GM's Road Not Taken: La Salle II Roadster

March 1, 2013
La Salle II Roadster Left Side View
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October 1954
Standing in a grungy old industrial building in Detroit, I had just been given a glimpse of a brilliant automotive future. Barely nineteen, I'd been probationally employed by General Motors for only a month or so when we newcomers in the Styling Section orientation studio were allowed to see one of the "dream cars" intended for the 1955 Motorama show. That car was the La Salle II roadster, and the man telling us about it was Charles Chayne, GM's engineering vice president. I was deeply impressed by the little sports car, its V-6 engine, and the conversation I had with Chayne, owner of a Bugatti Royale. At that time, only Lancia had ever made a V-6. It was used in the Aurelia sedan and its GT derivatives, one of which had, incredibly, won the grueling Targa Florio open road race, defeating all-out racing sports cars. It was an exciting moment, one I've never forgotten.
October 2012
Standing in a grungy old garage in Highwood, Illinois, I gazed for the first time in fifty-eight years at that same Motorama car, lovingly and accurately resurrected from chunks of scrap found in a Michigan junkyard. The little La Salle was as appealing as it was the only other time I'd seen it, but now it represented a dismal past that had seen its huge potential cast aside. It stands today as a signpost to the many wrong turns that led to the bankruptcy of what was in 1955 the largest business entity in the entire world. The La Salle II symbolizes all that went wrong with the expansive dreams that I -- and most of the other 165 million then-living Americans -- held at that time.
In his excellent 800-page 1993 social history, The Fifties, David Halberstam summed up what happened to our American automobile industry when superficial styling changes were superimposed on essentially unchanging platform architectures that had been defined in the mid-1930s: "The industry's engineers were largely idle, as their skills were ignored. Thus, during a time when the American car industry might have lengthened its technological lead on foreign competitors, it failed to do so." Amen. Lengthen its lead? Our industry fell behind, far behind, and it's still lagging rivals all over the world, including countries that didn't -- couldn't -- make cars at all in 1954.
I now see the failure to develop the initiative represented by the two La Salle concepts -- there was a wonderfully promising La Salle II four-door sedan at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan in January 1955 as well -- as the critical point that led to the near-extinction of the American automotive industry in 2008. As Robert Frost noted in his 1916 poem, "The Road Not Taken," choosing one path at the point of divergence excludes the other. "And that has made all the difference," Frost concluded.
Perhaps the last really important technical-leadership innovation embraced by GM was the brave decision to add an independent front suspension to the ladder-type chassis frames of all its divisional makes for 1934. In the depths of the Depression, the firm chose to undertake a change that cost an enormous amount of money at the lowest point in the nation's economic history -- not a single bank was open in the United States in March 1933 when the decision was made -- simply in order to improve the dynamic qualities of its products. "It seems to me we can't afford not to do it," was the summation by Charles Kettering, the man who had introduced electric starters in 1912.
The 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS chassis can be quite accurately detailed with the same words you'd use to describe a 1934 Cadillac (La Salle's "companion brand" at the time). Apart from disc brakes, everything is about the same: live rear axle, coil- spring IFS, worm steering gear, V-8 engine, etc. But the never-developed La Salle IIs -- with their intended one-horsepower-per-cubic-inch aluminum V-6 engine, de Dion rear axle, unitized body/chassis structure, and compact size -- are exactly what was needed throughout the long, painful decline of GM. Yes, the shift to a rear-engine layout for the Chevrolet small car of 1960 and the adoption of front-wheel drive for the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Cadillac Eldorado in the 1960s were interesting and in some cases important, but they had nothing to do with leadership or innovation. Others had introduced and perfected those techniques long before.
That we can see the La Salle II roadster today (and the La Salle II sedan in another couple of years) is due to the efforts of Joe Bortz, a passionately enthusiastic and slightly eccentric car collector who has made an enormous commitment to finding and restoring significant one-off concept, dream, and show cars. His eclectic fleet over the years has included Ferraris (he had two California Spyders at the same time), '50s customs, many GM Motorama models, even at one time five of the twelve huge GM Futurliner buses made in the '50s. He has bought, restored, and sold a number of others and is constantly searching for more forgotten significant vehicles.
When Bortz acquired the remaining elements of this roadster, the front end had been sawed off the car, the rear-hinged doors and the hood were missing, only the bottom part of the instrument panel remained, and the wraparound windshield frame was twisted into a pretzel. It wasn't an easy revival, given that pieces had to be made from scratch, but there were quite a few fortunate survivors, the aluminum-wheel-cum-brake drums for example. And the "brass boob" bumpers -- dubbed Dagmars in reference to a well-endowed TV personality of that era -- were intact, as were the vertical slot frames that evoked the catwalk air inlets of the canceled 1941 La Salle production models. Looking at the roadster today, it's hard to see any discrepancies, although the steering wheel is a bit suspect. Bortz has benefited from access to many original GM Styling working drawings, a result of the respect that many retired GM stylists hold for his quest to retain the work they did long ago. He did not hold back in making the car as close to original as possible, even spending $25,000 to replate chrome parts on the underside of the car.
The La Salle II roadster's body design was the work of the late Carl Renner, one of Harley J. Earl's favorite stylists. Renner so appreciated Bortz's unending quest for dream-car memorabilia that he gave him the original rendering of the car. Bortz says he was dumbfounded when he discovered that the illustration Renner gave him was not a copy. But there was no such thing as a color Xerox when the La Salle was executed, and it was no photographic reproduction. Bortz had it framed and will no doubt exhibit it when the roadster is presented to the public for the first time in half a century or more at the Amelia Island concours this year.
Probably the existing sports car closest to the La Salle roadster in 1955 was the Austin-Healey 100, the first of what collectors today call "Big Healeys." It had a 90-hp, 2660-cubic-centimeter four-cylinder engine and a wheelbase of just 90 inches and was actually much smaller overall than today's Mazda Miata. The La Salle sat on a 99.9-inch wheelbase and was intended to have a 2.5-liter engine making 152 hp. It looks, and is, tiny by contemporary standards. Entry is facilitated by the rear-hinged "suicide" doors, but Bortz warned that neither the windshield frame nor the steering wheel would bear any weight and asked that they not be touched. I'm neither as slim nor as flexible as I was when the car was new in 1955, but armed with a half-century's experience in climbing into the cockpits of small, light airplanes that won't support any weight on secondary structures, I managed to slip into the spacious cockpit with just a hand on the seatback for support. I quickly discovered that the windshield header fell below my eyeline. So much for practicality. On the other hand, I have about the same relationship with the seating and windshield in a 1953-62 C1 Corvette, itself directly patterned on the Jaguar XK120.
Deficient vertical aspects of its ergonomics aside, the little car is quite comfortable. Seat design has greatly improved since the '50s, and slimmer, more contoured seats and a much smaller-diameter steering wheel would make the La Salle roadster perfectly usable today. It was intended to have an automatic gearbox, as was standard for Corvettes until late in the 1955 model run, and the shift pattern inscribed on the tunnel is NDLR. One can suppose that, like the Corvair's Powerglide box, the Park function was deemed unnecessary for this small car. Not that it matters, as the La Salle never ran -- and never will.
The fiberglass bodywork of 1950s concept cars tended to be at least half an inch thick, and even those with engines fitted would have been dismal performers because of their great weight. The very first Corvette, the actual Motorama show car, was retained by GM Styling and was modified to become the photographic model for the restyled 1956 that was featured on the covers of all the car magazines that existed then. When it came to me to be transformed into the 1958 prototype, I discovered that it weighed about six tons and that its wheel covers were cast brass, heavily and elegantly chrome plated. In effect, all true Motorama dream cars were pushmobiles, not real cars.
It would be a trivial design task to transform this concept's shape into a very acceptable sports car that could be certified for sale in 2015, six full decades after it first saw the light of day. That won't happen, of course, but it should have happened in the '50s, because in retrospect it -- and its more serious La Salle II sedan sister -- was clearly the kind of car GM needed to make to ward off the threat represented by more economical and agile cars that were slowly penetrating the consciousness of young Americans. I recall that a good number of those of us in the GM Styling Section orientation studio bought Volkswagens, MGs, and at least one Austin-Healey as soon as we knew we had passed our trial period. But our awareness was not shared by any top managers at the six American car companies extant in 1955.*
The so-called "compact" cars introduced for the 1960 model year -- Ford's Falcon, Chevrolet's Corvair, and Plymouth's Valiant -- were typical of Detroit thinking about small cars: they were cheap-looking, bereft of any luxury elements, and either retrograde in their live-axle chassis designs for Ford and Plymouth or very poorly engineered in the case of the Corvair. They in no way captured the essence of what was appreciated in quality European cars.
But the La Salle II did exactly that. The idea of aluminum engines, overhead cams, one horsepower per cubic inch, an advanced rear suspension, and luxury trim and fittings in a 108-inch wheelbase, six-passenger sedan was seductive to those who bought Jaguar Mark I compact luxury cars and Mercedes-Benz 180 and 220 sedans. With its manufacturing prowess, GM could have built the La Salle II at a price well below those of European models and, as Halberstam noted, maintained engineering superiority with features unavailable from overseas manufacturers.
But despite the existence of the La Salle concept, General Motors was totally blind. I said that my 1954 conversation with Charles Chayne stuck in my mind. That was because we were discussing the Lancia Aurelia, one of the most extraordinary cars of any era, when Chayne said that he didn't understand the world's enthusiasm for the Lancia. "It doesn't handle as well as a Cadillac," he said. Shocked, I asked how he could make that judgment. "We put it on the handling course at the Proving Ground, and it was a lot slower than the Cadillac." Pressed, he explained that the test was to enter the handling circuit at 20 mph in top gear, give a car full throttle, and measure its time over the course.
Would the world be different today if someone had thought to downshift the Lancia to second gear for that test? William Shakespeare's Brutus said it all in his 1599 Tragedy of Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
General Motors, and all Americans, almost lost our automotive ventures when it chose the status quo.
*In 1955, the American companies were General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Studebaker-Packard, American Motors, and Willys.
The Engine That Never Ran
As Harley J. Earl's designers dreamed up a smaller, lighter, and nimbler Cadillac, engineers set out to develop an engine as revolutionary as the cars. The La Salle II roadster and sedan were destined to spin circles on Motorama turntables, but the engine team was determined to put a working V-6 under the hood. "As far as we were concerned, it had to be runnable. It wasn't one of those things that was a piece of wood carved out and painted silver," says Philip Francis, the ninety-six-year-old General Motors retiree who was tasked with designing the engine.
Francis had previously worked on a stillborn 120-degree V-6 for Pontiac, but the company learned that such a wide engine could only be mounted in the rear of the car, so the compact, front-engine La Salle project started with a 60-degree V angle. The requirements also called for an aluminum block and, to match the claims of contemporary hot-rodders, an output of one horsepower per cubic inch. The scope of the project would later swell to include fuel injection and overhead cams.
The closest the La Salles ever came to moving under their own power, though, was a single-cylinder test unit running on an engine dynamometer. "The biggest problem was that every time we got going on it, the design would be changed," Francis recalls. Working without set drawings meant that the target moved with the moods of management. The displacement changed five times over the course of a year, and there was even a tryst with a thin-wall iron-block version as executives grew sheepish at the thought of using unproven aluminum.
Francis's tests indicated that a 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine with the cam-in-block design he was using would be capable of 126 hp at 4700 rpm. He predicted that he could achieve the targeted 152 hp with a special camshaft and roller followers. The final blow to producing a working V-6 was the late addition of overhead cams. As the 1955 Motorama neared, designers and executives gave in to the fact that the show cars were always pushed into position. Earl told the engineers that all he needed was a realistic-looking shell. "If the engines don't run, don't worry about it. Just give me something that's approximately what it could be," he told them.
"I was brokenhearted because that was the first job I ever had that I thought I was going to get a lot of experience," Francis says. General Motors also lost out on an opportunity to gain experience. The automaker wouldn't put an aluminum block, fuel-injected, overhead-cam V-6 into production until 2004. -- Eric Tingwall.

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