“Companion” Marques: The Cadillac LaSalle

“Companion” marques was a term that was unheard of in the automotive industry before the 1920’s.  It was the idea of coming up with a product that could run between two different automotive names to help in closing the gaps between the brands. In 1927, the CEO of General Motors, Alfred Sloan, came up with the idea of “companion” marques because he was noticing price gaps in his car lines with no products to sell at those gap points. You see,originally, GM had a step process; Chevrolet was the entry level brand, then it went Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick and then Cadillac, but due to product and engine improvements, some products were shifting out of line. Since this had been an era where automotive brands were somewhat restricted to building one model per year, Sloan thought adding a “companion” marque between each brand would boost business.  This is where the Cadillac LaSalle was born!

The LaSalle was not the only “companion” marque that was made; between Chevrolet and Oakland was the Pontiac (a 6 cylinder selling for a 4 cylinder price), between Oldsmobile and Buick was the V8 engined Viking and Marquette and between the Buick and the Cadillac was the LaSalle.  We are paying closer attention to the LaSalle, though, because Harvey Earl, who would later have a hand in designing all GM cars over the next 30 years as the Vice President of Art and Color, made this his first GM design and a design that was considered the beginning of modern American automotive style.  At this time in history, a model would follow a same basic pattern through the course of its existence with very slight cosmetic and engineering changes; Harvey Earl changed all of that for GM’s cars.

With the LaSalle, Harvey Earl was not looking for a “junior Cadillac”.  He wanted to build something smaller that was still elegant and agile.  In 1928, he released the first LaSalle that had the high standards of a Cadillac, but was trend-setting.  It offered Fisher, Fleetwood Metal Body and roadster body options, came in two-tone colors, had a Ninety Degree V8 Cadillac engine that made it fast and sporty, and had the infamous “LaS” in the horizontal tie bars between the front lights. 22,691 were sold during that year.  This success did not last due to the Great Depression.  Buick and Oldsmobile dropped the Marquette and Viking in 1930 and the LaSalle saw sales decline to just 3,290 in 1932.

This did not stop GM from continuing to push the mode, though they were less concerned about price gaps and more concerned about staying out of the red. The 1934 LaSalle was more like an Oldsmobile than a Cadillac, but it kept its elegant style with the modern semi-shielded portholes along the side hood.  All of the bodies were now Fleetwood Metal Body and these models were $1000 cheaper than the most basic Cadillac.  Sales recovered slightly to 7,218 units sold and the LaSalle Model 350 was chosen as the Indianapolis 500 pace car in the same year.  The 1937 LaSalle series 50 convertible was chosen as the pace car of the ‘37 race, as well.

From 1939-1940, the LaSalle became more “Cadillac-like” again.  This year a sunroof was added and marketed as a “sunshine Turret Top”.  Sales climbed to 23,028.  The final model year of the LaSalle was in 1940.  Harvey Earl oversaw the design with its smooth and clean features and its infamous thin radiator flanked by thin chrome slots made it appear futuristic.  There was going to be a 1941 LaSalle, but it never made it past the design stage.  The Cadillac Series 61 came out and it
was more available and attainable to buyers, which caused it to sell 29000 units; 2 times more than the LaSalle’s last year.  This jump in sales with the new Series 61 models ended the LaSalle for good.

This does not mean that the LaSalle does not still hold a place in Hollywood history, however.  In the popular television show, All In the Family, the opening theme song had a line that went like this, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days!”  Also, in the movie Driving Miss Daisy, Miss Daisy makes the comment that she wishes she would have kept her LaSalle.

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2 Responses to “Companion” Marques: The Cadillac LaSalle

  1. BGentry says:

    This is a really interesting piece of automotive history, thanks!

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