First and foremost, the General Motors LaSalle car is a story of two men.
Alfred P. Sloan held the Presidency of General Motors for almost 30 years. He was a marketing genius and a very deserving successor of the notoriously rational Henry Ford.
Harley J. Earl was an unparalleled automobile designer. He was a dreamer, an artisan, an artist and a genius all tied up in one. He personified the brand’s soul. Their legacy knows no bounds and, to them the LaSalle was their most fabulous playground.
22 November, 1893: Harley J. Earl is born in Hollywood, California
More than a century has gone by since then, and yet, the influence that this visionary man has had on the world of automobile design remains intact. His time travel machine came in the shape of a car; the most beautiful car imaginable.
Posterity tends to remember him as the father of the mythical Chevrolet Corvette; however, it is thanks to his first LaSalle that his name has become legendary …
“The childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day”
Harley J. Earl is an adolescent brimming with imagination and creativity. During a family camping trip, the youth had gone for a walk after a heavy rainfall. The soil had been disturbed by the rains and Earl discovered a clay deposit. On impulse, the young man started sculpting the material and created a car that was, till then, unique to the world. The occasion marked the beginning of a lifelong adventure; Earl became the first designer to use plasticine for the creation of his automobile designs.
« Technology makes what was once impossible possible. Design makes it real. »
Harley J. Earl is still working for his father. The family-owned company, Earl Automotive Works, is in the business of selling dreams; their custom built, and thus one-of-a-kind cars, are a big thing in Hollywood at the time. When it came to his own dreams, Earl never rested before that he had put them down on paper, with a, by now, well-practised hand and well-used pencil tip. His dreams were curvaceous, and that in an era when engineers were only capable of thinking in terms of right angles.
“A car for every purse and purpose.”
Alfred P. Sloan
During a General Motors summit meeting held in April 1921, Alfred P. Sloan, the then vice-president, inadvertently invented what is now referred to as sloanism. Sloanism segmented the automotive market according to the consumers’ socio-cultural profile, budget, and dreams of social advancement. Buick represented the bottom of the range, Cadillac represented the top of the range, and so the LaSalle neatly claimed the middle position. But as history went on to prove, one’s fondness for a car is not just a matter of price…..
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”
For once, the legend is in line with reality. In 1926, the General Manager of General Motors’ Cadillac division, Lawrence P. Fisher, happens to visit the father of Harley J. Earl at his home. Fisher, himself a former coachbuilder, is absolutely astonished when he sees the plasticine models made by the young Californian designer. He is so impressed that he tells the young man: « Come with me my son, I have a job for you ». Earl finds himself entrusted with the creation of the first LaSalle, thereby filling the famous gap in the market between the Buick and the Cadillac.
« The world does not just evolve thanks to creation and progress; first and foremost come decay and crisis.”
The terrible crisis of 1929 swept away everything in its path; people, along with their dreams of success, were wiped out. The Oakland, Viking, and Marquette: all the car brands that were born under Sloanism disappeared one by one. Just one car formed the exception, the LaSalle, symbol of a hopeful America, survived the onslaught.
« A good sketch is better than a long speech. »
The economic crisis kept on dealing out its blows. The sales of the LaSalle declined and General Motors’ management decided to put a stop to their senseless expenses. Nevertheless, Harley J. Earl did not give up; he presented his superiors with a sketch of a model he had just drawn: « You don’t want to market it? But why not take a look all the same…. » Elegance and sophistication ended up defeating the strategists, and against all odds, production was started up again. Warren G. Fitzgerald, one of Earl’s colleagues, later said « Without a doubt, Harley Earl saved the LaSalle thanks to his magnificent sketch. »
“You should have let me keep my old LaSalle…. »
Miss Daisy Werthan
Despite their acceptable sales volume, the LaSalle cars were just not able to compete with the level of success known by hardy competitors, such as the Lincoln or the Packard (although we feel the need to point out that these cars resembled their parent-brand, the Cadillac, too much). Rightfully so, General Motors eventually decided that the LaSalle was no longer viable. Nonetheless, the last LaSalles of 1940, renowned for their excessively long hoods and unprecedented aerodynamics, entered the annals of history. But, as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end …”