1935 LaSalle advertisement, showing the distinctive Harley Earl body design.
LaSalle was an American brand of luxury automobiles manufactured and marketed by General Motors’ Cadillac division from 1927 through 1940. Alfred P. Sloan developed the concept for LaSalle and certain other General Motors’ marques in order to fill pricing gaps he perceived in the General Motors product portfolio. Sloan created LaSalle as a companion marque for Cadillac. LaSalle automobiles were manufactured by Cadillac, but were priced lower than Cadillac-branded automobiles and were marketed as the second-most prestigious marque in the General Motors portfolio.
Like Cadillac, the LaSalle brand name was based on that of a French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.n
General Motors companion marque strategyn
The LaSalle had its beginnings when General Motors’ CEO, Alfred P. Sloan, noticed that his carefully crafted market segmentation program was beginning to develop price gaps in which General Motors had no products to sell. In an era where automotive brands were somewhat restricted to building a specific car per model year, Sloan surmised that the best way to bridge the gaps was to develop “companion” marques that could be sold through the current sales network.
As originally developed by Sloan, General Motors’ market segmentation strategy placed each of the company’s individual automobile marques into specific price points, called the General Motors Companion Make Program. The Chevrolet was designated as the entry level product. Next, (in ascending order), came the Pontiac, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Viking, Marquette, Buick, LaSalle, and ultimately, Cadillac. By the 1920s, certain General Motors products began to shift out of the plan as the products improved and engine advances were made.
Under the companion marque strategy, the gap between the Chevrolet and the Oakland would be filled by a new marque named Pontiac, a quality six-cylinder car designed to sell for the price of a four-cylinder. The wide gap between Oldsmobile and Buick would be filled by two companion marques: Oldsmobile was assigned the up-market V8 engine Viking and Buick was assigned the more compact six-cylinder Marquette. Cadillac, which had seen its base prices soar in the heady 1920s, was assigned the LaSalle as a companion marque to fill the gap that existed between it and Buick.
1927 dealer showroom poster promoting the new LaSalle. GM used a European theme in its ads that year in an attempt to build the image that the LaSalle was a worldly vehicle, fashionable in all settings and places.
What emerged as the LaSalle in 1927 was introduced on the GM C platform with Cadillac. The 1927 LaSalle was designed by Harley Earl, who would go on to have a 30-year career at General Motors, eventually gaining control of all design and styling at General Motors.
Prior to the 1927 LaSalle, automobile design essentially followed a set pattern, with design changes driven principally by engineering needs. For example, the Ford Model T evolved only slightly over its production run; A 1927 Model T was almost identical to a 1910 Model T.
Harley Earl, who had been hired by Cadillac’s General Manager, Lawrence P. Fisher, conceived the LaSalle not as a junior Cadillac, but as something more agile and stylish. Influenced by the rakish Hispano-Suiza roadsters of the time, Earl’s LaSalle emerged as a smaller, yet elegant counterpoint to Cadillac’s larger cars, unlike anything else built by an American automotive manufacturer.
1928 LaSalle Series 303 Phaeton
Built by Cadillac to its high standards, the LaSalle soon emerged as a trend-setting automobile. Earl was then placed in charge of overseeing the design of all of General Motors’ vehicles.
The LaSalle was offered in a full range of body styles, including Fisher and Fleetwood Metal Body-built custom designs. The open cars could also be ordered in tri-tone color combinations, at a time when dark colors like black and navy blue were still the most familiar colors produced by manufacturers.
1930 LaSalle Series 340, photographed in Perth, Western Australia
Earl’s design even included a nod to the inspirational Hispano-Suiza, with the marque’s circled trademark “LaS” cast into the horizontal tie bar between the front lights. ri
Wheelbases ranged between 128 in (3,251 mm) and 134 in (3,404 mm). The LaSalles of this era were equipped with Cadillac’s “Ninety Degree V-8”, making the car fast, while its smaller size made it sportier and more agile.
On June 20, 1927, a LaSalle driven by Willard Rader, along with Gus Bell, on the track at the Milford Proving Grounds, achieved 952 miles (1,532 km), averaging 95.2 mph (153.2 km/h), with only seven minutes given over to refueling and tire changes. In comparison, the average speed at that year’s Indianapolis 500 was 97.5 mph (156.9 km/h). The test at Milford would have continued; however, a problem in the oil system drew the test to an early close, approaching the 9:45 mark.
Later, the Great Depression, combined with LaSalle’s stalling sales’ numbers, caused Cadillac to rethink its companion make. Both Buick and Oldsmobile had eliminated the Marquette and the Viking in 1930, their second model year. Cadillac also saw sales of its cars losing ground, as confirmed Cadillac buyers tried to trim pennies by buying the less expensive LaSalle. LaSalle sales also were falling, from a high of 22,691 models in 1929 to a low of 3,290 in 1932.
1937 LaSalle Series 50 coupe
Beginning with the 1934 model year, a significant portion of the LaSalle was more closely related to the Oldsmobile, than to senior Cadillacs. Again, Earl’s work with the LaSalle resulted in a graceful vehicle, led by an elegant and thin radiator grille. Earl’s other contribution was the modern, airplane-styled, semi-shielded portholes along the side of the hood. All bodies were now made by Fleetwood.
1937 LaSalle Series 50 2-door Touring Sedan
This new LaSalle was now priced $1,000 less than the least expensive Cadillac, its mission was not to fill a price gap, but to keep the luxury car division out of the red. But as the economy began to recover, the LaSalle did not, at least not commensurate with the economy. Sales were 7,195 in 1934, 8,651 in 1935 and 13,004 in 1936.
Meanwhile, the Packard One-Twenty had been introduced in 1935, and had taken off like a rocket. Additional competition from the Lincoln-Zephyr, introduced in 1936, did not help, either.
1938 LaSalle Series 50
For 1937, Cadillac made the LaSalle its own again, giving it the 322 cu in (5.3 L) monobloc V8 of the Series 60, new styling, a lower price range, and a heavy promotion, emphasizing the car was completely Cadillac built. It was too late. Model year sales of 32,000 LaSalles was a terrific leap forward, but remained leagues behind the junior Packard.
1934 LaSalle Series 50
A 1934 LaSalle Model 350 was chosen as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500 and a 1937 LaSalle Series 50 convertible also served as an Indy 500 Pace Car.
1939 LaSalle Series 50 4-door convertible
In its final years, the LaSalle once again became more Cadillac-like in its appearance and details. The narrow radiator grille opening was retained and was flanked by additional side grill work.
Headlights, which had moved down and been secured to the “cat-walk”, were again attached to the radiator shell. One interesting feature, adopted by LaSalle in these years, was a Sunroof, marketed as the “Sunshine Turret Top”. Sales climbed up from 15,501 in 1938 to 23,028 in 1939.
1939 cadilac lasalle
The final 1940 LaSalles were introduced in October 1939 with, as it had in its first year, a full array of semi-custom body styles, including a convertible sedan. Harley Earl also oversaw this redesign. The LaSalle emerged with a smooth-flowing design, its trademark thin radiator flanked by a series of thin chrome slots, giving it a futuristic look.
In its final year sales of the LaSalle reached the second highest level ever at 24,133.
By the time the decision was made to drop the LaSalle at least three wood and metal mockups had been made for potential 1941 LaSalle models. One was based on the notchbackGM C platform which ended up being shared by the Cadillac Series 62, Buick Roadmaster and Super, the Oldsmobile 90 and the Pontiac Custom Torpedo.
A second was based on the fastback GM B platform which ended up being shared by the Cadillac Series 61, the Buick Century and Special, the Oldsmobile 70 and the Pontiac Streamliner Torpedo. A third was a modified notchback design, derived from the fastback B-body, but described as “A-body-like”, that ended up being used by the Cadillac Series 63. Any or all of these could have ended up being part of the next LaSalle line.
However, it has been inferred that of the three, the third design was most likely to have been a LaSalle, with that platform being assigned exclusively to LaSalle, and that the second design, whose platform was shared with the Series 61, was the next most likely. In 1941 sales of the Cadillac Series 61 and 63 were 29,258 and 5,030 respectively.
LaSalle sales had consistently exceeded Cadillac’s since 1933, so the question arises, why did GM decide to drop LaSalle? Evidently the lesson of the Packard One-Twenty had been weighing on the minds of the executives at GM. Since its introduction in 1935 the medium priced Packard One-Twenty had consistently outsold the LaSalle, with sales volume exceeding Cadillac’s counterpart by an average of 72 percent over the six-year period 1935-40 inclusively. Since LaSalle had been a Cadillac in all but name for most of its lifespan, it was decided it was time to bestow upon it the prestigious title of Cadillac
Interestingly, in Packard circles, the fact that the marque’s lower priced cars were designated Packards is thought by many to have ultimately resulted in the ruination of the company. In LaSalle’s case that it wasn’t a Cadillac was probably the ruinous factor. People do buy prestige and a Cadillac was prestige. LaSalle did not have the time to develop a prestigious name before the onset of the Great Depression, and did not have the opportunity after.
LaSalle concept vehicles
In his award-winning 2013 article, “GM’s Road Not Taken”, Robert Cumberford reviewed the restoration of GM’s 1955 Motorama La Salle II Roadster. Cumberford likened the Roadster to a harbinger of GM’s future. While the Roadster concept showcased important new technology — including an aluminum block, double overhead cam, fuel-injected V6 — the technology went unrealized. GM instead emphasized styling over engineering advancement for decades that followed — and didn’t bring “an aluminum block, fuel-injected, overhead-cam V-6 into production until 2004.”
Cumberford described the Roadster as “a signpost to the many wrong turns that led to the bankruptcy of what was in 1955 the largest business entity in the entire world (GM).”
1932 LaSalle Series 345-B 2-door convertible
There was great nostalgia for the LaSalle name, and at various points in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, General Motors issued Motorama cars and proposed new consumer automobiles under the name. The year 1955 saw two Motorama concept cars, the LaSalle II four-door hardtop and the LaSalle II Roadster. Ordered to be destroyed, both the four-door hardtop and the roadster were shipped to the Warhoops Salvage Yard in Sterling Heights, MI. and instead hidden in a corner of the facility.
In the 1970s television show All In The Family, Archie and Edith Bunker include the lyrics, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great,” in the program’s opening theme song.
In 1990, collector Joe Bortz purchased and restored the Roadster, which was featured in a 2013 article in Automobile (magazine), for which the author, Robert Cumberford won the 2013 Best Article of the Year Award from the Motor Press Guild for his Automobile magazine article, “GM’s Road Not Taken” about the La Salle II Roadster.
When Cadillac was developing a new small luxury sedan, the LaSalle name was raised, but was passed over in favor of Cadillac Seville. Early mockups of what was to become the 1963 Buick Riviera were badged “LaSalle II,” as the Cadillac division was being considered for production of this successful personal luxury car.
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