LaSalle HistoryIn 1925 there was a significant price difference between the top-priced Buick and the lowest priced Cadillac. It was so significant that the cost of the low-end Cadillac was nearly double the cost of the top-of-the-line Buick. Many could not afford a Cadillac and switched to buying other vehicles such as the brilliantly priced Packard. Packard had been successful on capitalizing on GM's price gap. They had created a line of vehicles that were of high-quality and prestige, smaller in size, but priced competitively so that many buyers could afford to purchase one.
General Motors had designed its marquees to fill certain price points. The Chevrolet Company offered entry-level vehicles for competitive prices. Oakland was next in line when comparing price, power, and prestige of the vehicles they produced, followed by Oldsmobile and then Buick. The Cadillac was at the top of the product ladder and often outfitted with powerful engines, elaborate amenities, and high prices. Price gaps had been created throughout the years between the GM Company's marquees. This was true for Chevrolet and Oakland. In 1926 Oakland introduced the Pontiac car to fill the gap. The cost effective six-cylinder Pontiac vehicles became very popular, while sales continued to decline for the Oakland Company. In 1931, General Motors formed the Pontiac Motor Division, replacing Oakland.
Lawrence P. Fisher became a general manager of General Motors in 1925. He was one of seven brothers who had become famous through their coach building talents and prosperous company, the Fisher Body Company. Fisher immediately realized Packard's continual growth in Cadillac's marketplace and decided the best solution was to mimic the success of the Pontiac. Together with the president of General Motors at the time, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., a new marquee was created and given the name LaSalle. The name 'Cadillac' had been named after a French explorer; the LaSalle was named in similar fashion. The Cadillac Division was given the responsibility for designing and marketing the new brand, with pricing expected to be just above the high-end Buick.
Sloan and Fisher both agreed that the design needed to be bold but stylish, attracting a youthful audience. They consulted with Don Lee, a Cadillac's California distributor and custom body shop owner. Lee introduced the duo to his talented stylist named Harley Earl. Fisher and Sloan were so impressed both by his work and by his innovative techniques that they hired Earl as a consultant to design the first LaSalle. What was initially intended to be a short consultation project turned into a career for Earl, who spent the remainder of his 32 years in the industry as an employee of General Motors. During that time he produced some wonderful designs and ultimately affected the course of the entire automotive industry.
Earl began his creation of the new LaSalle vehicles by mimicking designs from the Hispano-Suiza marquee. One of the more recognizable Hispano similarities was the tall but narrow radiator. Most of the LaSalle's were adorned in two-tone color combinations, a luxury at the time. The result was a smaller more maneuverable luxury car that was able to be mass-produced but still retain style and quality. The LaSalle was about seven inches shorter than a Cadillac. The vehicles were given the designation Series 303 and were comprised of five body types. The entry-level LaSalle was priced at $2685, only $100 more than its competition's equivalent model. All 1927 LaSalle's sat atop a 125-inch wheelbase. Later, additional body-styles were added including a five and seven-passenger Imperial sedan that sat on a 134-inch wheelbase. To appeal to a wider customer base, the LaSalle's could also be purchased in smaller form such as a roadster, coupe, or convertible, suitable for two passengers.
Earl had been responsible for the design of the vehicles while Fisher was given the responsibility of providing the coachwork.
A new V8 engine was created for the LaSalle. The result was a 303 cubic-inch power-plant that was simple to produce, less expensive than traditional methods, and produced excellent performance. With 75 horsepower, the engine was capable of propelling the LaSalle vehicles to a speed in excess of 70 mph. The engine was not only powerful but it was also durable, proven in many endurance races and on high-speed test tracks.
During the first few years, the LaSalle experienced very minor changes. The engine was tuned to produce 80 horsepower and the hood louvers were slightly modified. In 1929 the wheelbase for all body-styles, except the roadster, was enlarged to 130 inches. The LaSalle was beginning to slip into the Cadillac pricing territory and stealing some of its sales. It became highly sought-after while Cadillac sales were began to declining.
The engine size was increased to 328 cubic inches in 1929. A 'Syncro-Mesh' transmission and a better braking system added to the overall performance, comfort and driving experience. For 1930 the short-chassis LaSalle was abandoned. All LaSalle's, now named the Series 340, were built on a 134-inch wheelbase. The engine also grew in size, now at 340 cubic-inches. The car was growing in all aspects including prestige, style, and expectations. General Motors had high hopes for the marquee but there were obstacles in the future that would ultimately affect the economical fortune of the nation. Wall Street was beginning to crumble and the market was headed into a depression. The manufacturers of the high-priced vehicles were initially hurt the worst by this misfortune. This was due in part to lower production numbers and fewer clientele. For LaSalle, production plummeted by about a third.
In 1931 the Series 345A was introduced. Both Cadillac and LaSalle's were built on a 134-inch wheelbase and powered by the same 353.3 cubic-inch V8 engine. There was little to distinguish the two nameplates. Cadillac's, for some reason, became more popular than its sibling and sold nearly twice as many vehicles than the lower-cost alternative.
For 1932 LaSalle introduced the 345B, a beautiful vehicle but it did little to stimulate sales for the brand, with only 3386 examples produced. 1933 shared the same misfortune to the previous years. Since GM's luxury marquees were loosing money, there was little financial resources for new product development. GM had modified and modernized the design of the Series by adapting a new radiator and skirted fenders giving the vehicle a more appealing allure. The series was designated 345C.
In 1934 the Series 350 was introduced. Under the hood now sat an Oldsmobile L-head 240.3 cubic-inch straight eight engine. A shortened 119-inch wheelbase was now used. Hydraulic brakes were adapted to the LaSalle's, a first for General Motors. An independent front suspension provided comfort the LaSalle line had never experienced before and reduced the overall weight of the vehicle. By using these low priced solutions, the Cadillac division was able to dramatically reduce the price of the LaSalle vehicles. The styling had received drastic improvements, courtesy of Harley Earl and the Art and Colour Section. Quality remained exceptional, the design desirable, and the cost was economical. As a result, the 1934 LaSalle was asked to perform as pace car for the Indianapolis 500.
For 1934 sales began to rise, selling a respectably 7195 examples. It was a major increase over the prior years dismal sales but still did not met with GM's expectations.
In 1935 the styling remained virtually unchanged to the prior years design. A two- and four-door 'trunkback' sedan was added to the line-up. Steel replaced the fabric insert in the roof. The engine was slightly modified to produce 95 horsepower, and increase of 5. Sales continued to climb, however slightly. Packard had there competitive One-Twenty model which cost nearly $500 less than the LaSalle but was lighter and more powerful. For 1936 Cadillac slashed priced by $320 to help align the price of the Series 50 with the One-Twenty. Sadly it was not enough and the Packard outsold LaSalle by more than four-to-one.
For 1937 the LaSalle was outfitted with a new V-8 that produced 125 horsepower. The wheelbase was increased to 124-inches and the styling was updated. The public reacted to these drastic changes and sales dramatically increased to 32,000 giving LaSalle its best year in its history.
In 1938 the country entered into an recession, sales for the LaSalle fell sharply. Styling for the vehicle changed slightly but mostly remained the same. The wheelbase was decreased to 120-inches in 1939. The styling remained mostly unchanged. Gone were the running boards but still available as optional equipment. The grille was still tall but became more narrow. For the first time in history, the LaSalle sales outperformed the Packard One-Twenty. With 22,000 examples sold this was still far below General Motors expectation and the plan to cancel the LaSalle marquee was being discussed.
For 1940 the wheelbase was increased to 123 inches, horsepower rose to 130, and styling was modestly improved. The series was now dubbed the Series 52.
During the summer of 1940, production of the LaSalle automobiles ceased. Designs for a 1941 LaSalle had been created but would never be realized.
During the production lifespan of the LaSalle ranging from 1927 through 1940, many changes in the market had occurred. The cost of the automobile had increased significantly and as a result there were little price-gaps between the GM marquees. GM had also mastered the cross-pollination of design and mechanical technology throughout its brands. The line-ups and pricing were reorganized and rearranged. The LaSalle marquee was no longer needed.
Quite unfairly, the LaSalle had acquired the reputation of being a 'cheap' Cadillac. Actually, it was no more a cheap Cadillac than a Bentley was or is a cheap Rolls-Royce. However, the LaSalle was a several-hundred-dollar step down in price from Cadillac in the GM hierarchy. Cadillac therefore compensated with a bottom-of-the-line Series Sixty-One for 1941. The coupe started at just $105 above the least expensive '40 LaSalle, thus filling LaSalle's rung in the GM 'price ladder.' Even though replaced, thought was given several times over the following decades to revive the LaSalle name. In the early Sixties, it was considered by Bill Mitchell for what became the '63 Buick Riviera. The name was brought up again when the design for the 1975 Seville, Cadillac's first 'compact,' was being developed. Early clay models of both cars bore LaSalle badges.
In many respects, the LaSalle was simply a Cadillac. There was little to distinguish the two marquees. The 1927 and 1928 LaSalle's were unique but as time progressed the LaSalle became more and more Cadillac. It may have been more profitable for General Motors to create a lower-cost Cadillac than to introduce a new brand. Profitability aside, the LaSalle did much for General Motors and the automotive industry. The introduction of Harley Earl was a bonus as he did much to position General Motors as a leader in design and innovation. The designs of the LaSalle are some of the most beautiful creations of the 1920's and 1930's.