Pretty-faced LaSalle charted its own course

RM Sothebys had a rare 1933 LaSalle on display at its most Coffee and Cars event, held at its Blenheim facility in July. Peter Epp

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Nobody ever accused Henry Ford of building a stylish Model T, and Ford himself would have been offended had the suggestion been made. His beloved T was all about function and engineering; indeed, its stodgy yet functional appearance remained relatively unchanged for many years.

Ford’s attitude was the attitude of Detroit, as the industry scrambled to build cars for people hungry for dependable transportation.

Yet by the early 1920s, some colour was starting to seep into the industry, as greater emphasis was being placed on convenience, style and fashion.

Among the first cars to embrace the concept of style over function was LaSalle, one of General Motor’s companion cars. LaSalle was priced to fill the gap between Buick and Cadillac, but that gap was so wide that LaSalle was built until 1940, almost a decade after the other companion cars (Viking and Marquette) were quietly shelved.

LaSalle was the brainchild of Lawrence Fisher, Cadillac’s general manager. Fisher wasn’t looking for a “junior” Cadillac, but rather a stylish and sporty car that would cater to the monied class.

Harley Earl, a Californian whose father built custom cars for Hollywood moguls, was hired by Fisher to design the first LaSalle. Earl was so successful that he was soon placed in charge of design for all of GM. His subsequent influence was so wide and deep that generations of GM cars bore Earl’s stamp.

The first LaSalle was launched in 1927 and was unlike anything else offered by GM. It was bright and jaunty. Even its marketing campaign was all about image and fashion.

Earl dressed LaSalle in bright, two-tone colour combinations, while the car itself bore some resemblance to the rakish Hispano-Suiza.

That’s not to say LaSalle was only sizzle. Equipped with Cadillac’s Ninety-Degree V8, it was a fast vehicle. It achieved an average speed of 95.2 miles per hour on the Milford Proving Grounds in mid-1927. That was awfully fast for that era.

LaSalle sales took off like a rocket, reaching a peak in 1929 of 22,691.

With the onset of the Great Depression, however, sales took a nosedive; only 3,290 LaSalle cars were sold in 1932.

But Cadillac sales also plunged. And Cadillac brass feared LaSalle was stealing some of their thunder, so beginning in 1934 LaSalle’s position in the GM’s galaxy was moved away from Cadillac, and closer to Buick and even Oldsmobile.

Earl responded with an elegant-looking LaSalle that featured what would become its trademark thin but tall grille. LaSalle was also equipped with semi-shielded portholes along the side of the hood (15 years before portholes would become a Buick trademark).

The LaSalle featured on this page is a 1933 convertible coupe, found at RM Sothebys in Blenheim and on public display at a Coffee and Car event at the company’s expansive facility in July.

The 1933 model year was the last year in which LaSalle was so closely linked to the Cadillac brand, having shared many components and styling expressions. Sales were very poor – only 3,482 LaSalle cars were built and sold during the 1933 model year.

According to RM Sothebys, for 1933 the LaSalle adopted new streamlined styling, including a redesigned radiator shell and skirted fenders, as well as vacuum-assisted brakes. The LaSalle was further distinguished by a hood with ventilation doors rather than louvers, unique bumpers and redesigned lights. The car rode on a chassis that was four inches shorter than what was offered for 1932.

The fact that General Motors sold only 3,482 LaSalle models for 1933 is not really shocking. It was the depth of the Great Depression, and the near-collapse of the Canadian and American economies led to the closing of several Detroit-based automobile companies. Those car companies that managed to survive the economic storm did so with fewer sales.

Especially hurt were expensive or even moderately expensive car lines. But lower-priced brands such as Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth thrived. It’s been said that Chrysler Corporation, for example, would have faced certain bankruptcy if not for the sales of its Plymouth cars.

Yet if GM sold just over 3,400 LaSalle cars for the 1933 model year, how does that compare to other carmakers?

Chevrolet led the pack, at 486,261 units sold in that model year, while Ford was second with 334,969. Sounds like a lot, but consider this – Ford sold an incredible 1,140,710 cars in the 1930 model year, while Chevrolet sales for the same period totalled 640,980.

And so LaSalle wasn’t alone in posting lower sales for 1933.

Sales did eventually pick up for LaSalle. In 1934, sales were 7,194; in 1935, 8,651; and in 1936, 13,004.

In 1935, for example, LaSalle was offered in a coupe, a convertible coupe, a two-door sedan and a four-door sedan. Under its hood resided a straight eight 248-cubic-inch engine that cranked out 105 horsepower.

Built and assembled in Oshawa, the four-door sedan had a list price of $2,015. To put LaSalle’s price in perspective, in 1935 you could buy a new Ford for as little as $645.

Considered a hindrance in previous years by Cadillac brass, LaSalle now became an important source of revenue for the luxury brand.

Yet LaSalle was soon immersed in competition. Packard introduced its lower-priced One-Twenty junior model for 1935, and Ford introduced its brilliant Lincoln-Zephyr in 1936. The strategy adopted by Packard and Lincoln – to offer beautifully-styled cars equipped with luxury and performance, but at a more affordable price for the population – was actually Cadillac’s strategy, as expressed in LaSalle.

Cadillac responded in 1937 with refreshed styling and a marketing emphasis on LaSalle’s Cadillac roots. LaSalle was also given a new V8 and an even lower price range. Although LaSalle sales surged to over 32,000, Packard was selling many more One-Twentys.

LaSalle sales fell in 1938 to 15,501, and then jumped to 23,028 for 1939. By this time the car’s appearance began to resemble the big Cadillac.

The car’s final model year was 1940, in which LaSalle sold 24,133 units. Harley Earl oversaw yet another redesign; LaSalle featured its trademark thin but tall radiator grill, but the grill was flanked by almost Lincoln-like chrome slotting.

And so LaSalle left the automotive world as it entered it: a pretty face.

But its presence had created a series of ripples that continue to touch the industry to this day. No matter how well-engineered or powerful a car, sales will never be strong if that car is not attractively-designed.

With LaSalle, the Detroit-based industry was introduced to frequent design changes, and an emphasis on appearance.