in Tarrytown, N.Y., was acquired to build it.
By June 19, Chevrolet had received orders from dealers and distributors for 46,611 490s; 13,605 490 models were sold by year end.
The 490's price was the same as the Model T's. But Chevrolet charged another $60 for a fully equipped 490 that included electric lights and a starter -- two features growing in popularity. Within a few months, pressed by the 490's success, Ford cut the price of its Model T touring version to $440.
Like the Model T, the 490 was offered only in black, had only one door on the left and initially had a 20-hp, four-cylinder engine.
There wasn't a single bright part to keep clean, one magazine said of the 490.
"A little child can sell it," Durant once said.
Bob Casey, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., said Chevrolet wisely figured out it couldn't compete on price and volume with the Model T.
"In the end, Ford stuck with the basic Model T too long," Casey said. "Chevy steadily offered more and more equipment than the Model T, and at a higher price."
Aided by a rise in general prosperity, the car's extra horsepower and the steady addition of features, demand for the 490 helped catapult Chevrolet's output to nearly 60,000 units within several years. The success of Chevrolet, fueled by the 490, allowed Durant to take a controlling interest in General Motors in 1916.
In 1917, sales of the 490 reached 57,900, placing Chevrolet fourth among U.S. brands. By 1919, Chevrolet was second in sales only to Ford, with the 490 remaining as popular as ever with sales of 127,231 units.
But by 1921 GM was deep in debt and hemorrhaging money. Chevrolet lost $8.7 million in 1921 and was stuck with 150,000 unsold 490s.
In the end, the public realized that the 490 was no match for the more durable Model T.
Alfred Sloan, serving as special adviser to GM's president, began to question the viability of Chevrolet and hired a group of industrial engineers to study the brand.
They said Chevrolet faced an uphill battle to match the scale and profits of Ford, and they recommended that the division be liquidated.
Sloan, for reasons never explained, decided to keep and restructure Chevrolet under a new boss: William S. Knudsen.
Knudsen dropped the 490 after the 1922 model year and replaced it with the Superior.
"GM's success the remainder of the century probably wouldn't have happened without Chevrolet," Casey said. "And Chevrolet may not have succeeded early on without the 490."
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