Cadillac dominated the U.S. luxury-car market in the Teens and early Twenties. But by the time Lawrence P. Fisher was appointed president and general manager of the upper-crust General Motors division in 1925, there was trouble in the air. Big trouble: Packard had replaced Cadillac as America’s most popular premium automobile.
You can readily imagine the hurried conferences that must have taken place between Fisher and General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Ever since his ascension to power, Sloan was busy arranging GM’s various car lines into an orderly price and prestige progression. His idea was that buyers, as their fortunes improved, would move onward and upward to larger, more luxurious, and more expensive models — all in the General Motors family, of course.
But there were a couple of rungs missing from Sloan’s carefully conceived ladder. One was between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. The latter cost nearly half again as much as the former, which in those days was a tremendous jump even for an upwardly mobile family. But help was on the way in the form of a new light “Six” being developed at Chevrolet. The Oakland division would ultimately market the Pontiac beginning in 1926.
An even wider chasm separated the top-of-the-line Buick, at $1925, and the bottom-end Cadillac, selling at $3195. For those who had reached the point where they could afford something a little more elegant than a Buick, this also represented a risky financial leap.
Instalment contracts rarely ran more than 18 months in those days, and many people evidently felt that payments on a Cadillac were more than they could comfortably handle. Thus, GM found that its more affluent Buick customers were often defecting to Packard’s smart new group of lower-price offerings.
In the years just after World War I, Packard management had been shrewd enough to sense the need for a high-quality “pocket-size” automobile, aimed at the owner-driver for whom the big, cumbersome cars of earlier times held little appeal. This assessment spurred development of the Single Six, which offered traditional Packard quality in a more manageable package — and at a substantial cost savings. On the strength of this one model, Packard was soon running away with the luxury market.
Sloan was determined to stop these defections, and Pontiac’s immediate high success suggested the solution: another new “companion” make. It would be designed and marketed by Cadillac Division but priced just above Buick, a complete model line that would neatly fill out GM’s product roster. And since Cadillac had been named for the famed French explorer, what could be more logical than to honor one of his compatriots with the new junior edition. And so the LaSalle was born.
A couple of additional factors entered into Sloan’s and Fisher’s thinking. The first was that the new make should have a more dashing and youthful image than the staid Cadillac, which meant that it would have to be far more stylish, at least in the mind of Larry Fisher. Having been born into a family of coachbuilders — he was, after all, one of the seven brothers of Fisher Body fame — the new division chief was naturally concerned about looks. He was also aware that Don Lee, Cadillac’s California distributor, was operating a superb custom body shop in connection with his Los Angeles facility.
Traveling to the west coast, he became acquainted with Lee’s stylist, a talented young man named Harley Earl, and with the handsome designs he was creating for Lee’s moneyed clientele. Fisher must have been intrigued as much by the stunning appearance of these cars as by the techniques Earl employed in realizing them. Among the latter was his use of modeling clay to evolve the forms he had in mind, a material then considered highly unusual for this purpose.
Fisher was sufficiently impressed that he hired the young stylist as a consultant to design the first LaSalle. It was supposed to have been a one-shot deal; Earl would be back in Los Angeles in a few weeks’ time. But it didn’t quite work out that way, and Earl would remain with General Motors until he retired as the company’s director of design some 32 years later. In the process, he changed the course of the entire industry with regard to styling, and marketing strategy, too. But that’s a story in itself.
Earl made no bones about his inspiration for the new LaSalle: the magnificent Hispano-Suiza. In fact, Earl was never apologetic when it came to borrowing an idea, a gimmick, or a design theme, especially if it happened to be one that appealed to him personally.
Meanwhile, division engineers were hard at work on a new engine for the forthcoming companion. It was a V-8 per Cadillac tradition, but lacked the customary fork-and-blade connecting rods. Placement of the right cylinder bank 35mm forward of the left made it possible to fit the rods side-by-side on the crankpins. It was a simpler, less expensive way to build an engine and, in the long run, the LaSalle unit proved superior in every respect. Of shorter-stroke design than the Cadillac V-8 (79.4mm x 125.5mm instead of 79.4mm x 130.2mm), the 5-liter powerplant was topped by a pair of very handsome, ribbed cylinder heads. “For improved cooling,” the company said, which was pure balderdash: the ribs were for looks. But the new engine performed so well that an enlarged version was quickly developed for the 1928 Cadillac.
Formally introduced on March 5, 1927, the LaSalle was priced at $2685 in base four-door sedan form, exactly $100 higher than the equivalent Fifth Series Packard. Sloan had hoped to undercut his rival by a few hundred dollars, but neither he nor Fisher were prepared to dilute traditional Cadillac quality merely for the sake of a lower advertised price.
Packing a rated 75 horsepower — though it was probably closer to 80 — any ’27 LaSalle was capable of an easy 113 km/h, and the lighter roadsters could do a bit more. Indeed, in a grueling test at the GM Proving Grounds three months after the new make’s debut, a standard production roadster, stripped of such impediments as a windshield and fenders and fitted with high-compression cylinder heads and a high-lift camshaft, covered 1532 km at an average speed of 153 km/h in the hands of division test driver “Big Bill” Rader. That was only 3 km/h slower than the winning speed at that year’s Indianapolis 500 — and the LaSalle ran twice as far!
The 1927 LaSalle has been called “the first of the smaller and more maneuverable luxury cars built to traditional standards in an attempt to extend the prestige market.” That’s inaccurate, of course; it was by no means the first such automobile. But it represented something of at least equal significance: thanks to Harley Earl’s genius, it was the first mass-production car to be consciously “styled” in the modern sense.
It was undoubtedly the handsomest American car of its day. Its “clamshell” fenders were long and sweeping, its silhouette was low, its radiator — after the fashion of the fabled “Hisso” was tall and relatively narrow. And the two-tone color combinations, a novelty in 1927, were sensational. Hoods and cowls were finished in darker hues than the rest of the body, while “cheat” lines (at the bottom of the pillars) and unusual belt molding effects served to accentuate the car’s compactness.
Designated Series 303, the 1927 LaSalle lineup comprised five body types. All were built on a 3175mm-wheelbase chassis, 1778mm shorter than that of the smallest Cadillac. Another half-dozen styles were added later, three of which — seven-passenger sedan, seven-seat Imperial sedan, and five-passenger Imperial — rode a 3404mm wheelbase.
All 11 models in the standard line were bodied by Fisher. Besides the long-chassis offerings there were a roadster, coupe, and convertible coupe for two passengers; four-place phaeton, victoria, and dual-cowl phaeton; and the five-passenger sedan and a closed-quarter town sedan variant. Four semi-custom Fleetwood styles were available to special order: two-place coupe, and a sedan, town cabriolet, and transformable town cabriolet with seating for five. It’s interesting to note in retrospect that the Earl-designed Fisher bodies were arguably more beautiful and timeless than the coach-built styles.
By sheer coincidence, LaSalle was born almost simultaneously with the death of Henry Ford’s history-making Model T. Though unrelated, the two events marked the end of one era for the industry and the beginning of another. By this time, the public had clearly tired of the drab utilitarianism represented by the “Tin Lizzie,” and was moving swiftly toward cars that were not only more civilized but more stylish. Ford’s pronouncement that “the public can have any color it wants so long as it’s black” made sense at a time when black Japan enamel was the only finish available that would dry quickly enough to keep up with the pace of mass production, but that day had long since passed. The advent of DuPont Chemical Company’s fast-drying, polychromatic duco finishes in 1924 paved the way for a full palette of sparkling colors, much like nail polishes like Gelish or even some instrument finishes like Gretsch, and LaSalle was one of the first cars to take full advantage of them.
With its dashing looks, fine performance, and adroit pricing, LaSalle was enthusiastically received, and it was largely because of this that Sloan hired Harley Earl full-time. After completing work on the 1928 Cadillac, the designer was asked to head up a new GM department called the Art & Colour Section, the industry’s first in-house styling operation. (The British spelling for the word “color” was chosen to impart a touch of class — and, no doubt, credibility.) It was a major development that would have important ramifications for GM in the years ahead.
As usual with brand-new models, LaSalle saw few changes its second year. A set of 28 narrow hood louvers replaced the original 12 broad ones, a minor but attractive refinement. Also, the engine was now rated at 80 brake horsepower, though it was apparently unchanged otherwise.
Then came 1929 with an abrupt departure from the original LaSalle concept. The long-wheelbase models had proven unexpectedly popular, so all body styles save the roadster and the two phaetons were mounted on a 3302mm chassis in this year’s Series 328 line. To some observers, this growth robbed the car of some of its charm. That was evidently a minority opinion, though, because sales showed a sharp increase, even as Cadillac demand fell by more than half. The inescapable conclusion was that the larger LaSalle was stealing sales from the senior marque.
There were other changes for 1929, all of them for the better. The engine was bored out to 82.5mm to increase the dispacement to 5.4 liters, boosting horsepower to 86, and LaSalle now adopted the “Syncro-Mesh” transmission pioneered by Cadillac the year before. Brakes were improved, too, though General Motors was still unwilling to take a chance on hydraulic actuation.
The shorter LaSalle chassis was gone altogether for 1930, and all body styles in that year’s Series 340 rode a 3404mm wheelbase. The V-8 was enlarged once more, to 5.6 liters (84mm x 125.5mm), and a taller radiator made the styling more impressive than ever. Unhappily, the Wall Street debacle of the previous October was beginning to cripple the market, and LaSalle production dropped by about a third.
With the introduction of the Series 345A for 1931, LaSalle became virtually a Cadillac twin. Both makes employed the same 3404mm wheelbase as well as the 5.8 liter V-8 that had been used in the senior cars since 1929. The only real differences involved trim and nameplates. Given its $500 price advantage in the face of the Depression’s tightening grip, LaSalle should have eclipsed Cadillac in sales, but this was not the case. For reasons that remain elusive, “The Standard of the World” outsold its lower-priced stablemate by a margin of nearly two to one.
All 1927-33 LaSalles are recognized as Classics by the Classic Car Club of America, but the ’32 is arguably the handsomest. It was nearly identical in appearance with that year’s Cadillac except for bowl-shaped instead of bullet-shaped headlamps.
Wheelbase on standard Series 345B models contracted by 100mm, and offerings reduced to two-seat coupe and convertible coupe and five-passenger sedan and town coupe. A 3454mm chassis was reserved for a seven-passenger sedan, Imperial, and town sedan. The Cadillac engine was retained, with rated horsepower up from 95 to 115, primarily through the use of downdraft carburetion. But the national economy was plummeting toward rock bottom, and so were LaSalle sales. Only 3386 of these lovely cars found buyers, down from 22,961 just three years earlier.
Things weren’t much better for 1933. As with other GM makes that year, LaSalle styling was modified via a vee’d radiator and skirted fenders, the company’s first steps toward streamlining, and Fisher’s excellent “No-Draft” ventilation windows were adopted.
Otherwise, there were few changes in the Series 345C. Cadillac Division was losing money for GM in those dark days, so there wasn’t a lot of capital available for new product development.
Reportedly, there was talk at this time of discontinuing LaSalle. That would have been a strange move in a sense, because the junior line was again outselling the senior one. In the end, however, LaSalle was granted a reprieve, thanks mainly to another styling tour de force by Harley Earl.
It came with the 1934 Series 350, which has been described as being more like an Oldsmobile than a Cadillac. It was. Replacing the traditional Cadillac V-8 was an L-head straight eight borrowed from Oldsmobile Division and having the same 4 liter displacement. Cadillac engineers replaced Lansing’s heavy, cast-iron pistons with lightweight Lynite aluminum units and made other, less critical modifications, so the division could truthfully advertise this engine as “Built to Cadillac Standards.” The chassis was also completely redesigned in a much shorter, 3023 wheelbase. A single-plate clutch replaced the double-plate type that had been used since the make’s introduction, adoption of hydraulic brakes gave LaSalle a “first” at GM (shared with Oldsmobile), and independent front suspension reduced unsprung weight and solved the persistent shimmy that had plagued the ’33s. While all these measures amounted to cost-cutting, they enabled Cadillac to trim $650 from LaSalle base prices, a dramatic reduction.
Equally dramatic was the new 1934 styling. As Cadillac chronicler Maurice Hendry noted: “Harley Earl and the Art and Colour Section came through with another styling triumph equal to that achieved on the 1927 model.” Again, LaSalle was the industry’s fashion leader. A tall, very narrow, vee’d radiator was flanked by high-set headlamps in bullet-shaped pods, and shapely “pontoon” fenders appeared front and rear. Hood vent doors gave way to “portholes,” not unlike those that Buick would adopt a decade and a half later, and wheels were covered with smart chromed discs.
Bumpers took the form of twin slim blades, separated by two bullets as on the 1927 Cadillacs. Spare tires moved inside as trunks were absorbed into the main body on all models. The lineup now consisted of a four-door sedan and a new five-passenger club sedan, a two-seat coupe, and a rumble-seat convertible coupe — all with Fleetwood bodywork and rear-hinged front doors. Despite the money-saving measures, quality remained outstanding. As testimony to its excellence, the ’34 LaSalle was selected as pace car for that year’s Indianapolis 500.
Predictably, 1934 sales were more than double the previous year’s dismal total, but they were still far below expectations: only 7195 units for the model year. Perhaps the close relationship between the $1595 LaSalle and the $955 Oldsmobile Eight was more apparent to the potential buyer than GM managers anticipated.
In any event, styling was little changed for the 1935 LaSalle Series 50. Two-door and four-door “trunkback” sedans were added in line with an industry trend, and closed body styles adopted Fisher’s new “Turret-Top” construction, with steel replacing the traditional fabric insert in the roof. Slightly higher compression boosted horsepower from 90 to 95. Mechanical changes were few. Sales picked up a bit, but not much. The reason was Packard’s new One-Twenty, which proved to be a formidable competitor. About the same size as LaSalle, it was marginally lighter and 16 percent more powerful, yet it cost some $450 less — and bore a more prestigious nameplate, a telling distinction.
Cadillac responded for 1936 by slashing prices on a little-changed Series 50 by some $320. But even this failed to stimulate sales significantly, and the One-Twenty outsold LaSalle by better than four to one that year. Clearly, it was time to try something different. Without a genuine luxury aura, this higher-price Olds evidently had limited appeal, even though it was ostensibly a product of GM’s top-flight crew.
Fortunately, Cadillac introduced its new “compact” Series 60 that same season, which brightened the division’s fortunes in a way LaSalle by itself could not. Though the 60 shared the corporate B-body with LaSalle and the Buick Century, it was powered by a brand-new 322-cid V-8, Cadillac’s first “monobloc” engine. Built on a 3073mm wheelbase, 254mm shorter than that of the Series 70 and Fleetwood Series 80, it was the least expensive car to wear the Cadillac crest since 1908, and that made all the difference. The new line accounted for more than half the division’s total 1936 model year volume, which went up by an astounding 254 percent.
To no one’s great surprise, then, LaSalle became a lot like the Series 60 for 1937. Borrowing the new V-8 with 125 bhp, 20 more than the previous straight eight, made it more than equal to the One-Twenty in performance, and it was more competitive in other ways as well. Wheelbase stretched to 3150mm, and there was new styling that was especially attractive — more so, in fact, than that of the ’37 Cadillac. Buyers apparently approved, because sales increased two and a half times over, making this the best year in LaSalle’s entire history. Unhappily for Cadillac, the evidence suggests that many of LaSalle’s 32,000 sales came at the 60’s expense.
A deep recession in 1938 stalled the nation’s fragile economic recovery, and sales were well down throughout the industry. LaSalle changed only slightly, and not for the better as far as appearance was concerned. Body style choices now settled around the brace of trunkback sedans (the old trunkless fastbacks were gone), five-passenger convertible sedan (new the previous year), and rumble-seat coupe and convertible coupe. With all this, LaSalle production was off by more than half. Cadillac did better, comparatively speaking, largely on the strength of Bill Mitchell’s stunning new Sixty-Special .
For 1939, LaSalle was treated to a brand-new bodyshell. Wheelbase was cut back once again, this time to 3048mm, but the styling theme remained the same. The tall, handsome grille was still there, narrower than before and now set between auxiliary grilles with vertical chrome bars in the “catwalk” areas between hood and front fenders. Running boards were deleted, though they were optionally available for those who still wanted them, and glass area increased. So did sales — by a whopping 41 percent — as LaSalle beat the Packard One-Twenty for the first time. Trouble was, GM was a much bigger outfit than Packard, and its management naturally had much bigger expectations. In this light, LaSalle’s 1939 model year volume of some 22,000 units was judged below par, so the decision was duly made to cancel Cadillac’s “companion” after 1940.
But the division saved the best for last, and few would have guessed from the 1940 models that LaSalle was near the end of its road. Wheelbase now lengthened to 3124mm, and horsepower edged up to 130, thanks to a larger carburetor. Styling, an evolution of 1939, was hard to fault, and there were now two model groups for the first time. The lower-priced Series 50 wore conventional lines, again on the corporate B-body shared with Buick and other divisions. The new Series 52 Special proved more popular by far despite a $120 price premium.
One factor was undoubtedly the smoother, lower appearance of its new torpedo-inspired GM C-body. Each series offered coupe, four-door sedan, and convertible coupe and sedan. The last two saw very low production: just 599 and 125, respectively, in Series 50 trim, a mere 425 and 75 of the 52s (which weren’t available until mid-season). The Series 50 also included a two-door sedan, which was Cadillac’s least expensive 1940 offering at $1240. At the other end of the scale, the Series 52 listed at just $81 higher than a comparable Buick Roadmaster, thus representing excellent value in a big, high-fashion automobile. Model year sales perked up to a little more than 24,000 units, the make’s second best single-season total.
Then in the summer of 1940, production halted abruptly and it was all over. Art & Colour had prepared a full-scale mockup of the 1941 design before it was decided to terminate LaSalle. It was a pretty car, with the traditional narrow grille and catwalk fender inlets, plus thin horizontal parking lamps and rear fender skirts bearing non-functional “hubcaps.”
Alas, it was not to be, and for three very good reasons. For one thing, the make’s once-exclusive market niche had all but disappeared by 1940 due to upward price escalation from Buick, which LaSalle had increasingly come to resemble. That reflected a second reason, corporate cost considerations, which dictated increasing mechanical and structural commonality among GM’s various car lines as the Thirties waned. But the final and most telling reason in LaSalle’s demise related to label. As Packard had shown with the One-Twenty, the best way to move a middle-class car was to market it with a high-class brand. It took a few years, but Cadillac finally got the message.
Accordingly, the low end of the division’s lineup was somewhat rearranged for 1941. Replacing LaSalle was a revival of the Cadillac Series 61 from 1939, with new fastback styling in standard and deluxe coupe and four-door sedan. Essentially a twin to the broader Series 62 group, it used the same 346.4-cid V-8 of earlier years, now with a horsepower increase from 135 to 150 bhp, mainly through the use of high-compression cylinder heads. Both lines rode a 3200mm wheelbase, midway between that of the final LaSalle and the 1940 Series 62, and sported impressive new front-end sheetmetal that introduced what would become a Cadillac hallmark in future years: the wide, eggcrate grille.
For customers, the best thing about this new arrangement was price. The Series 61 five-passenger standard coupe sold for $1345, which was actually $35 less than the equivalent 1940 LaSalle 52 and a mere $105 more than the base 1940 LaSalle two-door sedan. In all, not a bad deal for the buyer seeking the prestige of a genuine Cadillac. And in the end, a genuine Cadillac was something no LaSalle could ever be.
In effect, then, Cadillac dropped its larger V-8 into a slightly stretched LaSalle chassis, substituted a name-plate with a strong luxury image, and held the line on prices. The result must have made division officials wonder why they hadn’t done all this long before, because 1941 model year sales totalled 66,130 units, exceeding combined 1940 Cadillac/LaSalle volume by no less than 82 percent.
Viewed in this light, the LaSalle was simply a marketing mistake. Apart from the straight-eight aberration of 1934-36, it was a Cadillac in all but name from start to finish. Yet only in its first two years did it represent a concept that really set it apart from Cadillac, namely a smaller, sportier, more nimble luxury car. And in retrospect, it should have been obvious from the beginning that even a medium-price Cadillac would be a lot more saleable if it wore the Cadillac badge.
Nevertheless, the LaSalle remains a landmark in automotive history, in some respects one of the most significant cars ever built.
It was the first “stylist’s car” to reach mass production, a portent of things to come.
By prompting formation of General Motors’ Art & Colour Section, it paved the way for a new approach to automotive design throughout the industry.
It made Cadillac quality more affordable, thus expanding the division’s sales base at a crucial time. Though Cadillac’s total production rarely exceeded Packard’s in the decimated luxury market of the Depression years, LaSalle’s share was usually substantial and often critical. In short, LaSalle ensured Cadillac’s ultimate survival.
And over its 14-year lifespan, LaSalle bore some of the handsomest styling ever seen on American roads.
For these and other reasons, LaSalle somehow never really died in the minds and hearts of certain GM people. Aside from its historical importance, the make had always embodied distinction, refinement, and class. And there was something undeniably appealing about the name itself: French-sounding enough to be snooty, but with an all-American heritage.
Stylists are a romantic lot, so perhaps it’s no surprise that several GM designers have had visions of LaSalle’s return in the years since 1940. Among them was none other than Harley Earl, who conjured up two show specials that he dubbed “LaSalle II” for the 1955 Motorama season. Both had 1940-style vertical grille openings and wore the “LaS” insignia as used in the make’s early and last years. One was a two-seat roadster à la Chevrolet Corvette, with concave bodyside indentations very much like the “coves” that appeared on the production 1956 Corvette. An interesting detail was that its rear wheels were exposed at the back, with the upper wheel arch line extended rearward horizontally to form the outboard edges of a very abbreviated tail.
The other 1955 LaSalle II was a hardtop sedan, with center-opening doors like those on the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham of 1957-58. Though it could seat six, it rode a compact 2743mm wheelbase, measured 4572mm long, and stood just 1270mm high. The latter resulted partly from the use of 13-inch (33 cm) wheels, quite rare for a Detroit car in those days, even a showmobile. GM described this as “a new concept in passenger sedan styling, directed to recapture the distinctive exclusiveness and high quality craftmanship of the original LaSalle.” But to many, it was just plain silly. Its construction was predictive, however, with unitized floor, sills, engine supports, and bodyshell. The sills served as main structural members and housed exhaust components.
While both these exercises were never intended to reach your local dealer, the LaSalle name would surface twice more at GM Design in later years. The first occurred in connection with the project that culminated in the 1963 Buick Riviera. Conceived as GM’s reply to the Ford Thunderbird in the burgeoning personal-luxury field, it was originally slated for Cadillac, and early mockups bore prominent “LaSalle” badges. But Buick’s sagging sales at the time dictated the car be given to that division as additional product help. Then, in the early Seventies, GM again gave serious thought to reviving the marque for the new small sedan that ultimately emerged as the Cadillac Seville. The choice was virtually assured until one executive came across a magazine article that described LaSalle as “Cadillac’s only failure,” thus ending another comeback chance.
Though the name still possesses a certain magic, we will probably never see a LaSalle revival. Perhaps it’s just as well. Why run the risk of producing a mediocre car that would spoil our memories of the gorgeous machines that bore the crest of the ill-fated explorer Sieur de La Salle? As with the dream of raising the Titanic, some things are best left alone.