The LaSalle was an automobile product of General Motors Corporation and sold as a companion marque of Cadillac from 1927 to 1940. The two were linked by similarly-themed names, both being named for French explorers — Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, respectively.
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 product to sell.
As originally developed by Sloan, General Motors' market segmentation placed each of the company's individual automobile makes into specific price points. The Chevrolet was designated as the entry level product. Next, (in ascending order), came the Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick, and ultimately, the Cadillac. However, during the robust 1920s, certain General Motors products began to shift out of the plan as the products improved and engine advances were made.
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.
Under the plan, 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 automobile 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 car to fill the gap that existed between it and Buick.
What emerged as the LaSalle in 1927 is widely regarded as the beginning of modern American automotive styling. Its designer, Harley Earl, would launch a thirty-year career as General Motors' Vice President of the newly created Art & Color Studios, that still guide General Motors' designs to this day.
Prior to the LaSalle, automobiles essentially followed a set pattern, with design changes set by engineering needs. The Ford Model T evolved over its extended run, but ever so slightly, making a 1927 Model T almost identical to a 1910 Model T.
Harley Earl, who had been hired by the Cadillac 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.
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 roadster could also be ordered in two-tone color combinations, at a time when dark colors like black and navy blue were still the most familiar colors produced by manufacturers. 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.
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.
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 Metal Body.
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. Sales rebounded and almost doubled to 7,218 units for the year. 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.
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 again climbed in 1939 to 23,028.
The 1940 and final LaSalle was introduced in October 1939 and as it had in its first year, with 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.
A 1941 LaSalle was planned and reached the design phase, before General Motors ended the product line. In its place, Cadillac fielded the "Series 61", which placed Cadillac's prestige closer to reality for a larger group of people. In its first year, the "61" enjoyed a production of over 29,000 units, almost three times that of LaSalle's 1940 production.
At various points in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, General Motors issued Motorama cars and proposed new consumer automobiles under the design name of LaSalle. 1955 saw two Motorama concept cars, the LaSalle II four-door hardtop and the LaSalle II roadster. Sent to the crusher, both the four-door hardtop and the roadster were instead hidden in a corner of the Warhoops Salvage Yard and were acquired, circa 1990, by Joe Bortz, a Chicago area nightclub owner interested in restoring General Motors' Motorama cars.
In the early 1960s, General Motors' vice president William Mitchell floated the idea that, if Cadillac decided to go forward with a personal luxury coupe currently being designed, it could be marketed as the LaSalle. Cadillac passed on the design and, instead, it was given to Buick and emerged as the Buick Riviera. (The 1967 Eldorado was Cadillac's entry into the personal luxury coupe market.) Again, in the 1970s when Cadillac was developing a new small luxury sedan, the LaSalle name was raised, but was passed over in favor of Cadillac Seville.
The LaSalle is honored forever in the timeless opening theme song to the television show All In The Family. In the song Those Were the Days, Archie and Edith Bunker lament a simpler time, and the song's closing lyrics make reference to the LaSalle with "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days."
In the movie Driving Miss.Daisy, Miss. Daisy says, "I should have kept my LaSalle."