Cadillac's romantic companion make stemmed from the desire of legendary General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan to offer a car for every pocketbook, the basic philosophy that made GM the giant it is today. In the mid-'20s, Sloan detected a price gap between Buick and Cadillac, and assigned the latter to fill it with a second model line.
The division chose the name LaSalle, honoring another French explorer like Cadillac, and introduced its junior series in 1927 on a wheelbase shorter than that of its senior cars. It was all part of the great period of expansion that brought forth a host of such cars to satisfy a market that looked like it would grow forever.
A big attraction of that first LaSalle was elegant body design by Harley Earl, a talented young West Coast designer reared in the "carriage trade," whom Sloan hired specifically to shape the new line. LaSalle amply fulfilled GM's hopes, and launched Earl on an illustrious 30-year career as the company's dean of design. In its first year, LaSalle accounted for 25 percent of Cadillac sales. By 1929, it was outselling its big sister.
In the Depression-racked '30s, LaSalle provided the sales volume that helped Cadillac survive. Though the division's total yearly production rarely exceeded Packard's, LaSalle's share was often substantial and sometimes critical. In rock-bottom 1933, for example, Cadillac's model-year output slid to 6700 units, but LaSalle accounted for fully half of it. In 1937, when Cadillac built 46,000 cars, 32,000 were LaSalles. Even so, LaSalle sales never really satisfied GM managers, who wanted much more.
The 1930 LaSalles, designated Series 340, followed general industry thinking of the times in being longer, heavier, and more expensive than the 1929 offerings. Wheelbase was now 134 inches as all models were put on the "long" chassis, and the original 125-inch "standard" platform was dropped.
As before, the mainstay sellers carried bodies from the Fisher Brothers concern acquired by GM some years earlier. These comprised two coupes, two four-door sedans, a convertible coupe, and a pair of seven-passenger sedans in the $2500-$3000 range. Up in the $2400-$4000 area were six semicustom styles by Fleetwood, another respected GM-acquired coachbuilder: a roadster, two phaetons, a seven-seat touring, and two five-passenger sedans. By comparison, 1930 Cadillac prices started at $3295 and went to more than $10,800.
Not surprisingly for a Cadillac product, LaSalle bowed with a V-8, a 303-cubic-inch unit making close to 80 horsepower. This was bored out for 1928 to 328 cid and 86 bhp. To match the increased size and weight of the 1930 models, the V-8 was enlarged once more, this time to 340 cid, good for 90 bhp.
LaSalle styling in 1930 still owed much to Earl's original 1927 concepts: low silhouette, long and sweeping "clamshell" fenders, a tall and round-shouldered radiator inspired by that of the fabled Hispano-Suiza, and two-tone paint, then a novelty. The most obvious change for 1930 was a taller radiator that enhanced an already impressive styling package. The public continued to buy, and LaSalle recorded model-year production of some 15,000. Though that was about 75 percent of Cadillac's volume, it was nonetheless respectable in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
LaSalle Cars of the 1930s
The fast-deepening Depression forced Cadillac to adopt costcutting measures for 1931-33. As a result, the 1931 Series 345A gained the senior line's 95-bhp 353-cid V-8, while that year's Cadillac Eights were put on the LaSalle chassis. Power improved to 115 for 1932-33. Model choices remained broadly the same for '31, then reduced for the 345B- and C-series of 1932-33, when seven-passenger sedans were upgraded to a 136-inch chassis and standard models were demoted to a 130-inch platform.
LaSalle prices were also reduced in 1931-33 -- down to $2200-$2800. Though that was about $500 below Cadillac Eights, the latter evidently looked like better buys, for they matched LaSalle in sales and actually beat the junior line in '31. LaSalle volume was well down anyway, dropping from 10,000 to just under 3400 for '32; the 1933 total was scarcely better.
Seeking to turn things around, Cadillac issued an all-new 1934 Series 350 with a look exclusive to LaSalle. Prices were again slashed, this time to $1000 under the senior Eights. Models were also slashed, leaving just a coupe, four-door sedan, club sedan, and convertible coupe. All rode a trim 119-inch wheelbase shared with Oldsmobile, as were basic bodyshells. Still cutting costs, Cadillac replaced LaSalle's V-8 with a 240.3-cid Olds L-head straight eight, albeit with Cadillac-supplied aluminum pistons and other changes. Still, horsepower withered to 95. But "Knee-Action" independent front suspension was a new talking point, and a first at GM (shared with Olds). Stylewise, the transitional 1933 look gave way to full streamlining, highlighted by a rounded grille and curious portholes on the hood sides.
This design/price formula persisted for two more years, but it didn't work well enough and sales remained well below those of rival junior editions. Still, LaSalle improved from just under 7200 for 1934 to over 8600 for the eight-model 1935 range, then to 13,000 for 1936, when offerings were again trimmed to four. Prices for '36 were the lowest ever: $1175 for the two-passenger coupe, $1255 for the convertible coupe. Interim changes included a 105-bhp 248 option for '35 that was made standard for '36, plus the phasing-in of "trunkback" sedans to replace outmoded trunkless styles. All LaSalles were designated Series 50 from 1935 to '39.
Cadillac tried a new formula for 1937, making LaSalles much like its 1936 Series 60 -- predictable perhaps, given the high success of that low-priced senior line. Power came from the same new 125-bhp 322 "monobloc" V-8, and deftly revised styling on a unique 124-inch wheelbase made LaSalles arguably more attractive than that year's Caddys. Buyers responded, and LaSalle sales reached a record 32,000 for the model year. Few major changes occurred for 1938, but a four-door sedan with a sliding-steel "Sunshine Turret Roof" joined the existing two-and four-door sedans, convertible sedan, and rumble-seat coupe and convertible. Sadly, a short but sharp recession shrank sales by half, to the chagrin of GM accountants. LaSalle was floundering, yet its cars were still bargains at 1938 prices ranging from $1300 to $1900.
But Cadillac was determined, so LaSalle was completely reworked for 1939. The V-8 was untouched, but a new midrange GM B-body brought a smart new shape with greater glass area and no running boards (except on convertibles, where they were optional). Wheelbase, which was shared with senior Oldsmobiles, was trimmed to 120 inches (as for '36). Despite all this, output was disappointing once more: only about 21,000 for the model year.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
LaSalle Cars of the 1940s
The 1940 model year brought modified styling that marked a high point in LaSalle's 14-year history, plus the make's first two-series lineup in a decade. The design leader was the plush new Series 52 Special bearing Harley Earl's latest "torpedo" look. While Cadillacs retained bullet-pod headlamps on the hood sides, the 52's new sealed beams (shared with other 1940 Detroiters) moved down into the fenders. Body lines were gently rounded and clean, interiors were more spacious on a three-inch longer wheelbase, and windows became even larger.
The trademark LaSalle grille arguably reached its pinnacle: still slimmer than Cadillac's but artfully shaped. Like the '39s, the 1940 models wore vertical brightwork in the "catwalk" areas between grille and headlamps (another Earl idea), but the catwalks were now wider and fully integrated with the fenders.
Along with the 1940 Series 50, the new 52 Special offered a coupe and four-door sedan, now with fully integral trunks. The 50s, which included a two-door sedan, retained the basic '39 appearance. Though boxy next to the new Specials, they were nonetheless attractive, with the longer wheelbase and smoother front. The season's most-elegant LaSalles were unquestionably the Special convertible coupe and sedan that arrived midyear. Minor changes added five horsepower to the 322 L-head V-8, lifting output to 130.
But by now, LaSalle had been crowded out of its once-exclusive price niche. True, its 1940 spread was fairly broad, running from the $1240 Series 50 coupe to the $1895 Special convertible sedan. But a genuine Series 62 Cadillac could be had for as little as $1685 that year; Buicks listed at $895-$2199. And although LaSalle accounted for almost two-thirds of Cadillac's total 1940 volume -- 24,130 out of some 37,000 -- it ranked only slightly ahead of Lincoln and remained far behind Packard. It now seemed more logical to offer a lower-priced Cadillac rather than a junior line with less prestige. The division did precisely that for 1941, replacing LaSalle with the new entry-level Cadillac, Series 61.
The decision to drop LaSalle ultimately proved correct. Spanning a $1350-$1535 range, the Series 61 sold 29,250 copies its first year, then was gradually outpaced by the costlier 62s. But the 61 remained in premium-price territory to prevent a cheapening of Cadillac's image. Postwar prosperity rendered it unnecessary after 1951. By that point, Cadillac had become America's luxury sales leader by far.
Before the decision to drop LaSalle, GM Styling had prepared a prototype 1941 design. A torpedo-style fastback four-door sedan, it was a pretty car with the traditional slim grille and "catwalk" fender trim, plus thin horizontal parking lights, spinner hubcaps, and a revival of the early LaSalle radiator badge -- an "LaS" monogram in a circle.
Memories of LaSalle's distinction, refinement, and class continued to exert considerable magic within GM Design long after World War II, and the name popped up in connection with several projects that led some to believe a revival was imminent. The first of these were the "LaSalle II" hardtop sedan and two-seat roadster created for the 1955 Motorama. Though strictly for show, they wore grilles composed of vertical slats reminiscent of the 1940 catwalks, plus traditional LaSalle heraldry. The name surfaced again for what became the 1963 Buick Riviera, and only at the last minute was LaSalle rejected for Seville as the moniker for Cadillac's new compact sedan of mid-1975.
Will LaSalle ever be reborn? Probably not, but it's a nice thought.