- Written by webmin
To Richard Quinn, I apologize. You see, almost exactly three years ago Richard sent us the above photo, which he scanned from an 8×10 glass negative that’s been in his collection for years. I thought it was worth investigating, then let it get buried in the never-ending Inbox avalanche, until just recently.
My first inclination was to go searching for the exact location of this factory. Easy-peasy: the corner of Foothill Bouleavard and 73rd in Oakland, California. It didn’t take much searching to dig up its history, either. After the successful introduction of Chevrolet in 1911-1912, Billy Durant, following his normal modus operandi, started buying up factories all over the country to foster Chevrolet’s expansion. First came Tarrytown, New York, in 1914; then St. Louis, Missouri; Oshawa, Ontario; Fort Worth, Texas; Bay Cities, Michigan; and Toledo, Ohio. In 1916, Durant became the first major manufacturer to build an assembly plant on the West Coast when he constructed the Chevrolet Motor Company of California plant in Oakland.
Interestingly, the plant was not fully owned by Durant. Instead, Norman DeVaux, who Durant appointed as Northern California’s sales manager in 1914, and who apparently urged Durant to build the factory in Oakland (and who later tried to pick up the pieces of Durant’s third empire with the eponymous DeVaux of 1931), owned half of the factory and served as president and general manager of Chevrolet Motor Company of California. R.C. “Cliff” Durant, Billy Durant’s son, was later installed as manager of the factory – one has to wonder if Billy made that move just so he could keep an eye on DeVaux. When Durant lost control of GM for the second time in 1920, GM paid DeVaux $4 million (about $42.5 million today) for his share of the plant and installed W.C. Williams as manager. Durant and DeVaux remained in Oakland, however: Starting in November 1921, they built a new factory on the corner of International Boulevard and Durant Avenue near Oakland’s border with San Leandro. The Chevrolet plant, which GM expanded at about the same time, continued to build trucks and cars through 1963. It was razed by the late 1960s to make room for the Eastmont Mall.
We find two compelling facets to the photo that Richard sent us. First, not many photos of the factory seem to be floating out there. The most widespread one shows one day’s output at the factory, circa 1917. That one’s suspicious, considering the total output for the factory in all of 1917 was just 4,112 cars – divided among 365 days, that’s about 11.3 cars per day. I see more than 11 cars in that photo. We were also able to find a few more photos at Calisphere, an online photo archive of the University of California Libraries.
Second, Richard’s photo carries a caption that reads, “First Unit Chevrolet Automobile Plant,” suggesting that the Chevrolet 490s in the photo are the very first cars Chevrolet built on the West Coast. Indeed, if you compare 1916 and 1917 Chevrolet 490s, these cars appear to have more in common with the 1916 cars than the 1917 cars (1916 tops, straight front fenders, non-demountable wheel rims). The construction debris scattered all about seems to support that theory.
So is this the earliest known photo of the Oakland Chevrolet plant?