Stylish LaSalles helped & Hurt GM

By Michael Petti |

I t has been said that one can better appreciate the beauty of a painting or a statue when one knows the historical context in which it was created. The same can be said about Anthony Prentice’s 1939 LaSalle Series 50 sedan.

    We start in the 1920s. Cars were now reliable. Mass manufacturing, thanks to Henry Ford’s production line, was a reality for more than a decade. However, to forge ahead in the ’20s, a manufacturer had to have marques for various levels of the socio-economic ladder.

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Anthony Prentice’s 1939 LaSalle sedan features a tall, narrow grille, waterfall side grilles and streamlined styling.

    Alfred P. Sloan Jr., president of General Motors during that period, was the right man at the right time. His famous slogan was “a car for every purse and pocketbook.” As such, Chevrolet was at the bottom and Cadillac was at the top of the hierarchy, with Oakland, Oldsmobile and Buick in between.

    Even so, there was a cost gap between Chevrolet and Oakland. Pontiac would fill this niche in 1926. There was also a gap between Buick and Cadillac.

    As Prentice explains, “A bottom-end Cadillac in the mid-’20s was selling for $3,195 while GM’s top-of-the-line Buick was selling for $1,925. For those who could afford a more elegant car than a Buick, the price leap to a Cadillac was too great a financial risk. GM, therefore, filled in this marketing gap with the introduction of the LaSalle automobile on March 5, 1927. It was priced at $2,685, lower than the Cadillac, but priced right for those who could afford to move up from a Buick.”

    The 1927 LaSalle was the first automobile formally styled to provide exterior aesthetics. Harley J. Earl designed it.

    Cadillac’s general manager, Lawrence P. Fisher, saw the customized Cadillacs that Harley Earl was creating for Hollywood’s movie stars and felt Earl could give the LaSalle a youthful appearance. Indeed, he did. The 1927 LaSalle had “tablespoon” fenders, windows proportioned for a fleet look and a more rounded overall appearance.

    Sales of the first LaSalles were very successful. Sloan realized that style sold cars. He made Harley Earl head of General Motors’ Art and Colour Section. This was the first styling department ever organized. The LaSalle made Earl the “father of American car styling.”

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The LaSalle convertible sedan for 1939. Only 185 examples of this model were built that year.

    The first-generation LaSalle was a car for the “Jazz Age.” The Great Gatsby could have GM’s first convertible. It was a 1929 LaSalle with glass side windows that lowered into the door. But then the stock market crashed. After great sales of 22,000 in 1929, sales dropped to 14,000 in 1930, and only 3,400 LaSalles were sold in 1933.

    The distinctive first-generation LaSalle gave way to the 1930-1933 LaSalles that were now bigger in size, but style-wise looked like baby Cadillacs. The Great Depression did not hinder the kind of buyer who bought Cadillacs, but it did those who were seeking to buy a LaSalle.

    While the LaSalle was floundering in sales, Packard’s middle-priced One-Twenty, introduced in 1935, was a sales success, because it wore the impressive Packard name. True, LaSalles were described as the “companion car to Cadillac,” “the blood brother to Cadillac” and of “Cadillac caliber,” but, the LaSalle did not carry the Cadillac name tag.

    In 1934, Cadillac management abandoned its attempt to win luxury car buyers with the LaSalle, and aimed more for the medium car buyer. Sharing a body with Buick and Oldsmobile, using the Olds straight-eight engine and raiding items from GM’s other car parts bins lowered the 1934-1936 LaSalle prices. The formula did not work. The LaSalle was considered an overpriced Oldsmobile.

    In 1937, the LaSalle used Cadillac’s 322-cid V-8. Sales perked up. But a temporary recession in 1938 drove sales downward. Cadillac was still not ready to give up the LaSalle market, and the brand soldiered on for two more years.

    By 1939, the LaSalle was again a solid winner in the marketplace, and the ’39 model was, arguably, the best of the post-1933 LaSalles. The 1939 LaSalle’s front end was freshened up with a tall, narrow grille in the center, flanked by waterfall side grilles. A new distinctive feature on the 1939 LaSalle, and seen on Anthony Prentice’s car here, are the chrome reveals around the windshield and windows. Another refinement to the 1939 LaSalle was an increase in glass area by 25 percent.

    The body of Prentice’s 1939 LaSalle is light beige with the fenders, bayonet-style front headlights and rear taillights being dark leather brown. The seats, doors, kick panels and interior trims are dark leather brown, while the rugs are a light tan color. The instrument dials are grouped in front of the driver behind a long rectangular glass face. Switches and other controls have cream-colored plastic fittings. One is pampered with colorful beauty, comfortable seating and plenty of legroom.

    What Prentice especially likes about the LaSalle is its Cadillac 322-cid V-8 producing 125 hp. He told me, “This low-revving power plant allows the car to accelerate without a stutter from 5 mph or so, making gear shifting through its column-mounted shifter a reasonably infrequent occurrence. It’s fun to drive around town and has a top speed of close to 100 mph.” The lightweight LaSalle with this engine makes for lively performance, too.

    Prentice also likes the 1939 LaSalle’s 120-inch wheelbase. He says this gives the car a much more maneuverable feel than the 124-inch wheelbase 1938 model or the 123-inch wheelbase 1940 model.

    Today, it is felt by some that the One-Twenty saved Packard during the threadbare ’30s. However, it ultimately cost Packard its blue-chip image. Lacking the Cadillac nameplate did the LaSalle in, but allowed Cadillac to maintain its luxury car image.

    The 1939 LaSalle was introduced October 1938 with model-year sales reaching 23,028 units. The 1940 LaSalle had General Motors’ new torpedo body, but was discontinued in the summer of 1940. The LaSalle line outsold the Cadillac V-8′s in 1940, and Cadillac executives began to wonder if the LaSalle was actually too competitive.

    In 1941, GM eliminated the LaSalle and created the Series 61 Cadillac that sold for about the same money. It was a bull market in 1941, and for Cadillac also. Total sales of Cadillacs were more than 50,000 units, and the wonderful LaSalle was retired for good.

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