Cadillac LaSalle 1927
Remember the pretty grille I said I would tell you about at the end of my last car culture blog post? Well, allow me to introduce you to the Cadillac LaSalle!
Henry Ford supposedly said, “People can have the Model T in any color—so long as it’s black.” (Okay, so Ford never actually said that). But, the reality is that approximately 12 million of the 15 million Model Ts sold were black or very dark blue. The early car manufacturers’ primary focus was not on design but making sure the car would take you to your final destination. However, the times they were a-changin’, and Americans were bored with the basic Model T and ready for flashier cars. The Cadillac LaSalle picked up where the Model T left off, transporting you to where you wanted to go and announcing that you had arrived in style.
Alfred P. Sloan, the president of General Motors, understood that Americans wanted a large selection of cars to choose from. While Ford’s philosophy was centered on making a car for the everyman, Sloan’s plan was to offer Americans a car for every purse and purpose. He did this by creating a hierarchy of car brands. Young families just starting out were guided toward the practical and affordable Chevrolet; the newly promoted executive celebrated his success by trading up to a Pontiac or Oldsmobile; and the Cadillac was the car that announced your arrival at the pinnacle of success. Harley Earl made Sloan’s philosophy a reality.
Earl was born into the business of customizing and designing, learning first from his father, who owned Earl Carriage Works in Los Angeles, California. At the end of World War I, Don Lee Cadillac bought out Earl Carriage Works, and Harley stayed on to use his design talents to customize Cadillacs for the rich and famous. Flapper starlets, slick gangsters and cigar-chomping movie moguls all came to Earl to give their cars a distinct look. It was during this time that Earl met Sloan and the general manager of Cadillac (Lawrence Fisher), and they hired Earl to consult on the development of the Cadillac LaSalle.
Earl designed the Cadillac LaSalle to be everything the Model T was not, showing the American people what they could expect from cars going forward. The LaSalle came in 11 different body styles; it was built with curves and a long, low stance; it came in a number or colors and it handled like a dream. While the Model T had been considered a “man’s car,” women loved to drive the LaSalle. True, it cost seven times more money than the Model T, but Americans were ready to show off their net worth by the cars they drove—and the LaSalle showed it off with Cadillac class.
Harley Earl, practicing social marketing long before the internet was even imagined, is quoted as telling his designers, “If you drive by a schoolyard and the kids don’t whistle, go back to the drawing board”—and in September of 1927, seven boys took their appreciation for the LaSalle a lot further than whistling. A central Ohio newspaper reported on the “escapades of a band of youthful miscreants” from the little town of Delaware who had stolen 25 cars over the previous five months and taken them out for joyrides. One was a Cadillac LaSalle, “which the boys told the sheriff was the ‘spiffiest’ car they had stolen and that they intended to steal the LaSalle again for another ride because the car ran so well,” the newspaper reported. These boys may have lacked good sense, but it’s hard to knock their good taste.
Indeed, the Cadillac LaSalle was the spiffiest car on the road, and she was fast. In May of 1927, a GM mechanic piloted a LaSalle around the company’s Michigan proving ground while averaging just over 95 miles per hour, qualifying the LaSalle to be the pace car in that year’s Indianapolis 500.
The LaSalle was a sensation and Harley Earl, credited with the car’s design and success, was hired to head General Motors’ newly created Art and Color department. Automobile styling had been born.
Sales of the Cadillac LaSalle were strong until the end of the 1920s, when they took a nosedive along with the stock market crash in October 1929. Earl revived the car with a redesign later in the 1930’s and the LaSalle continued on until the first part of the 1940s, when America entered into World War II and civilian car production ceased. Earl’s next adventure will be featured in the next segment of car culture when I write about one of the most powerful totems of America’s postwar era: the Corvette and its hero, Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Pop quiz: It’s interesting to note that long after it was last sold, the Cadillac LaSalle was remembered by a television sitcom theme song. Do you remember the show and the theme song? Hint: The fourth verse of the song featured the line: “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.”
I went to the Chicago Auto Show on Saturday and munched cookies and drank coffee in the Audi owners’ lounge, and saw some spectacular cars. I’m looking forward to showing you some pictures. In the meantime, the June Bug will be my primary focus while I am off school all next week. My plan is to take the June Bug to the auto show on Monday to collect autographs. The cold won’t get the best of me, I ordered a car electric blanket from Amazon.
Thanks for coming along for the ride
Pop Quizz answer: