General Motors had a solution in 1927 for Buick owners who wanted to move upscale, but could not afford a top-of-the-line Cadillac. The answer was what they called a companion car, a somewhat lesser car than a Cadillac but still manufactured by Cadillac.
Harley Earl, who went on to head the design studios at General Motors, was hired to design the new car. During the 14-year run every LaSalle was noted for graceful lines and a thin, delicate grille. Promotional materials for LaSalle’s final year described the car as having the same “strong, graceful appearance as the head-on view of a modern transport plane.”
In 1940 only 75 LaSalle convertible sedans were built. In 2004 the California owner of the 51st one advertised it for sale. Roger Bentley saw a small black and white photograph of the 17-foot, 7-inch-long car in a publication. “It was mesmerizing to say the least,” Bentley says.
After several long-distance phone conversations with the owner and inspecting many more pictures of the LaSalle, Bentley says, “I was sold.” The car is so bewitching he named it Samantha, after the character in the TV series “Bewitched.”
He purchased the car sight unseen, which he now says was a big mistake. The 4,110-pound black LaSalle arrived at his Brinklow, Md., home in a rainstorm. Bentley says it was a bad omen. “The car started and I was able to drive it to my garage,” he says. He soon discovered a number of minor problems, still, the sheer beauty of the car held him in a spell.
The second trip on the 7.00×16-inch dazzling wide white sidewalls on the 123-inch wheelbase was plagued with a trail of foam. “Don’t drive it any more until I have a chance to look at it,” Bentley’s mechanic told him.
The sleeping beauty languished for a year in the garage before, Bentley says, “I sent Samantha on a truck to the repair shop.” There it was discovered a head gasket was blown and a rod was thrown, Bentley reports. Contrary to the previous owner’s claim that the engine had been rebuilt, it had never been touched, according to Bentley. “The inside had so much thick oil-mud that it was amazing the car ran at all,” Bentley says.
When new the base price for the torpedo-bodied five-passenger LaSalle was $1,895. The healthy 322-cubic-inch V-8 engine beneath the long hood developed 130 horsepower. An oil-based air cleaner capped the dual downdraft carburetor, which is equipped with an automatic choke. The engine is fed fuel from the 22-gallon gas tank.
In March of 2007 Bentley was summoned to the “hospital” where he says, “Samantha was recuperating after her heart transplant.” The rebuilt engine had been reinstalled and he says, “The entire engine compartment was beautiful, just as she must have looked coming off the assembly line in 1940.”
Bentley took the car for a short drive with the mechanic riding along, in case there were problems. The old LaSalle ran great, performing like new, with the knee-action suspension soaking up imperfections in the asphalt roadway.
Since then Bentley has enjoyed driving Samantha. The big three-spoke banjo-style steering wheel makes steering the heavy car easy and the cowl vent draws fresh air into the cabin. On the left side of the steering column is a lever to operate the non-self canceling signal indicators. “They never shut off,” Bentley says.
Under the dashboard is the three-door heater. All of the interior windowsills are chrome-plated. Bentley points out that the rear seat has a pull-down center armrest to add to the comfort of the passengers. Under the lip of the back of the front seat are footrests.
By 1940 the sales volume of LaSalle had been instrumental in helping Cadillac survive the Great Depression, but the price niche it occupied had vanished. That’s when General Motors ended the elegant line of cars. Some rare LaSalles, like Bentley’s continue on, improving the appearance of the highways wherever it is driven. — Vern Parker
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2007