Vermonter Henry Martyn Leland created two of the world’s best-selling luxury car brands – the Cadillac and the Lincoln. While New England had other players in the early development of the automobile, Leland was the most successful and most underappreciated.
The youngest child from a family of eight in Barton, Vt., Leland focused his whole professional life on precision manufacturing. After a full career that included machining weapons during the Civil War for the Colt firearms company in Connecticut and designing and manufacturing barber clippers, Leland turned his attention to the nascent automobile industry.
Leland’s 60th birthday in 1903 found him in Detroit running a machine shop, Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Co., that supplied the earliest car makers. Henry Ford and his partners hired Leland to evaluate their struggling automotive plant with en eye toward dismantling and selling it.
Leland encouraged the group to instead adopt his engine design and start again. The Cadillac Motor Car Company was born. The company would go through several reorganizations and in 1909, Leland snubbed Henry Ford and sold the Cadillac to General Motors for $4.5 million.
For the next eight years, Leland ran the company as a division of GM. But in 1917, Leland got into an argument with GM president William Durant. Durant wanted nothing to do with World War I, while Leland wanted to manufacture engines for the military.
Leland quit the car company he had founded and formed Liberty Motors, which was a supplier to the military. After the war, Leland – now well into his 70s – founded the Lincoln Motor Company. Lincolns were fast, powered by eight-cylinder engines.
Leland was an innovator while at Cadillac, introducing the first engine starter. He also standardized the car parts so that when something broke a new part didn’t have to be fabricated from scratch.
But at Lincoln, Leland struggled. His focus remained on precision, but he could not make the cars profitably. In 1922, the firm slipped into bankruptcy. Leland’s old acquaintance, Henry Ford, was waiting in the wings to scoop up the company at a bargain price.
Ford offered $5 million for the company, which had a value of $16 million. The bankruptcy judge forced him to up the offer to $8 million.
Leland stayed on at Lincoln for a time under Ford, but quit when it became clear Ford intended to take his management powers away. Leland continued in business, but the Lincoln was his last car. In 1932, at the age of 89, Leland vowed to his associates that he would never retire until his heart gave out, and later that year it did.
Automotive historians say Leland is largely forgotten today for one simple reason: modesty. Despite being advised to name his car after himself, like most early carmakers, Leland declined. Instead he chose to honor two of historic figures. Cadillac derived its name from Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit. Lincoln derived its name from Leland’s hero, Abraham Lincoln.