In August of 1902, William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen, the men with the money that were backing Henry Ford’s second automotive manufacturing endeavor, had reached their limits. They were exasperated. Rather than produce a vehicle that could be sold, Ford was focused mostly on experimentation, and the building of racing cars to test those experiments. Murphy and Bowen were wanting a return on investment.
Henry Leland had learned the art of precision machining while working as an apprentice for Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer. He perfected his skills with a variety of endeavors before applying them to automotive applications. In the summer of 1901, he contracted with Ransom E Olds of Olds Motor Works to produce an advanced new engine for the 1902 Oldsmobile. That fledgling partnership came to an abrupt end when a devastating fire at the Olds Motor Works almost destroyed the company.
The Dawn of Cadillac
Leland was well know in the burgeoning automotive manufacturing industry in Detroit. After the fire at Olds, Murphy and Bowen retained Leland as a consultant as they needed an evaluation of the manufacturing facility and equipment. Their plan was to ascertain a value of the company, and sell it to recoup a portion of their investment. Leland proposed a different direction; keep the company and use the engine he had designed for Olds to jump start production.
Ford was incensed. He made the directors an ultimatum; dismiss Leland or pay him $900 and remove his name from the company immediately. The directors chose the latter and the rest, as they say, is history.
The company was reorganized and named after the founder of Fort Detroit, the French explorer La Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. On October 17th, 1902, the first Cadillac was taken for a test drive.
The links between Henry Ford and Cadillac were not an unusual story during the infancy of the American auto industry. As an example, the driver who took that first Cadillac for a spin was Alanson P. Brush. In 1907, Brush launched his own automotive company. Shortly after this endeavor failed in 1911, he joined General Motors as a consulting engineer. In this position he was responsible for development of the Oakland line.
The remnants of the Brush Runabout Company were sold by Frank Briscoe, the primary financial backer of the endeavor, to Benjamin Briscoe, his brother, who was launching the United States Motor Company to compete directly with GM. Benjamin Briscoe was the initial money man behind David Buick, and partner in Jonathan Maxwell’s Maxwell-Briscoe Company. Maxwell had launched his automotive career with Olds Motor Works.
With the collapse of United States Motor Company, Maxwell-Briscoe was reorganized as Maxwell. In 1924, Walter Chrysler acquired control of Maxwell and the Chrysler was born.
Leland would stay with Cadillac after its acquisition by General Motors. At the advent of WWII he started a company to manufacture aircraft engines. This company would undergo a rather dramatic transition soon after and begin producing automobiles under the Lincoln name. When that company slipped into receivership, it was acquired by Henry Ford who promptly placed his son, Edsel, at the helm.
The infancy of the American auto industry was a wild swashbuckling battle of tycoons, shysters, and daring entrepreneurs. It was a time of dramatic societal upheaval where fortunes were made and lost at dizzying speed. It was an amazing time, an era when a man like Henry Ford could loose two companies, build a third, and in the process launch not one but two automotive dynasties.