August 22: Cadillac was founded by Henry Leland on this date in 1902
Henry Leland had to stop a funeral. An experienced engine builder and businessman, Leland had been hired by Henry Ford's investors to liquidate what was left of the Henry Ford Co. in 1902, after Ford had grown sick of their meddling and set off on his own. Leland looked around Ford's plant and told the investors the company should keep going — renamed for the French explorer who founded Detroit, Antoine de la Month Cadillac. On this date 111 years ago, Henry Leland's genius created Cadillac, one of three successes that would eventually make Detroit as we know it today, but break Leland's spirit in the process.
By most accounts, Leland wasn't easy to work for. An engineer by trade, he demanded precision from those around him, often bluntly. By the time the Ford investors brought him in, Leland had a reputation as a talented engine builder, believing parts should be interchangeable, and his engine was compact enough he carried it into the meeting with investors. By 1903, the first Cadillac with Leland's engine hit the market, and soon Cadillac became the best-selling cars in America, renown for a reliability that most start-up carmakers couldn't match.
After the investors sold Cadillac to General Motors in 1909, Leland and his son stayed on as its managers. When GM teetered on the brink of collapse in 1910 from its acquisition binge, it was Leland's personal appeal to Wall Street bankers that led to a financial lifeline for the company — but one that also brought a new board of directors who didn't understand Leland's demand that his vehicles be great rather than good enough. Leland fought with them over many of his technical innovations; after a friend was killed while trying to start a car with a hand crank, Leland oversaw the development of the first electric starter. He also built the first water-cooled V-8 engine, the descendants of which power millions of vehicles today.
Sticking to his principles sped Leland to his ruin; he quit GM when it refused to aid the effort for World War I, deciding to build a factory for V-12 aircraft engines. Leland named the factory after the first president he'd voted for — the Lincoln Motor Co. When the Army abruptly cancelled the contract and left Lincoln with a massive debt, Leland returned to luxury cars, with the first Lincolns rolling out in 1920. But an economic downturn forced the company into bankruptcy, and only Henry Ford saw fit to bid for its assets. While Ford made a show of keeping Leland, then 79, on at Lincoln, he quickly undermined Leland and his son, until both resigned in protest and filed suit. Leland died a decade later, having started the two great American luxury automakers and saved GM, but with nothing to show for all of it.