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1939 LaSalle

1939 LaSalle

By Jack Nerad

1939 LaSalle Many great cars have gone out of production simply because they didn't sell well enough. Check the long list our "Greatest Cars," and you will find many that fall into this category. But very few great cars have gone out of production because they sold too well. One of that very select number, though, is the subject of this profile. The LaSalle marque didn't cease to exist because it faced year after year of dwindling sales. No, the demise of the LaSalle, strange as it sounds, was caused by its success.

Okay, as Desi Arnaz would say, I have some serious "splainin'" to do, so let's start at the beginning, which for LaSalle was 1927, the same year that Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris. By the mid-Twenties it had become apparent that the General Motors strategy of offering a variety of brands from low-priced Chevrolet to premium-priced Cadillac was not just successful but, essentially, a stroke of genius that would eventually lead to domination of the American market and make GM the world's largest automotive company. In fact, it was in 1927 that the GM onslaught finally convinced Henry Ford that he would have to build something other than the venerable Model T to stay in business.

Of course, by 1927 the GM array of brands was already familiar. In addition to low-priced Chevrolet there were, in ascending order of price and "class," Oakland (soon to become Pontiac), Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac. (Nope, no Saturn.) Seemingly, this spread offered a car for every man, woman and child who could afford one, but Cadillac executives had other ideas. They felt that there was some room for yet another brand between Buick and Cadillac, and since many Cadillacs of the era were essentially ultra-luxury cars priced at ten times the cost of a Chevrolet, the guess is they were right. So they conceived the LaSalle brand as an affiliate brand that would attract luxury buyers who weren't quite ready to step up to "The Standard of the World."

It is tempting to see LaSalle as what we would describe today as a "near-luxury" brand, something like Acura or Volvo, but that was not actually the case. Right from the beginning, LaSalles left no doubt as to their luxury status. From their initial design and engineering to their stellar build quality, LaSalles were full-on luxury machines, many very deserving of the official "Classic Car" status they won from the Classic Car Club of America. In the absence of the Cadillacs of the era, the LaSalles could have served well as General Motors' standard-bearer. But LaSalles were also designed to be a short notch below Cadillac, allowing that division to gain much more volume than it could have hoped to earn otherwise.

Right out of the box the LaSalle was a hit, and there was every reason it should have been. First of all, the LaSalles were gorgeous cars, the first official collaboration between GM and a California designer named Harley Earl, who, on the strength of his success with LaSalle, would go on to establish GM's Art & Colour Section, the beginning of automotive styling as we know it today. In designing the various models, Earl borrowed heavily from one of the hallowed marques of the day, Hispano-Suisa, so the LaSalles looked rich. Mechanically, the beautiful new cars featured 303 cubic inch V-8 engines that borrowed heavily from Cadillac. By 1929, the year of the stock market crash that led directly to the Great Depression, LaSalles out-sold the Cadillac V-8 models, and in combination Cadillac/LaSalle was becoming a real threat to the luxury-segment dominance of Packard Motor Corporation.

The Depression, however, took a huge toll on LaSalle. After a high-water mark of 22,000 sales in 1929, it slipped to 14,000 the following year and by 1933 only 3,400 LaSalles were sold. Combined with sales of just 2,000 Cadillac V-8s in '33, there is little wonder GM execs strongly considered ending the LaSalle experiment right there. But Harley Earl had another idea up his sleeve. He presented GM management with a voluptuous art deco masterpiece designed by Jules Agramonte as Art & Colour's recommendation for the 1934 LaSalle. Not only was the design a stunner, the car was also based on the Oldsmobile chassis and powered by the Olds 240 cubic inch straight eight rather than the Caddy-derived V-8. This meant the new LaSalle would be much less expensive to produce, and GM executives gave it the green light.

With great styling and a significantly lower price (a '34 coupe had a list price of $1,595 versus the $2,245 of the '33 model,) sales began to creep up again. By 1936 sales were back up to 13,000, and Cadillac was confident enough in the nation's recovery from the Depression to again offer a Cadillac-based LaSalle complete with a 322 cubic inch, 125-horsepower V-8 engine. The public loved it, and LaSalle sales soared to 32,000 for 1937.

For the next two years, LaSalle gave its willing buyers more of the same: great styling based on the GM B-body, sound mechanical components, a terrifically tractable V-8 engine with tons of torque, and pricing that dipped under the $1,000-mark for the coupe. The economy had a bit of a relapse in 1938, and so did LaSalle sales, but they were still substantially higher than the sales of the Cadillac V-8 models. 

By 1939 the LaSalle was again a solid winner in the marketplace, and the '39 model is, arguably, the best of the post-1933 LaSalles. For 1939 only, GM engineers cut the LaSalle wheelbase to 120 inches, which gave the car a much more maneuverable feel than the 124-inch-wheelbase '38 model or the 123-inch-wheelbase '40 model. Of course, the LaSalle offered terrific styling keyed by its signature stand-up grille that was less than 12 inches across but nearly three feet high. The arresting grille was flanked by two high-mounted headlight pods that protruded from the sides of the hood. Other details were equally attractive, and the '39 coupe is one of the best-looking cars of the era.

Under the hood the '39 LaSalle continued to offer the 322-cubic-inch V-8 engine. While its 125 horsepower doesn't seem like much, this low-revving powerplant was a wonder of low-end torque. This meant that the car could accelerate without a stutter from five miles per hour or so, making gear-shifting through its column-mounted shifter a reasonably infrequent occurrence. While around-town driving was its forte, the LaSalle had a top speed of close to 100 miles per hour.

But the winds of change were blowing again, and the same logic that almost led to the demise of LaSalle in 1934 surfaced again. In 1940, the LaSalle line outsold the bread-and-butter Cadillac V-8s by a two-to-one margin, and Cadillac execs again began to wonder if the LaSalle were actually too competitive. Though designed to counter lower-line models from Packard and Lincoln, evidence seemed to indicate that LaSalle was winning more sales from potential Cadillac 62-series buyers than from rival brands. So GM decided to put all its luxury eggs in the Cadillac basket, eliminating the LaSalle and creating a 61-series Cadillac that sold for about the same money.

The market boomed in 1941, and the Cadillac strategy boomed with it. Combined sales of 61- and 62-Series Cadillacs topped 50,000 units for the year, but the LaSalle was gone for good, one great car that was the victim of its own success.
Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.
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