Loyal Companion: LaSalle

General Motors’ companion cars have a curious history. LaSalle was the second-most successful companion car of its time, and probably the one best remembered for its role.

    The companion cars grew from GM’s mid-1920s realization that its automotive product line was not a smooth and unbroken one; if a Chevrolet owner wanted to work his way up to a Cadillac, he would face some fairly big financial leaps while progressing through Oldsmobile, Oakland and Buick. If one of those leaps proved too big, he might never reach his goal, but a much greater concern was the chance that he would leave for some competitor’s car whose price represented a more manageable increase.

LaSalle’s narrow grille in 1937 fronted a V-8 for the first time in three years. Although it no longer wore the round hood louvers and thin double bumpers, it retained a hint of art deco in features such as the chevrons on the fenders.

    Oakland became the first GM division to respond when it launched Pontiac in 1926. Pontiac was popular enough that Oakland vanished in 1931 and today, Pontiac’s origins are often overlooked. However, when LaSalle appeared in 1927, a much different legacy got its start.

    Slotted as Cadillac’s companion, LaSalle was priced from $2,495, which placed it $600 above the costliest Buick and $500 below the cheapest Cadillac. It was the almost-perfect stepping stone in cost. And for that money, the buyer was getting more than just a new car with a new name, thanks to Harley Earl.

Earl came to the LaSalle project via California Cadillac distributor Don Lee, in whose shop he had been designing custom bodies. That work had given Earl visibility, and he soon caught the eye of Fred and Lawrence Fisher. When the latter offered him a consulting post in LaSalle’s development, Earl accepted, and the stage was set for the first American production car with a look that could be attributed to a stylist.

    If that wasn’t big enough achievement, Earl soon was head of GM’s Art and Colour Section, enabling him to leave his imprint on all GM’s products for decades. The Art and Colour divison later became the Styling Section, but before that, the first LaSalle had definite Hispano-Suiza overtones. Its catalog listed bodies from a simple coupe and a transformable town cabriolet on a 125-inch wheelbase to a 134-inch seven-passenger Imperial sedan, all powered by a 303-cid V-8 that produced 75 hp. If a potential buyer was not convinced, LaSalle had a tremendous trump card: An early advertisement explained that it was “manufactured completely by the Cadillac Motor Car Company within its own plants.” That statement was no fluke, and by 1929, LaSalle advertised that it “confers upon its possessor the prestige, immaculate individuality and distinction inherent with every Cadillac-built car. This is so generally conceded and so obvious as to be almost a commonplace. Of far greater importance, however, with prevailing high speeds and congested traffic, is the fact that LaSalle shares with Cadillac those vital new features which make these two cars the safest obtainable. De luxe Fisher and Fleetwood coachwork render LaSalle – with the single exception of Cadillac itself – the most luxurious in the world…”

Dual sidemounts make this 1938 convertible an especially attractive car. Few who looked at it when it was new could have believed LaSalle’s end was just two years away

    LaSalle wasn’t overshadowing its parent as Pontiac was, but things were going very well. In 1927, LaSalle sold almost 11,000 cars, followed by 16,000 in 1928 and 23,000 in 1929. Cadillac, meanwhile, sold more than 36,000 cars in 1927 and 40,000 in 1928, but dropped to just 18,000 in 1929. By 1930, LaSalle was feeling the economic squeeze, too, having fallen to 15,000 sales, but Cadillac’s V-8 line reached only 11,000 sales.

    1929 and 1930 stand out for other reasons in the companion cars’ story; Oldsmobile introduced its Viking in 1929 and then cancelled it in 1930, the only year in which Buick offered the Marquette.

    Clearly, The Great Depression was taking its toll, and in 1932 LaSalle briefly saw a dark future. The new Light Eight was Packard’s initial effort at a more affordable car, and although its economics weren’t right and it lasted but one year, Packard sold 6,750 examples while LaSalle sold 3,386. It was LaSalle’s worst showing, and if the Light Eight had hurt, the fact that LaSalle recovered to only 3,482 sales the following year suggests that the market’s condition was at least as important. Further evidence lies in Cadillac V-8 sales, which were below those of LaSalle.

    LaSalle had grown increasingly important in keeping the Cadillac division healthy, but was somewhat distanced from Cadillac in 1934 with the arrival of its flathead straight-eight. That was also a year for major restyling and the LaSalle came through nicely. Beyond its streamlining and such Art Deco touches as the round hood louvers and the thin double bumpers, it introduced the extremely narrow grille that would identify it to the end.

    1935 saw an even more refined package, and Packard introduced its 120, a medium-priced car hit the target market better than the Light Eight and sold 25,000 examples. So pleased was Packard that it added a six-cylinder version — the 115 — in 1937, the same year that LaSalle returned to its V-8. The 115 and 120 had to have hurt; they sold a combined 115,000 cars in 1937, when LaSalle sold 32,000.

    Sales aside, LaSalle remained an attractive car, and for 1938, was given a slightly wider grille as the headlights were moved from the grille’s sides to the sheet metal inboard of the fenders. Headlights returned to their old mountings in 1939, now above waterfall grilles.

    The LaSalle’s days were numbered by this point, but it refused to grow dull. Promotional material promised that “your first glimpse of the new LaSalle V-8 will tell you that here is a car of unusual distinction — for it was styled by the same designers who created the custom Cadillac Fleetwoods. Relying for its beauty upon correct proportions and harmony of line — rather than upon trick decorations and radical departures in form — LaSalle is, nonetheless, one of the most individual cars of the year. No other car looks even remotely like the new LaSalle…” If that was a little overstated, 1939 also produced an ad headlined “Get a LaSalle! For Looks … Luxury … And Low Cost!”

    The 1940 LaSalle was carefully modernized, retaining the narrow grille and eliminating the freestanding headlights. The new look was especially striking on the torpedo-bodied Specials, but it didn’t make enough difference. While Packard sold 90,000 of its medium-priced cars, just 24,000 LaSalles left the factory. It was enough to beat 22,000 Lincoln-Zephyrs, but that wasn’t very important; over their five years’ co-existence, the two cars’ total sales had been so close that neither had won the decisive victory.

    The 1941 LaSalle then in planning went no further, but a Cadillac Series 61 with a smaller price tag appeared as Cadillac conceded that Packard and Lincoln had been right in calling their affordable cars Packards and Lincolns. Future LaSalles would be experimental cars — a perfect use for the name, considering that innovative thinking had created the original.