Henry Leland is a man without an automotive country though he started both surviving American luxury automobile brands. He founded Cadillac from the economic ruins of Henry Ford’s second failed car company (the third time was a charm for Ford), having been brought in by Ford’s financiers to appraise the company’s assets for a planned liquidation. Leland ran Leland & Faulkner, Detroit’s premier machine shop. Instead of liquidating Ford’s assets he convinced them to build cars using an engine of his own design that he originally had planned on selling to Ransom Olds. That new car became the basis of Cadillac, later acquired by General Motors.
Leland, the leading precision machinist in Detroit, established engineering standards for Cadillac, like using “Jo Blocks” to calibrate tools, that truly made the marque “the standard of the world”. Later, after a dispute during WWI with Billy Durant, who ran General Motors and was a pacifist, Leland started Lincoln to build Liberty engines for the war effort. After the war he went into the luxury car business, which was his original intent, but by 1922 the company was insolvent (some sources say the cause was Lincoln getting stiffed on government contracts that were canceled after the war). Ford, who never forgave Leland for his role in Ford’s losing control of the Henry Ford Company, bought Lincoln out of receivership and in humiliating fashion he had an elderly Leland walked out of the Lincoln headquarters and factory Leland had built. Since Leland founded Lincoln, Cadillac doesn’t give him much honor and since Henry Ford resented Leland, the Lincoln company hasn’t bragged much on its founder as well. That’s a shame because Henry Leland was unquestionably one of the men who made the domestic auto industry what it became and he deserves to be honored.
While Leland’s heirs donated a statue of Abraham Lincoln to the city of Detroit, there are no statues of Leland himself. In fact, other than a street named for him on Detroit’s east side, there’s little in the way of physical memorials to Leland. Henry Leland is buried in Detroit’s Woodmere cemetery (David Buick’s final resting place is there as well). Unlike the Dodge brothers’ massive Egyptian tomb (replete with sphinxes), or even Henry Ford’s stone sarcophagus, Leland’s grave is marked with a simple brass memorial plaque embedded flush to the ground. A 2001 photo shows that one of the marker’s numerals was damaged at that time. When I visited Leland’s grave in late 2010, another number was starting to break up, as was the H in Henry. For a man whose reputation was based on precisely machined metal, the deterioration of Leland’s brass marker is sad indeed.
FoMoCo is currently trying to reinvent the Lincoln brand. They’ve renamed it the Lincoln Motor Company and trotted out a bunch of classic Lincoln cars at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show and in a new ad campaign, so it’s clear that “heritage” is going to be part of Lincoln’s marketing plan going forward. If that’s the case, Lincoln sponsoring the restoration of Henry Leland’s grave marker seems to me to be a no-brainer. The cost of fixing the brass monument would be minimal, certainly less than Lincoln spends on a single network commercial. It would be a classy act on the part of the Ford family, letting bygones be bygones, and it would be the right thing to do. Edsel Ford indeed helped to create what we know as automotive styling after taking control of Lincoln but his father’s revenge and his father wanting to keep him occupied with a plaything were not the only reasons why the Ford family (the bid to the court was made by Henry, Clara and Edsel Ford, not Ford Motor Company) bought Leland’s company. A contemporary account of the 1922 takeover in Automotive Industries repeatedly used the word “quality” when referring to Lincoln products and described the Lincoln factory as “considered the finest of its kind in the world”. Lincoln was a prestigious brand. Ford may have resented Leland but he also had grudging respect. Also, he wasn’t likely to devalue a company he’d just purchased by badmouthing its founder. Henry Ford’s publicity men made sure that Automotive Industries trumpeted one Henry’s esteem for the other. When asked to comment after submitting his bid for Lincoln, Ford said, “It would be a stain against the motor car industry and against Detroit to permit outsiders to secure control of the Lincoln plant just because the Lelands have been caught in a financial pinch. Henry M. Leland is one of the great motor car men of America.”
I urge Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company, to act on his great grandfather’s praise of Henry Leland and lead a project by Lincoln to restore Leland’s grave site. To be honest, it would be nicely ecumenical were Lincoln to extend a hand to Cadillac to participate, though that wouldn’t exactly fit into a promotional campaign for Ford’s luxury brand. Still, Henry Leland was truly one of the great motor car men and it’s a stain against the two great car companies he founded that his grave is neglected and deteriorating.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper and get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS