By on January 7, 2013

2010 photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

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.

Henry Martyn Leland, founder of Cadillac and Lincoln

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.

2001 photo courtesy of Find A Grave. In the decade since then, the marker has further deteriorated.

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

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19 Comments on “Note to Lincoln: If Your Heritage Really Means Something, Then Restore Henry Leland’s Grave...”

  • avatar

    An outstanding essay, Ronnie. It would be wonderful if Bill Ford followed your suggestion. If not, couldn’t the Lincoln and Cadillac owners clubs restore Leland’s grave to honor his contributions?

    If I can ever make a pilgrimage to Detroit, visiting the graves of the industry’s great founders would be a rewarding part. Detroit should do more to promote recognition of its heritage.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree wholeheartedly. That essay was outstanding and 50 Merc’s suggestion was equally worthy.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s a guide to the Detroit area graves of famous car people:

      The largest number are buried at Woodlawn, on Woodward just south of Eight Mile. Interesting coincidence that the only two grave markers that have images of cars are John Delorean’s at White Chapel in Troy and Preston Tucker’s in Flat Rock. Henry Ford is buried in the Ford family cemetery on Joy Rd in Detroit’s west side (ironically Joy Rd is named after Henry Joy, who ran Packard). When Edsel Ford died, Eleanor knew where Henry was going to be buried, and she buried Edsel someplace else.

      • 0 avatar

        The Ford Family cemetary is now next to a mosque for reference purposes. Location is Joy Rd just west of Greenfield. The last time I saw it (30+ years ago), Henry’s grave had a iron grate covering it in case of grave robbers.

  • avatar

    Wow, learn something new everyday.

  • avatar

    next time you’re in the Bronx you can visit Billy’s mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetary. I’ve been to old Charlie Mott’s at Glenwood in Flint and PS duPont’s along the Brandywine.

  • avatar

    Man, even Billy Durant did better! At least Flint put up a granite slab and some nice flagpoles near the Flint Cultural Center (pretty much a contradiction in terms these days, sadly). I don’t think his old bowling alley is still standing though.

    Compare and contrast with Alfred P. Sloan; “Father of Modern Management”, winner of the Durant stock wars for GM and able to bequeath a huge fortune to endownments such as Sloan/Kettering hospitals, foundations etc. It’s been written though that the GM board at least paid for Durant’s medical bills when he was ailing near the end.

    As Henry famously may have said “History is bunk.” Very true when only the winners get to contribute to it…

    • 0 avatar

      When losers start winning I’ll start giving a damn!

      In complete honesty I do teach history and Political science to students and it is true the victors write the history in this case Leland is not forgotten at all in Automotive history. He has a wonderful commanding perch on which he rests with the generally viewed 2nd tier men of it. I have to say though, the first tier is a VERY SELECT group, literally it is not more than Ford, Sloan, and Durant. Walter Chrysler, the Dodges, Buick, and Louis Chevrolet all rest just a tad lower than them. That is not to say that any of them deserve that rank, if anything Leland probably deserves a first tier ranking for his founding of two major automotive marques and Chrysler for his Airflow concept and Unibody ideals.

      For his grave marker I suspect it has more to due with the foundation backing him, I’m fairly sure he was still a man of means at the end but Ford was a million if not billionaire in 1947. The Dodges got out early and only had a few million by the time of their death. His marker should be fixed simply on the grounds of historical significance and general cemetery upkeep.

      • 0 avatar

        Leland and his son were not rich when he died. If anything, they existed in what might be called “genteel poverty.”

        They had exhausted all of their resources in a legal battle with Henry Ford I on behalf of stockholders in the original Lincoln Motor Car Company.

        The Dodge brothers both died in 1920, and the company was sold in 1925 by the heirs to a New York investment banking firm for $146 million, a huge sum for that time. The family was quite rich for many years.

      • 0 avatar

        The Dodges were wealthy three times over at the time of their death. They’d made money selling components and rolling chassis to Ford Motor Company, they made money selling cars under their own names, and when Henry Ford decided to buy out his partners, since the Dodges owned Ford stock in lieu of cash payments in the early days, Henry paid them something like $29 million in 1929 for their stock. I assume they also made dividends while owning that stock. When John and Horace Dodge died, their widows were two of the wealthiest women in the world.

        Because of their roles supplying Ford and Olds, the Dodges and Leland would deserve note. That they also started car companies that exist to this day should at least give them consideration for that first rank.

        Frankly, Durant wasn’t a great businessman. Though he had a great idea in General Motors and had considerable success in the carriage business before getting into cars, after he left GM, Durant never accomplished much. Also, he lost control of GM twice.

        I’d say that Walter Chrysler was a more competent executive than Durant and Ford (whose success was help immeasurably by James Couzens and Edsel Ford, two competent managers) and if Sloan deserves the first tier, so does Walter Chrysler.

      • 0 avatar

        Correction: Henry Ford bought out the Dodges’ interest in FoMoCo in 1919, not 1929.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, thanks for another wonderfully written and informative article. Great way to start my week.

  • avatar

    Very nice article, Mr. Schreiber. I agree that Ford should do something to spruce up Mr. Leland’s grave. Detroit should take steps to preserve its history. The Packard Motor Car Foundation, for example, has raised funds to buy a part of the company’s old proving grounds (considered to be among the finest in the world when built).

    If I recall correctly, Lincoln became insolvent for three reasons. One, while Henry Leland was a brilliant engineer, he completely ignored how Lincolns looked. The cars were considered stodgy and ungainly even for that time, which severely limited their sales appeal.

    Two, there was a brief, but severe, economic downturn in 1920-21, just as Lincoln was preparing to ramp up production of its cars.

    Three, the federal government didn’t just cancel a war contract with Lincoln. It claimed the company owed back taxes, which it simply had no possible way to pay.

    Henry Ford I did a lot more than simply escort the Lelands off the premises. He initially promised them that he would not interfere with their operation of the company. But they soon found that their orders were being ignored, and that factory equipment was being moved without their authorization. One day they discovered their office desks had been destroyed by an ax. This resulted in an inevitable showdown with Henry Ford I, who, of course, won (as his grandson would later say, his name was now on the building).

    Edsel Ford was now free to run the company, which he did by giving it a badly needed dose of style while maintaining its very high quality standards.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you and everyone else for the kind comments. Also, thanks for elaborating on the history of Lincoln.

      Just to be pedantic, the name on the building was still Lincoln, literally, and you can still see the name (if not the building). When the building was torn down in 2005 (after being used for a long time by Detroit Edison), the Lincoln Motor Car Foundation salvaged the stonework with LINCOLN and it’s now on display at the Gilmore Car Museum north of Kalamazoo. As part of that display, behind the stonework is a large, almost life size, print of a 1922 photo of the ceremony in front of the building with Henry Ford and Henry Leland (and their sons) when Ford bought the company.

      While searching through an online archive of the Keystone View Co., I found a stereo photo of a Brunn bodied 1930 Lincoln in front of the same Lincoln headquarters. You can see it and a photo of the Gilmore display here:

      • 0 avatar

        Great and well overdue article.However I disagree that Ford alone owes respect here.In my opinion the city of Detroit is in this one as well.
        Leland was an important figure amongst the automotive pioneers.Ford to this date preserved Lelands heritage by keeping Lincoln going. The condition of the grave site is a heritage issue of the city, which not only in this case, does not care.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    A refreshing read.

    Thank you Ronnie for this long-overdue contribution to the oeuvre.

  • avatar

    I will see if I can dig up the contact of the Ford historian I met when I was a new hire in 2007. Maybe sending this article may get some traction with him.

  • avatar

    I always enjoy reading about the “shell-game genesis/development” of Lincoln and Cadillac, and agree that this account is a classy, and very doable, call to action.

  • avatar

    Thanks for a history lesson, Ronnie. I posted a link to this story on a Facebook wall of a Lincoln Motor Company. Don’t know if it would do any good, but it’s worth a try.

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