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The LaSalle was an automobile product of General Motors Corporation, and sold as a companion marque of Cadillac from 1927 to 1940. The two were linked by similarly-themed names, both being named for explorers—Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, respectively.
General Motors Companion Make Program
The LaSalle had it beginnings when GM’s CEO Alfred P. Sloan noticed that his carefully crafted market segmentation program was beginning to develop price gaps in which General Motors had no product to sell.
As originally developed by Sloan, GM’s market segmentation placed each of the company’s individual automobile makes into specific price points. Sloan designated the Chevrolet as the entry level product. Next (in ascending order) came Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick and ultimately, Cadillac. However during the robust 1920s, certain GM products began to shift out of the plan as the products improved and engine advances were made.
In an era where automotive brands were somewhat restricted to building a specific car per model year, Sloan surmised that the best way to bridge the gaps was to develop “companion” marques that could be sold through the current sales network.
Under the plan, the gap between the Chevrolet and the Oakland would be filled by a new marque named Pontiac, a quality 6cyl. car designed to sell for the price of a 4cyl. The wide gap between Oldsmobile and Buick would be filled by two companion marques; Oldsmobile was assigned the up-market V8 Viking, and Buick was assigned the more compact 6cyl. Marquette. Cadillac, which had seen it base prices soar in the heady 1920s, was assigned LaSalle as a companion car to fill the gap that existed between itself and Buick.
The Art and Colour of Harley Earl
What emerged as the LaSalle in 1927 is widely regarded as the beginning of modern automotive styling, and its designer Harley Earl would launch a thirty year career as GM’s Vice President of the newly created Art & Colour Studios that still guide GM’s designs to this day.
Prior to the LaSalle, automobiles essentially followed a set pattern, with design changes set by engineering needs. Ford’s Model T evolved over its extended run, but ever so slightly making a 1927 Model T almost identical to a 1910 Model T.
Earl, who had been hired by Cadillac General Manager Lawrence P. Fisher, conceived the LaSalle not as a junior Cadillac, but as something more agile and stylish. Influenced by the rakish Hispano-Suiza roadsters of the time, Earl’s LaSalle emerged as a smaller yet elegant counterpoint to Cadillac’s larger cars, and unlike anything else built by an American automotive manufacturer.
Built by Cadillac to Cadillac standards, the LaSalle soon emerged as trend setting automobile within GM, and Earl was placed in charge of overseeing the design of all GM vehicles.
LaSalles were offered in a full-range of body styles, including Fisher and Fleetwood built custom body designs. The roadster could also be ordered in two tone color combinations at a time when dark colors like black and navy blue were still the most familiar colors produced by manufacturers. Earl’s design even included a nod to the inspirational Hispano-Suiza with the marque’s circled trademark “LaS” cast into the horizontal tie bar between the front lights.
On June 20, 1927, a LaSalle driven by Willard Rader (along with Gus Bell) on the track at GM’s Milford proving ground achieved 952 miles, averaging 95.2 mph with only seven minutes given over to refueling and tire changes. In comparison, the average speed at that years Indianapolis 500 was 97.5 mph. The test at Milford would have continued, however a problem in the oil system drew the test to an early close approaching the 9:45 mark.
However the depression, combined with LaSalle’s stalling sales numbers caused Cadillac to rethink its companion make. Both Buick and Oldsmobile had eliminated the Marquette and Viking in their second model year in 1930. Cadillac also saw sales of its cars losing ground as confirmed Cadillac buyers tried to trim pennies by buying the less expensive LaSalle. LaSalle sales also were falling, from a high of 22,691 models in 1929 to a low of 3,290 in 1932.
Beginning with the 1934 model year, a significant portion of the LaSalle was more closely related to Oldsmobile than they were to senior Cadillacs. Again, Earl’s work with the LaSalle resulted in graceful vehicle, led by an elegant thin radiator grille. Earl’s other contribution was modern, airplane-styled, semi-shielded portholes along the side of the hood. All bodies were now by Fleetwood.
This new LaSalle was priced $1,000 less than the least expensive Cadillac – its mission now was not to fill a price gap, but to keep the luxury car division out of the red. Sales rebounded and almost doubled to 7,218 units for the year. A 1934 LaSalle was chosen as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500.
In its final years, the LaSalle once again became more Cadillac-like in its appearance and details. The narrow radiator grille opening was retained, and was flanked by additional side grill work. Headlights which had moved down and secured to the “cat-walk” were again attached to the radiator shell. One interesting feature adopted by LaSalle in these years was a sun roof marketed as the “Sunshine Turret Top”. Sales again climbed in 1939 to 23,028.
The 1940 and final LaSalle was introduced in October 1939, and in its final year as it had in its first, by a full array of semi-custom body styles including a convertible sedan. Earl also oversaw this redesign, and the LaSalle emerged as a smooth flowing design, its trademark thin radiator was flanked by a series of thin chrome slots giving the LaSalle a futuristic look.
A 1941 LaSalle was planned and reached the design phase before GM ended the product line. In its place, Cadillac fielded the “Series 61”, which placed Cadillac’s prestige closer to reality for a larger group of people. In its first year, the Sixty-One enjoyed a production of over 29,000 units, almost three times LaSalle’s 1940 production.
At various points in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s General Motors issued Motorama cars and proposed new consumer automobiles under the design name LaSalle. 1955 saw two Motorama dream-cars, the LaSalle II four door hardtop and the LaSalle II Roadster. Sent to the crusher, the LaSalle II four-door hard-top was instead hidden in the back corner of the Warhoops Salvage Yard and was acquired in the 1990s by Joe Bortz, a Chicago area nightclub owner who has made a significant investment in restoring General Motors Motorama cars.
In the early 1960s, GM Vice President William Mitchell floated the idea that if Cadillac decided to go forward with the production of a personal luxury coupe currently being designed that it could be marketed as the LaSalle. Cadillac passed on the design, and instead it given to Buick and emerged as the Buick Riviera. Again, in the 1970s when Cadillac was developing a new small luxury sedan, the LaSalle name was raised, but was passed over in favor of Cadillac Seville.
Collectors and historic auto enthusiasts have debated whether or not the LaSalle was killed off too soon, or not soon enough. While Cadillac sold more cars without the LaSalle, it did so at the expense of its exclusive cachet. On the other hand, Packard suffered by carrying inexpensive models for too long, losing its reputation as a luxury car competitor to Cadillac to one of chasing Oldsmobile and its mid range auto aspirations.
Of the four companion marques, only Pontiac survived, eclipsing the Oakland in 1931.
LaSalle in popular culture
One of the most famous popular culture references to the LaSalle is in "Those Were the Days," the theme song to the TV show All in the Family, with the line "Gee our old LaSalle ran great." In later seasons they carefully enunciated this line, because with the disappearance of the car from the market, viewers could not figure out what it referred to.
- Kimes, Beverly R., Editor. Clark, Henry A. (1996), The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1945. Kraus Publications. ISBN 0-87341-428-4
Photos courtesy of Done Direct Motors
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