Henry Leland's search for perfection

1932 Lincoln Model KB Sport Phaeton

By William G. Sawyer
Contributing Editor, The Virtual Driver

(July 4, 2018) How many Lincoln owners know their vehicle is the product of an argument with a pacifist, a billionaire’s vendetta, and a cruel, heartless father’s begrudging attempt to give his sensitive, talented son a chance — no matter how slim — to emerge from his shadow?

Henry M. Leland who, along with his son Wilfred, founded the Lincoln Motor Company, is one of the most influential, and least known, automotive pioneers. Decades older than his contemporaries — he was a sprightly 74 year old when he founded Lincoln — Leland’s 19th century ethics and sense of fair play collided with the cutthroat practices emerging at the dawn of the automotive age.

His fanatical devotion to precision engineering attracted the attention of Ransom E. Olds, who hired his firm, Leland & Faulconer, to build transmissions and engines alongside his other supplier, the Dodge Brothers. Leland’s engines, although identical in design to those built by the Dodges, were significantly more powerful. In fact, with a few small changes, Leland predicted his engines could produce three times the power of those built by Dodge. However, Olds rejected the engine that the Leland’s dubbed the “Little Hercules” for cost reasons.

In March, 1902 Henry Ford, a local mechanic, was ousted from his second failed venture, the Henry Ford Company. His creditors hired Leland to inspect the company’s assets and value them in preparation for liquidation. Leland, however, convinced the investors to reorganize the remains of Ford’s failed dream, and build a new car, named after the City of Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.

As Cadillac’s president and general manager, Leland’s lofty quality standards, and his precision machining techniques, introduced the concept of interchangeable parts, an idea proven when The Royal Auto Club disassembled three Cadillacs, intermingled the parts, and reassembled them using simple hand tools. The quality demonstrated by that Dewar Trophy-winning performance signaled the moment when blacksmithing techniques gave way to true automotive engineering, and gave Cadillac its long-running advertising tag line: “The Standard of the World.”

William Crapo Durant and his growing conglomerate, General Motors, bought Cadillac in 1909. By the summer of the following year, Cadillac, still under the direction of Leland, was the only financially solvent entity within GM.

Desperate for cash, Durant asked Wilfred Leland to accompany him on a trip to New York to seek $15 million from existing creditors. Late that afternoon, after a dismal report by Durant that revealed mounting losses, slipshod accounting, and possible fraud, Wilfred Leland spun a tale of a car brand that was solidly managed and debt free. Sensing that the Cadillac model could be applied to the rest of the corporation, the bankers agreed to back the requested loan package under the condition that Durant was replaced.

The Leland’s saved General Motors, but their reward was bittersweet. The loan was structured in such a way that Cadillac ended up shouldering most of the burden, and the Leland’s salaries halved, even though they were made responsible for revamping the production practices of their GM sister brands in addition to their full-time positions at Cadillac.

By 1915, Durant was back in charge of GM, and Henry Leland was in his seventies. The man who wrote, “There always was and there always will be conflict between Good and Good Enough,” found himself in the crosshairs of bankers and managers who questioned Leland’s investment in “unnecessary” innovations like the electric starter, with which he and Charles Kettering took another Dewar trophy.

Despite his age and endless onslaughts of political infighting that threatened his quality ethos and would have destroyed many a younger man, Henry Leland stayed true to his beliefs, one of which brought him into direct conflict with Durant.As early as 1910, Leland was sure war in Europe was inevitable. It was his belief that the impending World War could destroy European civilization. He felt that the United States was obligated to intervene. Once America entered the war the Leland’s lobbied Durant to allow them to devote a portion of Cadillac’s capacity to the production of Liberty aircraft engines. When Durant, an ardent pacifist, refused, both Henry Leland and his son Wilfred resigned and launched the Lincoln Motor Company to build engines for the war effort.

Lincoln — named after the first President Henry Leland voted for — provided enormous support to the war effort by building 6,500 Liberty V12s. Motors would not, however, be the only thing to come from Lincoln.

The year 1917 saw the introduction of the first Lincoln automobile, the Model L. (This is not to be confused with the Sears Model L, a product of the Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago that was sold through Sears & Roebuck up until 1915.) True to form, the Model L featured top-drawer engineering and workmanship. However, the premium price market had evolved by this time, and the Lincoln’s dated looks were a distinct disadvantage.

Rather than selling the 6,000 units the Leland’s predicted, a mere 700 Model Ls were sold. As if a lack of cash flow wasn’t enough, the Harding Administration rewarded Leyland’s war time support by ruling that depreciation on Lincoln’s plant and equipment should be taxed as income. Wilfred Leland managed to defeat that claim, avoiding a $5.4 million tax bill, but that wasn’t enough for the IRS. It retaliated with yet another demand for back taxes totaling $4.5 million. Rather than fight what could prove to be an endless battle, the following day Lincoln’s directors put the company into receivership.

Enter Henry Ford, founder of the company the Lelands restructured into Cadillac, a success that likely bruised Ford’s fragile ego. Ford refused to loan the Lelands the funds necessary to save their company, but said he might be willing to pick up the pieces if it went into bankruptcy. What a guy.

As primary stockholders in the failing company, the Lelands had much to lose, and Ford knew it. Wilfred Leland went behind the backs of his father and the company’s receivers, and met with Henry and at the elder Ford’s Fair Lane estate in Dearborn. The man who saved General Motors a little over a decade earlier negotiated a deal to sell the company to the Ford Motor Company. He relied on a pledge from Henry Ford that the Lelands would remain in control of the company they founded.

Two weeks before Henry Leland’s 79th birthday, his company was saved and he was back in charge, or so he thought. Just one day after the candles on Leland’s birthday cake were extinguished, Ford sent a crew to demolish Leland’s executive offices, installed new managers, and reduced the Leland’s to mere figureheads. Perhaps the greatest insult Henry Leland was forced to endure was an edict issued by Charles Sorenson — Ford’s production guru — that declared that Lincoln employees were to use parts the Leland’s had previously rejected as unsuitable for production. The master of precision manufacturing and a guiding light in the dawn of mass production, was forced to accept the same sort of substandard workmanship he had fought so hard to eliminate.

Sadly, it didn’t stop there. On June 10, 1922, Ford executive Ernest Liebold demanded that the Lelands resign their positions and vacate the Lincoln headquarters. Some say Henry Leland was carried out of the building in his office chair and deposited on the street. While it sounds improbable, it’s entirely in character for a man whose passion for the automobile business drove him to work day-and-night well into his seventies, while performing at a level that left executives half his age exhausted.

Typically, once Henry won the battle with the Lelands, he lost interest and put Edsel in charge of Lincoln. To Edsel, Lincoln must have felt an oasis to which he could escape when the oppressive realities of his position as president of Ford Motor Company — exacerbated by his sadistically cruel father — became too much to bear. It allowed Edsel to indulge the artistic sensibilities his father considered an affront to his vision of the Model T as automotive perfection. As the scion of a fabulously wealthy family who was educated at the right schools, Edsel was a product of the modern world his father played a large part in creating, but sought to freeze at the very point in time when his prized invention was at its peak.

While Henry Leland is rightfully credited with founding two storied American luxury brands, it was Edsel Ford who provided the panache Lincoln required to survive. He dressed Leland’s well-engineered 60-degree L-head V8-powered chassis in a number of different body styles, contracted with numerous coachbuilders who offered custom-built vehicles, and made the Lincoln Motor Company profitable by 1923.

Leland’s Model L underpinnings survived until the introduction of the 1931 Model K, the first Ford-engineered Lincoln. Powered by a modified version of the Leland-designed V8, it was re-named the KA the following year when Lincoln dove into the world of multi-cylinder luxury cars populated by Cadillac, Packard, Pierce Arrow, and Marmon with the V12-powered Model KB. Soon both versions of the Model K sported V12s, with the prime differentiator being the length of the wheelbase.

This car is the only known survivor of 13 Style 232-B Sport Phaetons built in 1932. While most luxury automakers offered production versions as well as catalog customs built in limited quantities at the design firm’s facility, Lincoln offered a third option. The body of this car, which is featured at the RM Sotheby’s Amelia Island auction this March, was boutique designed, but manufactured by Lincoln.

The Walter M. Murphy Co. of Pasadena, California, was responsible for the design, which appealed to buyers who admired the Dual Cowl Phaeton, but didn’t want the more expensive and complicated full-size cowl. Painted a refreshing light green with dark green accents and matching leather seats, the wood mini-cowl features twin compartments and a smoking set.

Legend has it this elegant Lincoln powered a sawmill before being rescued and treated to a comprehensive nine-year restoration that garnered it a Primary First Place award at a CCCA meet in Cape May, N.J., in 2016.

Vehicle photos by Greg Keysar ©2018 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's