Henry Ford may have put the nation on mass-produced wheels via the Model T, but he didn’t achieve success on his very first strike. In fact, both his first and second attempts at founding a car company essentially failed – but as is often the case, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. And on this day in 1902, the remains of his second eponymous company were reformed to create a new brand: Cadillac.
Henry Martyn Leland was a jack of many trades, but he primarily built his reputation as a skilled machinist. His Leland & Faulconer firm, established in Detroit in 1890, primarily specialized in producing machining equipment like lathes, tool grinders, and gear cutters, but the firm’s portfolio soon expanded to motive power. L&F not only supplied transmission gears for Ransom Olds’ curved-dash Oldsmobile, but also was contracted to build about 2000 engines for Olds – which, according to Maurice Hendry’s Cadillac: The Complete History, quickly gained a reputation for being more reliable and powerful than identical engines built under contract by the Dodge Brothers.
This reputation for precision engine building may have been what brought Leland to the attention of the Henry Ford Company, but exactly how that move transpired differs between sources. In In The Cars Henry Ford Built, historian Beverly Rae Kimes suggests Leland was brought in as a consultant while Henry Ford – chief engineer for his namesake firm – slowly toiled on a production vehicle. The move allegedly irked Ford beyond recourse, prompting him to leave the firm outright in mid-1902.
Hendry’s history paints a slightly different picture, and suggests William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen – both directors of the Henry Ford Company – first approached Leland in August 1902. The men were tasked with liquidating the firm’s assets after Ford’s departure, and wanted Leland to appraise their value. After surveying the plant, Leland had an idea: he had a leftover engine design, based roughly on the Olds single-cylinder unit (yet unused by Oldsmobile), that boasted impressive power, remarkable reliability, and was cheaper to manufacture. Why not use it as the foundation of a new automobile?
Surprisingly, the directors agreed – and on August 22, 1902, the company was reorganized under the name Cadillac, in honor of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieure-de-Cadillac, the French explorer who essentially founded what became the city of Detroit. The rest is, as they say, is history: Cadillac’s first car was completed in October, the company was purchased by General Motors in 1909, and celebrated its centennial in 2002.
The irony? Leland left Cadillac during World War 1, founded the Lincoln Motor Company, and built Liberty L-12 airplane engines under license for the war effort. Post-war, the company entered the luxury car market, essentially serving as a competitor to Cadillac. If that wasn’t ironic enough, Lincoln became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company — the evolution of the firm Henry founded after being leaving the Henry Ford Company – in 1922.