GM's Road Not Taken: La Salle II Roadster

A. J. Mueller

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.

2 of 2
Jay Schleifer
Actually, GM did eventually go the compact 2-seater route, with the Fiero in the mid-80s and the Solstice/Sky a few years ago. Pontiac also did an OHC engine back in the 60s, and the Corvair had an aluminum block.
sydtron
Forgetting about Oldsmobile's all aluminum dohc LX5 V6 in 1999.
Van K
"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 understand the point you were trying to make, but that type of hyperbole is wasted. Looking at the better cars produced by domestic marques, they are hardly lagging rivals all over the world. Domestics make some vehicles that are best in class, and very few vehicles that are not competitive in class. That mindset is indicative of where the U.S. auto industry was 20 years ago--which is quite ironic given the basic slant of this article.

TheClassicCarFactory
If you need a reason why GM didn't produce this car - just look at it!....it's awful!
Johnny.5sp
@RickELake Perhaps RickE you are looking at it with  2013 eyes. Back in 1955 this would have been a real stunner,over the top styling like this was the in thing.

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