Men Who Made Cars: Lincoln and Cadillac Automaker Henry Leland

The man who founded the Lincoln Motor Company—named after Abraham Lincoln—and created the Cadillac was a machinist, an inventor, and an engineer. His name is Henry Martyn Leland (1843–1932), born in Vermont. He was an entrepreneur.

Mr. Leland learned about mechanics at a company called Brown & Sharpe. He also worked in the firearms industry during the Civil War, at a federal arsenal and at Colt Manufacturing, where he gained an appreciation for the logic of interchangeable parts. During those early years, Mr. Leland was particularly fascinated with the variation in size of individual parts. Striving for exactness, he made parts of differing size within progressively smaller fractions.

cadillac interior

Fueled by his expanding knowledge, he sought to start an industrial factory. According to associate history professor Yanek Mieczkowski at Dowling College, Mr. Leland moved to Chicago, Illinois, arriving on the day in 1886 that a historic labor riot erupted at Haymarket Square in which the police were bombed. Chicago’s lawlessness alarmed the young businessman; he fled Chicago for Detroit, where he founded a machine shop to make gears, tools, and gasoline engines.

Henry Leland’s handmade products were manufactured with fractional differences of 1/2,000th of an inch, which Mieczkowski notes is a major technological advancement. Mr. Leland earned a reputation for making quality products. His business grew, attracting Oldsmobile creator Ransom E. Olds, who put Mr. Leland's gears and engines in his cars.

According to Mieczkowski, the Cadillac Automobile Company recruited Mr. Leland, who renamed it the Cadillac Motor Company and became the firm’s first president. Soon, Cadillacs became known for their quality, too, and Henry Leland used the cars’ high-caliber performance to prove his thesis that parts would be improved if they were standardized and made by machines.

In 1908, he took three Cadillac vehicles to Britain, where an auto club contest’s officials took them apart, switched the components, and reassembled the cars. There was hardly a difference, demonstrating his point. Cadillac became synonymous with high quality and the then-private General Motors (GM) bought the Cadillac Motor Company a year later, with Henry Leland remaining as an executive until 1917.

That same year, at 73, he formed a new company, honoring his Civil War hero, American President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery, by establishing the Lincoln Motor Company in 1917. They made airplane engines during World War One, and, after the war, Mr. Leland returned to making cars—this time with a Lincoln powered by a V8 engine.

But the federal government persecuted Henry Leland, imposing exorbitant taxes on his profits (the government later dropped the charges), which forced him to sell Lincoln to Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford for a price far below Lincoln’s market value. He clashed with Mr. Ford and, in 1923, he left the company he had founded. Henry Leland died in Detroit, Michigan, in 1932.

His accomplishments were extraordinary. Henry Leland, who also invented electric hair clippers used by barbers, applied his knowledge of technology to making cars, proving that American cars could compete in terms of quality, advancing the automotive industry’s progression toward assembly line manufacturing—which made cars affordable to the middle class—and he created two bestselling American brands, Lincoln and Cadillac, which retain their high performance heritage to this day.

[Source: The Man Who Brought Us Cadillac and Lincoln, by Yanek Mieczkowski, associate professor of history, Dowling College].

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