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LaSalle, the poor man's Cadillac

The LaSalle was intended to be a less-expensive

The LaSalle was intended to be a less-expensive Cadillac and a bridge point to the Buick brand. The LaSalle ended up too close to the other Cadillac models and it was abandoned. Photo Credit: General Motors archive

"Gee our old LaSalle ran great . . . those were the days," croaked TV's Archie and Edith Bunker every week at the beginning of the top-ranked sitcom "All in the Family." For LaSalle, those days lasted a mere 13 years, from 1927 until the brand' s demise in 1940.

LaSalle's role in the GM's marketing efforts was to bridge an important segment niche between its luxurious and conservatively styled Cadillacs at the top end and the mid-priced Buick series at the other. Between the two was a spread of about $1,200, an enormous sum of money in the mid-1920s.

Packard, Caddy's chief competitor back then, had plugged the sizeable price gap with an entry-luxury six-cylinder car that, although smaller and less powerful than its full-size 12-cylinder sibling, was nonetheless bleeding sales and marketshare from The General. Buick owners looking to move up to a new set of wheels headed to Packard instead of Cadillac since $2,500 was more affordable than $3,100.

In 1926, after concurring with GM boss Alfred P. Sloan, Cadillac head Larry Fisher (of Fisher Body fame) recruited a talented Los Angeles custom-body designer to develop an all-new "companion" model to compete head to head with Packard. Initially hired on a one-time contract basis, 31-year-old Harley Earl stayed on as chief stylist for the next three decades.

Inspired by high-end European luxury automobiles, Earl created a sophisticated car that stood in stark contrast to Cadillac's dated sheetmetal. Actually, a total of five different models were prepared, including coupes, sedans and convertibles.

The new baby Cadillac needed a new engine to go with it and Fisher's engineering team came up with a 303-cubic-inch V8 that proved cheaper to make than a traditional Cadillac engine and was just as powerful and reliable (its advertised 75-horsepower rating was understated by 5-10 horses so as not to upset Caddy buyers). Top speed was pegged at 70 mph.

The first LaSalle - a brand named after French explorer RenŽ Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle - was introduced in March of 1927 (Cadillac had been similarly named for another French explorer). At a base price of close to $2,700, the new premium line was within $100 of its Packard competitor. By comparison, buyers of modest means could purchase a basic Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth for $550-$600.
Within a few months of introduction, six additional designs were available, including three expressly made for extended-wheelbase LaSalles. From there, customers with fat wallets could specify custom bodies in one of four styles from Fleetwood Coachbuilders for a total price approaching $5,000.

One of LaSalle's key features was the range of optional two-tone colors. Buyers could select from a variety of shades from newly available fast-drying paint. That instead of the usual drab and dreary solid dark hues available at the time.

By 1929, the longer-wheelbase LaSalles had become so popular that most of the car's production was switched to the larger size. That year, the engine was enlarged to 328 cubic inches and horsepower was pegged at 86.

Throughout the 1930s, LaSalle's horsepower climbed as the engine's displacement was further enlarged and the car began to look and drive like a more expensive and more popular (by a two-to-one margin) Cadillac. But as the Great Depression took hold, sales began to slow and the number of available bodies was reduced. Still, GM hadn't given up on its luxury-oriented ride and gave it a few never-before-seen features such as vent-wing windows and hydraulic (instead of mechanical) drum brakes.

Despite new and increasingly modern shapes, added content and price adjustments, LaSalle sales remained dismal with few exceptions and no amount of coaxing could get the public to buy. The plain truth was that the so-called "companion" automobile was so close in style to its elder sibling that most LaSalle sales were deemed to be at Cadillac's expense.

In 1937, Cadillac introduced a less expensive model - using the Cadillac name - which proved successful and brought into question why the GM brass had thought it necessary to develop LaSalle in the first place.

As the 1930s ended, so did LaSalle's popularity and the decision was made to abandon what had briefly been a successful Packard fighter and a Cadillac protector, all at the same time.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link.

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