22 August 2008

1938 LaSalle Convertible Coupe

There was a full decade-plus of Art & Colour-designed GM automobiles on the road by the time 1938 models hit the road. Harley J. Earl made a big impact on automotive products with superior designs that started out with Cadillac’s newly introduced LaSalle in 1927 (arguably the most handsome car from any American production line that year), and quickly moved to Chevrolet and the rest of the divisions during the following years. Earl arrived at GM’s Detroit office in 1927 from California, where he was a Stanford-educated designer for the coach building division of the Don Lee Cadillac dealer in Los Angeles. He came to the Motor City to consult on the LaSalle design and ended up staying for 32 years before retiring as GM’s director of design.

Earl came by his passion for automobiles honestly. His father started Earl Carriage Works, which later became Earl Automobile Works. In 1919, it was that company that Don Lee merged into his Hollywood business, bringing with it the talented young designer.

General Motors was in the throws of adding companion cars to each of its divisions during the mid- to late-1920s in order to fill niches in the market through existing dealerships. At the top, Cadillac spawned the LaSalle (1927–1940), Buick gave birth (stillbirth) to the Marquette (1930), Oldsmobile brought out the short-lived Viking (1929–1930) and Oakland unveiled the Pontiac (1926–present). Chevrolet was doing quite well by itself in competing for the low end of the market against Ford. Each division was in need of Earl’s stylistic approval before being given the nod to go into production.

While all of the companion cars were gone before the second huge wave of styling re-dos took place in 1933 (except for Pontiac), Earl remained and had his eyes set on streamlining the company products even further. It was the beginning of badge-engineering, as each division added its own styling touches to shared platforms. With the country deep into the Depression, LaSalle production (3,381 built) was hit hard and the decision was made to discontinue. There was also serious talk of dropping Cadillac. But Earl’s design wizards, headed by Jules Agramonte at LaSalle, produced a stunningly good-looking LaSalle design for 1934 that introduced aeronautical Art Deco styling elements and prompted company officials to let it ride.

Unique touches included prominent “biplane”-type front bumpers, an extremely narrow grille, pontoon fenders, rounded hood louvers and, once again, hoisted LaSalle as the industry’s fashion leader. Sleek wire wheel covers completed the slippery shape, and the car was rewarded with being selected to pace the Indy 500 that year. The compromise, though, was that to save production costs and lower the consumer price, instead of sharing platforms with Cadillac, it would be built on the economical Oldsmobile underpinnings including its straight-eight powerplant, an amalgamation of both Cadillac and Oldsmobile engineering and parts and produced 105 hp. It was, however, still built and marketed by Cadillac.

With its extremely good looks and prices reduced considerably, sales more than doubled. But LaSalle took a punch in 1935 with the introduction of Packard’s highly successful “120” that dug deeply into possible LaSalle sales. It seemed that only an improving economy helped sales to marginally increase. In 1936, LaSalle was again blindsided, this time by Lincoln’s new Zephyr, which took on aeronautical touches and was even more streamlined than the slightly sleeker LaSalle. LaSalle shared its body with the newly introduced Series 60 Cadillac and the Buick Century, but an increase in production to 13,004 reflected the improved economy more than anything else.

For LaSalle in 1937, executives opted to move LaSalle back into Cadillac’s corner, utilizing common frames with the Caddy’s Series 60 chassis equipped with Hotchkiss drive, rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, coil-spring independent front suspension and a slightly detuned Cadillac 346 cid V-8 (to 322 cid). Visual aesthetics changed little, but headlights were relocated from the grillshell to being mounted onto the top of the front fenders. Sales bounced to an astounding 32,005 units, and would prove to be the height of LaSalle production.

GM models for 1938 were mostly warmed-over 1937 designs. Not entirely roll-over products came out, though, as it was the year that the industry’s first and most famous show car, Buick’s Y-Job, hit the street with a loud statement. The Buick Y-Job became Earl’s personal car, and represented the “horizontal” theme that was forthcoming in 1942. Other GM highlights that year included a slightly revised Buick that became one of that division’s best designs ever, and, even more importantly, the Cadillac Sixty Special that departed from traditional design practices resulting in a much more spacious interior while at the same time, its overall height was three inches lower than any previous Cadillac. Designed by Cadillac’s new chief stylist William Mitchell, the Sixty Special inspired the design of the 1940 Lincoln Continental as well as many other vehicles both inside GM and out.

LaSalle’s second-year facelift for 1938 included a totally vertical “finely checked” grille, headlights that were mounted a little bit lower, and an “alligator” front-opening style hood. Inside, a new dashboard and a change in shifter location (floor to steering column) represented the only changes. Underneath, the same 322cid V-8 Cadillac derivative remained in place. Sales, as a result of a fairly deep recession, were down across the board for the entire industry, but LaSalle production, in five body styles, dipped down by more than 50 percent, to 15,501.

The rarest LaSalles in 1938 were, of course, the open models, with the convertible sedan counting just 265 cars. The convertible coupe didn’t get ordered in great numbers, either, with just 819 finding their way off the assembly line, while the two-door sedan, with production of some 1,400 examples, and the coupe were built for just 2,710 customers.

In an interesting twist for LaSalle in1939, nearing the end of its lifespan, its styling actually took a step backwards, even though it received a brand-new body shell on a shortened wheelbase. While the rest of the industry had been moving toward incorporating headlights into the fenders as early as 1936, LaSalle reverted to grillshell-mounted headlights and located them higher up. And its unique narrow grille was getting even slimmer, when the industry was moving toward the wide horizontal theme with its new products.

Still available in five body styles, production was boosted to 23,028, a 41 percent increase while outselling the Junior Packard for the first time. It was still far below expectations from a company as large as GM, yet another major styling change arrived for 1940 on a longer wheelbase. In addition, Lasalle was now available in two models – the Series 50 using the B-body shared with Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, and the Series 52 on the C-body platform that took on the new torpedo-inspired appearance. The problem was that the 52 was priced less than $300 from its Cadillac counterpart, and a Buick Roadmaster was less than $100 below the Series 50 LaSalle. LaSalle, as the bridge between Cadillac and Buick, was becoming unnecessary. Production was up, slightly, again, but it was announced in the summer of 1940 that LaSalle wouldn’t be produced for 1941. Some, who’ve seen photos of full-scale clay mock-ups, think that maybe it was for the best.

– West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.


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