Cars from the 1930’s are becoming a bit like a foreign language to many of us here. I am now north of sixty years on this orb and these were long gone from the roads by the time of even my earliest memories. I learned about and got fascinated with cars of this era from old movies and family photos, but certainly not from any personal contact. So a little contact with this one was a real treat – a story I will come back to.
In the list of cars that people get sentimental over, LaSalle is fairly far down the list. Except for Edith and Archie Bunker who sang about one in the lyrics in the song that opened the 1970s sitcom All in the Family (“Gee our old LaSalle ran great . . . “), these were are not well remembered. They were, however, a part of the General Motors that worked mightily to make it through the Great Depression.
The LaSalle – though not perhaps this model – is best known for a couple of things . The 1927 LaSalle kicked General Motors’ “companion car” program upstairs after the Oakland Division’s successful introduction of Pontiac in 1926. Alfred Sloan had noticed a wide gap between Buick and Cadillac and sought to fill it. The LaSalle was the result – an entry-level Cadillac in all but name. The original LaSalle is also the car that turned a young freelancer named Harley Earl into the titan of automotive styling at GM (and everywhere else, for that matter). That initial LaSalle is said to have been the first “styled car” – and it kicked off a trend in which the entire industry began to pay attention to the way cars looked.
The LaSalle was a relative success and within the next two years both Oldsmobile and Buick Divisions would get a companion – Buick begat the Marquette, and Oldsmobile birthed the Viking. But by 1932 Cadillac was the only dual-brand Division left, and even it’s entry line was not doing all that well. From 22,691 LaSalles built in 1929, production had dropped to 3,290 cars by 1932.
The rear-wheel-drive Cadillac Broughams of the 1980’s are sometimes derided as “Oldsmollacs” because of their use of the Oldsmobile V8 for their motive source. The 1975 Seville could also be given that nickname for the same reason. The Seville was not the original Oldsmollac, however, because the 1934 LaSalle earned that description first. That car was demoted to the B body (used by the mid-price Divisions) on a 120 inch wheelbase and was also demoted by the use of Oldsmobile’s flathead inline 8 as the price of remaining in production at all.
The LaSalle got a couple of improvements, however, when the Olds 8 was nudged upward in displacement from Oldsmobile’s 240 cid (3.9L) to 248 cid (or 4.1L) and also got bodies that were built by Fleetwood instead of by Fisher.
The other thing LaSalle got was a beautiful and advanced new styling theme from Earl, which made the car one of the most modern and attractive in the industry for 1934.
The LaSalle even got the honor and publicity of serving as pace car for the Indianapolis 500 that year. But even with all of the style and publicity the Cadillac Division could muster, sales were only marginally improved at 7,195 cars.
LaSalle would be brought back into the Cadillac family in 1937 when it was allowed to jettison the Olds power and use the new 322 cid (5.3L) Cadillac monoblock V8. Sales jumped to a record of over 32,000 units, but LaSalle still badly lagged the competition. In comparison, the popular Packard One Twenty generated 50,100 copies – a figure that did not include another 65,400 examples of the new six cylinder Packard One Ten.
The LaSalle was even threatened by the upstart Lincoln Zephyr, with 29,997 examples to its credit. Of course, the words “Packard” and “Lincoln” were on the cars in competitors’ showrooms while the name “Cadillac” was was nowhere to be found on its companion brand beyond some small print at the bottom of the advertising. LaSalle would struggle on for a few years longer before being replaced by the entry level Cadillac Series 61 in 1941.
That last bit is interesting to me. The received wisdom is that the Cadillac Series 61 was far more popular than the LaSalle had been. This is actually not true at all – the Series 61’s two best years (1941 and 1950) never managed to best LaSalle’s 1937 record and spent several years unable to hit five figure production numbers before the line expired with fewer than 5,000 built in 1951. Somehow, value-oriented Cadillacs never found much of a market no matter what name they carried.
This particular LaSalle is a 1936 Series 36-50, the final year of the “Oldsmollac” LaSalle. At $1,225 for the four door sedan, it cost almost double a comparable Oldsmobile and also cost its owner nearly 1/3 the price of an average new home in 1936. It was also the least popular offering of lower priced cars by traditional luxury brands, with only 13,004 produced, and compared with 14,994 Lincoln Zephys (in that model’s debut year) and 55,042 Packard One-Twenties.
But I knew nothing about any of that when I first saw this car, which was in August of 2017 at a small show near my neighborhood. I was struck by the beautiful styling – and the beautiful condition – of this car, which served up a style not often seen at small car shows. I took several photos and chatted for a few minutes with the elderly owner who sat contentedly in his lawn chair.
Imagine my surprise a few years later when I got a call from a woman who needed to deal with the estate of her late uncle. “He had an old car” she said – not an uncommon thing to come up in conversation. “It was a LaSalle. He sure loved driving it around to shows.”
I have often joked that I will surely forget your name and may even forget your face, but I will never, ever forget your car. And her words “LaSalle” and “car shows” made me ask “The LaSalle – I don’t suppose it was green?”
Yes indeed – the car I had admired so much on that day (which resulted in more photos than I took of anything else at that show) had, sadly, outlived one more owner.
The experience has been bittersweet for me. I got to see the car recently, parked indoors and out of the elements – but in a garage with more dampness issues than would have been optimal. Sadly, time and the owner’s final illness took its toll and the car sat somewhat forlornly with a flat tire and a dead battery, as well as a vague understanding that it had not been running properly before the owner became incapacitated.
How do you sell a car like this? It is easy if you want to take it home, clean it up, fix a couple of things and then hit the local show circuit. It is not so easy when the family is out of state and neither the estate’s attorney nor anyone else has the time to donate to getting the old girl back in shape. And when it has to be moved because the house has been sold, the pressure to sell gets really strong. The answer is that you turn it over to a general auction company (after unsuccessfully reaching out to some local Cadillac aficionados) and watch it sell for far too little money.
We all know that nice prewar cars are for sale everywhere with few takers. And this poor LaSalle was not really in much of a niche. Fans of prewar Cadillacs like their Cadillacs with a Cadillac V8. Prewar Oldsmobile fans – wait, are there any of those? And if there were, they would want their Oldsmobiles to be Oldsmobiles on the outside as well as on the inside. And all of them want something that runs and drives as good as it looks. But some unknown person got ahold of a really nice car from the peak of Harley Earl’s styling influence and from the days when Body by Fisher (or Body by Fleetwood) got you a really nicely done car.
When new, this LaSalle had the odds stacked against it as a not-quite Cadillac. And 85 years later it was still fighting long odds in finding a new home that will give it the respect it deserves. Let’s hope it makes this latest transition successfully.