There is a pantheon of automotive pioneers that obtained a dubious form of immortality as the reward for the transforming of obscure concepts and ideas into realities. As with Jello or Kleenex, it is as a brand name that they are remembered while their first names, as well as some of their most astounding accomplishments, are less than historical footnotes. As an example few who drive a Chevrolet give thought to Louis Chevrolet, the contributions that he made toward the development of General Motors, his racing prowess or his headline grabbing performance during the 1914 Desert Classic auto race. Likewise with people who drive a Ford never knowing that Henry Ford helped lay the foundation for Cadillac, that it was the Dodge brothers, Horace and John, who ensured his success, or that Henry pioneered the use of synthetic materials.
The infancy of the American auto industry is a tangled web of intrigue, tragedy, genius, corporate incest, smoky back room deals, and get rich quick schemes. It is also the story of innovation, vision, genius, and eccentricity. As a case in point consider David Buick, the man who gave the world the cast iron bathtub with white porcelain finish, and who, in conjunction with Walter Marr and Eugene Richard, engineered a revolutionary gasoline engine with a valve in head design for marine or farm application in their Jackson, Michigan workshop. This highly advanced engine would serve as the cornerstone for the establishment of the Buick Motor Company in 1903.
In turn, the acquisition of Buick Motor Company was to serve as the foundation for a vast automotive empire named General Motors established by William Crapo Durant. As Durant soared ever higher with each success, David Buick sank lower with each new endeavor and after an endless string of failed enterprises he ended his days as the information desk clerk at the Detroit School of Trades. It was almost as though when his ship came in he was patiently waiting at the train depot.
Eventually Durant would follow Buick on the road to ruin but not before transforming General Motors into an industrial giant, not before loosing control of the company and regaining it through the creation of a company named Chevrolet, or before challenging the dominance of Ford with a company named Durant. In February of 1936, Durant the last chapter of his astounding story was written when he declared personal bankruptcy and shortly afterwards ended his days as a partner in a bowling alley with lunchroom and grocery store.
Durant and Buick were not the only men to flirt with fame and fortune during the heady days when the American auto industry was a swiftly churning blend of gold rush and carnival. Nor were they the only pioneers to become forgotten immortals.
Swiss born Louis Joseph Chevrolet arrived in New York as an agent for the French automobile company, De Dion-Bouton. However, it was as a mechanic for Fiat, and as a driver for the racing team that included brothers Arthur and Gaston, that Louis Chevrolet developed a reputation that garnered international acclaim. It was this notoriety and household name recognition that led William Durant to retain Louis and Arthur for the factory sponsored Buick race team he was developing as a promotional venue. And after loosing control of General Motors for the first time, Durant again hired Louis but this time as an engineer to design an engine that would power a new automobile, one that would carry the Chevrolet name.
This too proved to be a short-lived endeavor, at least for Mr. Chevrolet. Durant had established the company with a focus on using it as as a vehicle for regaining control of General Motors. Louis left the company and his trademarked name in 1914, resumed his racing career, competed against Barney Oldfield in the Desert Classic race from Los Angeles to Phoenix, designed several race cars including the one his brother, Gaston, and drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500 in 1920.
Those who gained the hollow immortality of having their names transformed into a brand were the fortunate few. For men such as Henry Leland, the mists of time obscured their accomplishments and in time they were less than historic footnotes. Leland was a pioneer in precision engineering that had apprenticed under Samuel Colt, the legendary firearms maker, and launched his financial empire with the invention of an improved clipper designed for barbers. As the owner of a precision machine shop in Detroit at the dawn of the auto industry, one of his first automotive endeavors was the design of a new engine for Ransom Olds of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
However, before the Leland designed engine could be utilized in what was to be a new and improved Olds, a disastrous fire at the Olds factory made it financially impossible for the company to adopt it and as a result, the company continued production of the highly successful 1902 “curved dash” model. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous turn of events for the American auto industry as the directors of the Henry Ford Company that had hired Leland as a consulting engineer were in need of an engine.
The Henry Ford Company represented Henry’s second attempt at automobile manufacturing. However, as with the first endeavor, backers were seeing little return for their investment and as a result had retained Leland to evaluate the feasibility of pouring more money into the enterprise. Ford was a man possessed of an oversize ego and he was incensed by what he perceived as an affront. Henry Ford stormed from the company after demanding a cash settlement and that his name be removed from the company. Undaunted the directors reorganized the company under a name associated with Detroit’s founding, Le Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, and utilized the engine designed by Leland.
Leland would shepherd Cadillac through its formative years, and assist during the transition after the company was acquired by William Durant for inclusion in his newly formed company, General Motors combine. In 1917, after another with William Durant, Leland and his son left General Motors and established a company to manufacture Liberty aircraft engines under government contract. As an historic side note Leland named this company for the first president for whom he had voted in 1864, Abraham Lincoln.
Production had barely commenced when the Armistice of WWI negated his government contract. Faced with mounting debts, seventy-four year old Leland swiftly transformed his factory, and reorganized the company, to produce automobiles. Attesting to Leland’s reputation for quality workmanship, attention to detail, and honesty is the fact that $6.5 million dollars of common stock in the new company was subscribed within three hours of it being placed on sale. As it turned out Leland’s association with the company was relatively short.
Obsession over mechanical perfection, dated styling, and post war material shortages hindered development as well as production. On February 4, 1922, the board of directors overrode Leland’s objections and placed the company in receivership. The company sold for $8 million dollars to Henry Ford who appointed his son, Edsel, as president of Lincoln Motor Company.
With the passing of time, Leland joined the pantheon of forgotten automotive pioneers. He was, however, in good company as this is the final resting place for many of the giants from the infancy of the American auto industry, men like Benjamin Briscoe, Childe Harold Wills, H.J. Hipple, and Howard E. Coffin to name but a few.