Even though Cadillac killed its romantic companion make, LaSalle, after 1940, introduction of the 1940s and 1950s Cadillac LaSalle concept cars gave a glimmer of hope for LaSalle's return.
Cadillac's LaSalle was one of only two of General Motors' late-1920s "expansion makes" to survive the Depression. The other, of course, was Pontiac. But LaSalle did not survive the 1940s, despite moving downmarket from "near-luxury" junior Cadillac after 1933 to an upper-medium-price product that enjoyed several good sales years.
The reason for LaSalle's eventual demise was as close as any Cadillac showroom. By 1940, LaSalle was nearly identical in form, finish, body styles, and performance with Cadillac's low-line Series 62, and both were priced close to senior Buicks, which had its eye on the same market territory. For General Motors, it made no sense to continue LaSalle as an in-house rival to those better-established brands.
A more critical factor was the slow but steady upturn in demand for high-luxury cars that accompanied the halting general economic recovery in the years leading up to World War II. Taking due note, Cadillac made a strategic decision that would take it to the very top of its class: namely, to abandon the upper-medium field and return to nothing but all-out luxury.
This contrasted with Packard, whose continued over-reliance on cheaper models after the war cost the make its blue-chip image -- and eventually its life. As one executive said later, Packard just "handed the luxury market to Cadillac on a silver platter." So in the end, LaSalle fell victim to changing times. Today we'd say it was a niche model that lost its niche.
Yet before its demise, a 1941 LaSalle model was in the works (three-year lead times then being the Detroit norm, remember). This was a heavy facelift of the lovely 1940 design, itself virtually all-new.
Headlamps again nestled firmly within the fenders, and the slim horizontal-bar LaSalle radiator returned per recent tradition. But where the 1940 had curved front-fender "catwalk" aprons, the proposed 1941 was more blunted.
Prominent vertical slots again flanked the radiator, but were shorter in keeping with the industry trend to more horizontal "faces." The profile was pure period GM. Front-fender trailing edges were newly squared off in the manner of Cadillac's stylish Sixty Special.
Rear fenders wore fashionable skirts with a circular emblem where the hubcap would have shown had the wheels been exposed; some production 1941 Caddys had this too.
Chrome trim included triple strips at the base of all fenders and sparkling appliques along the vestigial running boards. GM Design chief Harley Earl believed this made for a brighter look on used-car lots that helped prop up resale values, which is why so many 1941 GM cars had a "shiny" look.
The 1941 LaSalle went as far as a pair of full-size Series 52 mockups, fastback and notchback, both four-doors. With the decision to axe the line, Cadillac substituted a new Series 61 of comparable size and price. A decade later, it was gone, too, as the division moved even more decisively toward luxury-class leadership.
Despite its role as Cadillac's less-expensive companion, LaSalle was a great loss for many GM aficionados, who still thought of it fondly as years passed.
After all, designing the first 1927 LaSalle was what had brought Harley Earl to GM, where he set up the famed Art & Colour Studio as the industry's first in-house styling department. The 1934 LaSalles were far less prestigious than earlier models, but were remembered more for somewhat daring looks than middling price.
Even after all this, some GM designers and executives hoped for LaSalle's return as a specialized Cadillac. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the 1955 LaSalle II concept cars.
For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:
1955 Cadillac LaSalle II Series Concept Cars
With all this, it's not surprising that some GM designers and even executives continued to have visions of LaSalle's eventual return as a specialized Cadillac. Prime among them was Harley Earl, who created two 1955 Cadillac LaSalle Series II concept cars for that year's edition of GM's traveling Motorama show.
Both wore vertical-slot grilles echoing the aborted 1941, flanked by vertical bumpers bearing big "bullet" guards and wrapped around to the sides. There were also "LaS" emblems as used in LaSalle's last years.
Still, these concepts were dissimilar to each other. One was a flashy two-seat roadster of the Corvette stripe, with elliptical bodyside concavities like those destined for the production 1956 'Vette.
Stubby rear fenders were abruptly cut off to leave the wheels exposed (something like the Brooks Stevens treatment for the front of the stillborn 1956 Gaylord). Chassis side rails housed the exhaust pipes, which exited just ahead of the back wheels.
The other 1955 LaSalle II was a hardtop sedan with rear-hinged back doors, one of the few throwback touches Earl indulged in. (The production 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham would have them too.) Seating for six was provided despite a compact 108-inch wheelbase.
Overall length was just 180 inches, height a mere 50 inches. That lowness was partly achieved with 13-inch tires, rare for even period Detroit showmobiles. Predictive features included unit construction, a big compound-curve windshield similar to 1959 production design, and an experimental small-block aluminum V-6 that GM was toying with at the time.
Concave bodyside ellipses, again finished in a darker hue, were shared with the roadster (as was V-6 power), but rear wheels were only semi-exposed in "jet tube" fenders a la the 1953 Corvette.
GM publicity described the LaSalle II hardtop as "a new concept of passenger sedan styling directed to recapture the distinctive exclusiveness and high quality of craftsmanship of the original LaSalle." But to many, it just looked silly.
It also looked much like other recent Earl "dream cars" including several Cadillac concepts, the 1955 Chevy Biscayne, and the 1956 Impala Sport Coupe.
The LaSalle II roadster wasn't really fresh either, having been foreshadowed by the 1954 Buick Wildcat II, Olds F-88, and Cadillac La Espada/El Camino -- not to mention the 1953 Corvette. But then, both LaSalle IIs were strictly for show and never intended for showrooms.
Although the LaSalle name repeatedly resurfaced at GM, its return was just not in the cards. Continue on to the next page to learn more about how the LaSalle name finally came to an end.
For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:
LaSalle in Limbo
The thought of resurrecting the LaSalle name has frequently resurfaced at GM, but production planners have chosen to keep LaSalle in limbo.
Production was definitely on GM's mind when the LaSalle name resurfaced a few years later in connection with the project that produced the 1963 Buick Riviera.
At first, this Thunderbird-beater was proposed as a new personal-luxury Cadillac line called LaSalle, and several body types were developed, including convertible and hardtop sedans.
The four-door droptop would have been quite timely against Lincoln's then-new Continental model, but Buick's poor sales in that period dictated some added product help, so the car was assigned to Flint and offered only as a hardtop coupe. Thus ended the first chance for a new LaSalle since 1940.
But the name continued to exert considerable magic within the GM halls of power, and another chance came in the early 1970s. Cadillac was planning a new small sedan, and there were serious thoughts of calling it LaSalle, though "Leland" was also in the running (honoring Cadillac's founder, Henry Martyn Leland).
LaSalle, however, was all but assured -- until a division executive came across an article that characterized the original line as "Cadillac's only failure." That was enough for the sales force, which voted for a newer, more recognized name with some success behind it: Seville.
Reportedly, LaSalle was also contemplated for what became the subcompact Cimarron of 1982-1988, but given that car's unhappy record and "loser" image, this third-time rejection was a definite charm.
People still talk about LaSalles, but they're now mostly historians and old-Cadillac fanciers. Will the name ever be revived? Probably not, though you can never can tell.
Let's just hope that if Cadillac ever does see fit to bring it back, it will be for a car truly worthy of the romantic originals, lest the name be forever sullied. Otherwise, LaSalle is probably best left in limbo. As they say, some things just can't be duplicated.