Henry Leland, forgotten giant of the auto industry

The Lincoln was introduced in 1920 as closed models were becoming increasingly popular

Henry Leland

Of all the automotive giants of the early 20th century,  undoubtedly the most underestimated has been Henry Leland.

It is virtually impossible to overstate his contributions to the auto industry. Yet his name never appeared on a car’s nameplate and the only remembrances of him in the Motor City he did so much to create are names on a street north of the Eastern Market and a former hotel.

This man built engines for Olds, the first mass-produced car in the world and the first to be produced in Detroit. He improved the Olds engine by redesigning valve ports and raising its compression and offered it to Olds, who turned him down.

So in 1902, Leland took the engine to a meeting of directors of the Henry Ford Co., who had gathered to close the business. The company had been formed by four investors to exploit the work of Ford, but there had been a misunderstanding and Ford had quit the company, so it had nothing to build or sell.

(Disagreements between the strong-willed inventors who designed and built cars and the hard-headed businessmen who backed them financially were not unusual. Olds also disagreed with his financial backers and left the company, which kept the name Oldsmobile. He went back to Lansing whence he came and built a car bearing his initials, the Reo. The original Oldsmobile company, which became a division of General Motors, also moved to Lansing.)

Leland’s engine was so compact that he could carry it into the room. The directors were impressed and after Leland’s presentation, decided to build a car using this advanced motor.

The 1902 Cadillac, named after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer and founder of Detroit.

But the car was not called the Leland. At Leland’s suggestion, it was named after the French explorer who founded Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.

With its small, efficient single-cylinder engine, the “one-lunger” Cadillac was an immediate success. As the master machinist, Leland achieved a degree of interchangeability of parts that had been sought but not quite reached by Olds. After rigorous testing by the Royal Automobile Club in Great Britain, the Cadillac was the first American car to win the club’s Dewar Trophy for distinguished automotive achievement.

Leland would later sell his Cadillac company to General Motors and serve as an executive running that division, then leave the corporation in 1917 after disagreements over just how high the quality of the car should be and a heated dispute over the corporation’s role in World War 1.

With his son Wilfred, who had also been an executive of Cadillac Division, he started another company in 1917 to build aircraft engines for the war effort. It later shifted to automobile production.

He built a plant on Livernois and Warren, which still stands and is now being used by Detroit Edison. He named his new car after a longtime hero of his, a man the young Leland voted for in the first presidential election he was eligible to vote in and the Lincoln became a competitor to Cadillac and Packard in the luxury-car market.

The Lincoln was introduced in 1920 just as a post-World War I recession was getting under way. The company fell into financial disarray and Leland’s new enterprise was auctioned in a bankruptcy sale. Henry Ford bought it in one of the great bargains of automotive history and Leland’s second great automobile became part of Ford Motor Co.

Leland’s influence also was personal.

On one occasion, Leland lectured the head of a leading supplier of roller bearings on the importance of precision machining. Leland had measured some bearings with a micrometer and said to him: “Your Mr. Steenstrup told me these bearings would be accurate to one 1,000th of an inch. But look here (pointing out variations). Even though you make thousands, the first and last should be precisely alike.”

On the receiving end of the lecture was Alfred P. Sloan Jr., head of Hyatt Roller Bearing Co., later to become the legendary head of General Motors and architect of modern American management theory.

Of his encounter with Leland, Sloan said many years later: “A genuine conception of what mass production should mean really grew in me with that conversation.”By Richard A. Wright