From 1927 to 1940, the LaSalle was Cadillac’s beloved junior brand. Here’s a fond look back.
Today, many folks know the LaSalle brand mainly from “Those Were the Days,” the theme song of the popular 1970s TV sitcom, All in the Family. Each Sunday night, Archie and Edith Bunker (Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton) sat at their piano and sang: “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great—those were the days.”
In its time, 1927 through 1940, the LaSalle, a junior or companion brand to Cadillac, was an admired and respected car—and a rather successful one for General Motors, too. In some ways it was too successful, it’s been said. Here’s a pocket history of the popular baby Cadillac.
Introduced in March of 1927, LaSalle was one of GM president Alfred P. Sloan’s companion brands—sub-brands designed to fill in the perceived gaps in the model lineup among the Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac divisions. Sold and supported by the Cadillac dealer network (and like Cadillac, named after an early French explorer), the LaSalle slotted in below Cadillac and above Buick in the GM model range. Shown above is a 1927 roadster.
The LaSalle was powered by its own 303 CID junior version of the vaunted Cadillac V8, rated at 75 hp, while features and appointments were deluxe throughout. The LaSalle’s exciting styling, often compared to Hispano-Suizas of the period, was supplied by a young California car designer named Harley Earl, who was discovered and brought to Detroit by GM executive Lawrence Fisher. Of course, Earl would soon become GM’s first vice president of design.
Thanks in no small part to Earl’s styling, the LaSalle managed to be more than the sum of its parts: less expensive than a Cadillac, but offering a more youthful and stylish image than either the Cadillac or Buick. In the first two years of LaSalle production, nearly 27,000 units were sold, boosting the Cadillac division’s sales volume by a third. With the exception of Pontiac, which actually eclipsed its Oakand parent division, LaSalle was the most successful of the GM companion brands.
In 1934, struck hard by the Great Depression and battling to cut costs, GM repackaged the LaSalle on an Oldsmobile body shell and drivetrain, including the Olds L-head, straight-8 powerplant. This more austere version of the LaSalle was offered through 1936 with fair success in the showroom. It was not a great seller or a style setter like the original, but it kept the LaSalle name in the game until economic conditions improved. One important advance for 1934 was wishbone-type independent front suspension, a great step forward in ride and handling.
For 1937 LaSalle returned to its former glory with distinctive new styling and Cadillac V8 power, a 322 CID unit with 125 hp. Ralph DePalma is shown here behind the wheel of the muscular LaSalle convertible coupe that paced the 1937 Indy 500. Sales that year zoomed to 32,000 units, a high-water mark for the brand. The latest junior Cadillac was a smash hit with car buyers, or so it would seem. But in the big picture, sales were only even with the Zephyr, Lincoln’s V12 mid-price luxury car, and far behind the volume of the Packard 120, Packard’s price leader introduced in 1935. LaSalle’s comfortable market niche was slipping away.
The 1940 model year was the final one for LaSalle. While a 1941 version made it into the formal planning stages, it was essentially a base-model Cadillac with a different front end and badges. A lower-priced Cadillac 61 series at $1345 was slipped into the LaSalle’s former slot in the lineup and the LaSalle name was retired.
In total, just over 205,000 LaSalles were produced over the car’s 14-year run—not a bad record at all, but not a great one. In the end, LaSalle sales mainly siphoned off volume from the senior Cadillac brand, but at a lower profit margin. With the LaSalle discontinued, Cadillac sales for 1941 leaped from 37,000 to 63,000 units, a division record. If anyone on the 14th floor of the GM Building shed a tear for the LaSalle, they quickly got over it.
For decades following the LaSalle’s demise, General Motors repeatedly toyed with the idea of rebooting the popular brand. One noteworthy example was this design studio mockup from August of 1960, the LaSalle II concept (also known as the GM XP-715). But Cadillac turned thumbs down on the proposal and the car became the 1963 Buick Riviera.
Will the LaSalle nameplate ever return? That seems doubtful. Cadillac has had numerous opportunities to apply the name to its entry-level models over the years, and each time the division has turned away the idea. Today we can remember the LaSalle just as it was, as one of America’s most beloved cars. Those were the days.