Car of the Week: 1935 LaSalle Series 50 convertible coupe

Owner tells the story behind his elegant 1935 LaSalle Series 50 convertible coupe
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Car of the Week 2020
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Randy Denchfield never knew he had a special place in his heart waiting for a fabulous streamline-era LaSalle. He just needed somebody else to help him find it.

“I started a business when I was 26 and when I kind of got my head above water at age 40, I decided to do what I wanted to do,” chuckles the resident of Chevy Chase, Md. “What I wanted was a ‘48 Cadillac — that was the year I was born and the first year of the body change after World War II and that was a really neat car. So I got one of those, and I started getting more informed and more into it and I said, ‘I’d like to get myself a 1930s car,’ but I really didn’t know what. I really didn’t know what I was looking for.”

Denchfield liked the idea of something with prominent fenders, a top that folded down, running boards and maybe a rumble seat in back. And the car had to be streamlined and sexy — not too formal or boxy looking.

“But I didn’t really know much more. I ran into acquaintance who sold cars and he said, ‘Randy, what you want is a LaSalle!’ So we looked them up in the ‘35 in manuals and I said, ‘Whoa, this is what I want: side mounts, the top went down and more importantly, the windshield was only 9 inches high and real streamlined!”

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After searching for a while, Denchfield located a promising specimen — a lovely convertible coupe — in West Virginia. It turns out the car was a lot closer than he thought. “I called the gentleman up and asked if he could send me photo of the car. He said, ‘You live so close, come up and see it.’ He was right, it was less than 100 miles from here.

“So we went up to see the car, and his son had an antique store… and the son told me directions to get to the house where the car was. When he opened the door, there was the car right in front us (me and my son, who was about 15 at the time). He said, ‘Dad, when that door went up and I saw the car, my heart stopped.’ It made a big impression on him, and made a big impression on me.”

It didn’t take long for Denchfield to make the deal and arrange to have the LaSalle delivered to his home in Chevy Chase. He had no regrets from the moment it arrived. “When they pushed the car in my driveway, my wife (Susan) was watching and said, ‘Honey does it run?’ I said, ‘Honey, I don’t know, but it looks so good I really don’t care!”

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That was back on April 29, 1999 — Susan’s birthday. The couple has been enjoying the classy convertible ever since. They have even added a second 1935 LaSalle convertible coupe to their impressive fleet of collector vehicles.

“I bought an orange car from an estate in 2007,” Randy says. “I told my wife at the time, ‘Honey, we’ll sell the old LaSalle,’ which we call Sally, ‘and buy a new one.’ Well, we got the new one and I never got around to selling the old one. There are only nine of them in the Cadillac & LaSalle Club directory and I have two of them. If you are looking for one, they’re almost impossible to find. Every once in a while — every six or seven years — I’ll find one. Nobody ever has any interest in selling.”

NOT JUST A BABY CADILLAC

The LaSalle brand was launched in 1927 to fill what General Motors considered to be a void in its hierarchy one notch below its fabulous V-8 Cadillac. Harley Earl was entrusted with designing the LaSalle and envisioned the new marque to be more than just Cadillac’s smaller, less-impressive sibling. He envisioned a car that, while not as big and bold, was perhaps even more stylish and certainly more nimble. Moreover, the LaSalle would be a car that more Americans could afford and relate to. Earl's LaSalle design was a hit and he was hired on to form GM's new Art & Color Section. The rest is history.

The LaSalle was originally offered for 1927 with a choice of eight different Fisher body styles or four cataloged choices from Fleetwood on two different wheelbases — 125 or 134 inches. The new LaSalles were christened the 303 Series and carried the Cadillac L-head 303-cid V-8, which made them perform as good as they looked.

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By 1933, LaSalle had essentially become a Cadillac discounted by $500 while Cadillac had become a highly individualized luxury product. The Great Depression economy of the early 1930s would not support this combination. The General Motors alternative to dropping the Cadillac Division was to reimagine the 1934 LaSalle, with the hope that LaSalle sales would bring the division out of the red. The 1934 LaSalle was presented as an entirely new car, backed by the prestige of Cadillac/Fleetwood, but not a Cadillac, and priced $1,000 less than the least expensive Cadillac, to compete for buyers in the upper medium price range.

For the 1934 model year, the renamed Series 50 Model 350 shared the same B platform as GM’s Buick and Oldsmobile offerings. A handsome new grille design now concealed the radiator for the first time, vent windows debuted and partially concealed portholes ran along the side of the hood. Fleetwood was the lone body company used on the LaSalle line and the V-8 engine was gone, replaced by a 248-cid inline eight assembled by Cadillac employees who were used to building V-type engines. New hydraulic brakes were supplied by Bendix.

No major changes occurred for the 1935 model year, but there were many detail improvements and a price reduction of approximately $400. Costs ranged from $1,225 for the two-door two-passenger coupe to $1,395 for the two-door, four-passenger convertible coupe. A two-door sedan and four-door sedan were also offered. Performance improved from 90 hp to 95 through detail changes in the engine and a 9% weight reduction.

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Overall, the changes launched in 1934 proved to be good for LaSalle dealers. Times were still tough for many Americans, but sales continued to trend steadily upward from 7,195 in 1934 to 8,651 in ’35, 13,004 in ‘36 and 32,000 in ’37.

A LASTING IMPRESSION

Fortunately for Denchfield, the original owner of his convertible coupe must have treated the car reasonably gently and had the foresight to hang onto the car rather than use it up and throw it away. “I started finding out the history of the car. I was only fourth owner,” Denchfield notes. “I made some phone calls and found the first owner had it for about 20 years. He traded it to a guy in 1955 for a brand new ’55 Chrysler. Then that guy repainted the car with black fenders and maroon paint.”

The car changed hands one more time before Denchfield acquired it 22 years ago. He has not needed to do much to the LaSalle to keep it running and looking good ever since, other than a few maintenance tasks.

“It needed an accelerator pump… The accelerator pump is just something that dries out after a while on these. Basically, I didn’t do anything to it after that. I put turn signals on it, and did the brakes and that kind of stuff. It didn’t need any mechanical work, or anything — no bodywork or paint. It might have the original top on it.”

Denchfield insists he never gave serious thought to doing any extensive restoration work to the convertible coupe. He wanted something he wasn’t afraid to drive and the car has perfectly fit the bill.

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“The car is a No. 3 [condition]. I have been in the hobby long enough that I had several cars restored… I know what it takes to do a restoration on a car like this,” Denchfield adds. “Sally — that’s what we call her — is a No. 3 car. The thing that’s really different between a show car and a car like this is the chassis. A lot of people will do paint and interior and think that they’ve restored the car. Then you look underneath it and it’s got the original chassis and usually original wiring, etc.… There was never a need for me to restore this car. I have I enjoyed it the way it was.”

The odometer on the LaSalle shows only 35,000 miles, even after four owners and 86 years. Judging by the car’s overall condition, Denchfield doesn’t doubt that the figure is accurate. As far as he can tell, the ’35 has had some work done, but never a full-blown restoration.

“I’m not sure what all [was restored]. My opinion is that all they did was paint it and put in a new interior. Back in those days we really didn’t restore cars,” he says. “The 35,000 miles, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I believe it. I think it was just a used car most of its life, with low mileage and garage kept.

“The interior isn’t quite correct. It’s a diamond tuft, but it’s really plain. And it’s not the right color. It did not come that way from the factory … but if you want to do a ‘30s car, boy, that is a classic color. It’s the best color I think you could ask for — dark maroon with the black fenders. It’s just the way I like it. I love that color. It shows well, but if I ever repainted it, I’d chose that same color. I think it looks good on any car from the ‘30s; quiet elegance, you know what I mean?”

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Denchfield jokes that one of the reasons the LaSalle shows so few miles is that it is a convertible and doesn’t have a heater. “Maybe nobody ever drove it in the winter. It has a radio delete plate, too. It does have dual side mounts. They came standard with one side mount. Harley Earl didn’t want side mounts. He wanted you to be able to see the curves on it, and in ‘34 it had a trunk and a rumble seat, or I guess you could have two trunks. In ‘35 they had a rumble seat and no place for the spare tire. Probably 9 out of 10 LaSalles back in the day came with dual side mounts.”

As far as road manners, Denchfield says the ’35 LaSalle definitely fulfilled its mission as an agile and easy-driving machine. He’s still partial to Cadillacs, but has loved every minute of owning the two-tone ’35 convertible LaSalle.

“It’s just a nice driver. It looks good and it’s different than anything else on the show field,” he concludes. “I call it ‘the poor man’s Auburn.’”

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