Leland’ s ideal of quality led the way to precision engineering.
Henry M. Leland famous progenitor of the equally famous Cadillac car, fully deserved the title bestowed on him of “grand old man of the Industry.” Leland’s day was a period of distinguished pioneers in the then newborn enterprise of building automobiles, but he went much further than his contemporaries. He strove for ideals of accuracy and quality that were destined to set the standard for modern precision automotive engineering.
In 1890, the firm of Leland, Faulconer and Norton was established at Detroit for the purpose of manufacturing machine tools, gear cutters and grinders. Business prospered and five years later the firm was reorganized as the Leland and Faulconer Manufacturing Company. A gray iron foundry was added in 1896. It soon became famous for the production of quality castings, unmatched in America. These brought high prices, but were well worth the extra cost.
Once equipped with his foundry, Leland was soon embarked on the production of gasoline engines for marine use. At most, they developed about 15 hp, but they were much more complex than the average auto-buggy engine of those times--and more dependable!
This gave Leland an idea: if he could build a successful marine engine, it should be easy to build an engine for an automobile. And if this were possible--as it surely was, he reasoned--then why not build a complete car?
Circumstances appeared to conspire to bring Leland’s idea to fruition. In March, 1901, the Olds Motor Works at Lansing was destroyed by fire. Leland and Faulconer were awarded the contract to furnish engines for the Oldsmobile. Following this, the newly formed Detroit Automobile Company also asked Leland’s firm to build its engines.
Once started in the production of automobile engines, Henry Leland wasted little time. By September, 1902, he had already begun work on his first car. Modestly, he did not name it after himself. He felt a more appropriate name would be Cadillac. It conveyed the proper impression of dignity: it was attractive, and it was historical. In 1701, the city of Detroit had been founded by a French soldier of fortune and explorer, whose name was Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
That same year the Detroit Automobile Company was reorganized. It became the Cadillac Automobile Company and before the year had ended the first Cadillac car was ready for market.
Henry Ford had left the Thomas Edison Company to work with Leland. Such a combination, obviously, could produce only one kind of an automotive product--a highly successful one.
Known as the Model A, the first Cadillac to appear on a production basis made its debut in March, 1903. It was a beautiful little car, definitely built up to an ideal and not down to a price. With the exception of indirect overhead valves, its features were conventional enough: a water-cooled single-cylinder engine of 6.5 hp located under the driving seat and a two-speed planetary transmission. But it was in a class by itself for superlative detail and ultra-fine finish.
The price tag of $750 was not a real cause of worry to Henry Ford; the thing that bothered him most was that automobiles manufactured in accordance with Leland’s policy could not hope to find a mass market. Leland clearly was not interested in catering to the thousands who then still owned horse-drawn buggies, whereas Ford was more interested in this than in anything else. Their divergence of views finally caused a rift. After not more than a year’s association with Leland, Ford went off on his own to build and sell a car which would appeal to every purse.
As things turned out, both these pioneers --though at opposite ends of the scale-- came to be noted among the most successful men in the industry.
Until 1905, Leland and Faulconer had remained a separate entity from the Cadillac Company. That year, however, a merger was formed and Henry M. Leland became general manager of the new Cadillac Motor Car Company. Each successive model became bigger, more powerful, more ambitious in detail, more divorced from price considerations. In fact (if this were possible), the car was increasingly being slanted toward the man whose sole concern was not “How much?” but “How good?” and yet it sold.
Cadillac sales figures proved that there were plenty of ultra-discriminating car enthusiasts: 1,895 cars were built during 1903 and 1904. In this latter year, Leland introduced a Model B, which continued in production for some time and sold a total of 16,126 units. In 1905, the four-cylinder Model 30 went into production; it caught on quickly and by 1908 approximately 8,000 of these were being sold annually. The price was $1,400.
But still Leland, the perfectionist, was not satisfied. In 1907, his devotion to the principle of accuracy led him to import from Sweden the first set of Johansson gauge blocks to be used in the United States. They revolutionized manufacturing.
These blocks represented the practical metric absolute from which measurements could be taken. They virtually guaranteed that if their basic tolerance were held, two parts of exactly the same size and shape could be machined, measured and checked. Nothing like it had ever been seen in this country prior to that time.
The wisdom of Leland was dramatically demonstrated in 1908, when Cadillac won the coveted Sir Thomas Dewar Trophy for interchangeability of manufactured parts. Under auspices of the Royal Automobile Club, Leland traveled to London with three of his cars. They were publicly dismantled by his mechanics and the parts thoroughly scrambled in a heap so that there was no way of telling which component belonged to which automobile. The mechanics then calmly went to work and rebuilt three cars from the heap. All three started at once and ran perfectly. With this one demonstration, Leland had laid the foundation stone of American automotive engineering. He not only proved the value of precision manufacturing, but he also became the basic inspiration toward the establishment of American industrial might in the field of mass-production techniques.
Leland, however, was not one to rest on past achievements. No sooner had an improvement been tested and found worthy of his cars, than another was under way. When Cadillac became a division of General Motors, in 1910, Leland’s company was the first to introduce closed bodywork as standard factory-built equipment. True, there were limousines to be seen in those days, but invariably the bodywork was custom-built, just like the carriage body.
The general trend was in the direction of phaetons and it continued that way for at least another decade. But those who wanted an enclosed Cadillac could have one without unnecessary bother.
Two years later, Cadillac startled the industry with another “first.” Included as standard equipment were an electric lighting and starting system. This again won Cadillac the Dewar Trophy and placed the company in the enviable position of being the only two-time winner of this award.
The beginning of World War I, in 1914, saw Cadillac production at a new high of more than 17,000 cars a year. This was despite a top price of $3,250.
At this time, too, the company released its biggest bombshell: a V-8 water-cooled engine. It was the first production car to be powered in this way.