Henry Leland has a great claim to fame: founding two luxury brands that eventually became competitors – one in the Ford empire and one over the road in General Motors.
He was born up in the very north of Vermont in the east of the US in 1843 almost in Canada. He worked in several factories as a youth before the Civil War erupted when he was in his early 20s. This lead him to manufacture the tools to make rifles for the Union army before joining Colt to make the actual weapons.
After the war he worked at Brown and Sharpe, a precision machine tooling company (that still exists today) and then set up shop with a partner under the name Leland and Faulconer as machinists. He had learned a lot about how to create tools and parts with very high tolerances and this was what the emerging auto industry needed. The late 19th century was rife with new machines and ideas floating around and the concept of an internal combustion engine clearly intrigued Leland.
Leland and Faulconer developed a single cylinder motor that used a similar design to one that the Dodge Brothers were making, however with their superior manufacturing processes and higher tolerances, the Leland engine was far more powerful.
Ransom E Olds who founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company wanted Leland to help with engine supply after a fire at their factory. Leland was already supplying transmission parts to Olds and the Leland team offered their more powerful version. However the business manager at Olds rejected the idea wanting to keep the old lesser powerful motor in production.
Henry Ford was also busy at this time, although struggling with his company and his backers felt that they should pull out and liquidate the business. After inviting Leland to see the factory, he advised them to keep the business going, restructure and use his engine as a base for a new car. The financiers agreed and purchased the company off Henry Ford, supporting Leland to rename the company “Cadillac” in honour of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit in 1701. So the basis of Cadillac is actually Ford!
Leland was a man of the times and implemented many emerging manufacturing practices in the factory which made award winning cars – so much so that in 1909 Alfred Sloan of General Motors bought the company. The year before Sloan had acquired what had now become Oldsmobile bringing together two names that had a strong connected heritage.
During the First World War, the Government asked Cadillac to build aircraft engines and GM management refused, however Leland was keen. He left GM to form Lincoln Motor Company and borrowed heavily to fulfil the contract to manufacture V12 engines for the war effort. Soon after the hostilities ended, he restructured Lincoln to start building cars. This time the company name was in honour of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the USA during the civil war – and someone who Leland admired immensely.
The second car business was much harder. The US economy was in poor shape so the market for luxury cars was a lot smaller than when Cadillac was formed, and in 1922 Lincoln became insolvent (i.e. trading when they didn’t have enough assets to cover their debt). The tax office was also after Leland for presumed war profits – interesting as it was the Government who asked him to supply engines in the first place, so they would have helped set the unit price!
Henry Ford jumped at the chance to grab the ailing company (some say in revenge for the Cadillac issue 20 years earlier) and absorbed Lincoln into Ford whilst booting Leland out of the door. By this stage he was well into his 70s with a fighting spirit and with Ford allegedly reneging on several deals with Leland and his son, law suits were formed. For most of the next eight years Leland, his son and the original Lincoln shareholders battled Ford in court unsuccessfully each time.
He died in 1932 aged 89 in Detroit. His life was much more than a simple article can describe. He was one of the early engineers who took ideas from several industries and applied them to the young auto industry, making it better and more profitable. At the same time, he brought together other great minds to develop components that we still see fitted to cars a century on.