Why Henry Leland, founder of Cadillac and Lincoln, is practically unknown in Detroit

henry leland portrait

Legacies are tricky things. Preston Tucker's company didn't last a decade and only assembled four dozen cars, but people who aren't even car enthusiasts know his name. Henry Leland founded the two surviving American luxury car companies, Cadillac and Lincoln, both now more than a century old, yet outside of some automotive history buffs, he's generally unknown—not even honored by the companies he started.

How did this happen to someone who was arguably the most respected of Detroit's automotive pioneers? It has everything to do with the history of those two companies.

Henry Leland was born in Vermont in 1843. As a young man, he hired in to the Brown & Sharpe machine tool company, where he gained his first experience in precision machining and engineering. Later, he worked for a number of companies in the firearms industry, including Colt, where he learned the importance of standard, interchangeable parts. 

Moving to Detroit, he established Leland & Faulconer and turned it into the most respected machine shop in the city. Before Detroit became the Motor City, it was a leading maker of stoves and, later, Pullman railroad cars. Combined with the Great Lakes maritime industry, Leland's machine shop and foundry had plenty of work, including producing stationary and marine engines.

leland faulconer manufacturing headquarters
National Automotive History Collection

As the infant automobile industry got off the ground, Leland turned his expertise to cars, supplying Ransom E. Olds with gasoline engines. Then an incident involving a slightly better-known automotive pioneer put Leland directly in the business of making cars.

They say the third time's the charm, which was fortunate for Henry Ford as the Ford Motor Company was actually Ford’s third venture at making automobiles. The Detroit Automobile Company folded in part due to Henry's lack of production experience. While his second venture, the Henry Ford Company, founded in 1901, carried his name, Ford was a minority shareholder and chief engineer, mostly just an employee. The company was formed to produce a lightweight roadster to be priced around $1000. Although Ford did develop what was to be the company's first production vehicle, the automaker's investors thought that Henry was devoting too much time and resources to building a large, four-cylinder race car, later to be known as 999. Ford's earlier success with the “Sweepstakes” racer had convinced him that racing was vital to generating publicity.

In 1902, Ford's backers, led by financier William Murphy, decided to liquidate the company and brought in Henry Leland to appraise the assets prior to the impending sale. Ford left in a huff, finding backers to start Ford Motor Company the following year. Meanwhile, Leland checked out the factory, tooling, and the almost-ready-for-production car and concluded that liquidation was a mistake and that the car Ford had come up with was a viable product, particularly if it used the new single-cylinder gasoline engine Leland & Faulconer just happened to be getting ready to sell to the Olds Motor Vehicle Company (later Oldsmobile). The backers reorganized the company, naming it after the erstwhile French nobleman who founded Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, and put Leland in charge.

That’s why the first 1903 Cadillac is so similar to the original 1903 Ford Model A. They were both essentially Henry Ford's designs (or designs done with Ford's supervision). It is also why Henry Ford carried a lifelong grudge against Henry Leland.

Leland would make Cadillac “the standard of the world,” through implementing rigorous quality control like the use of “Jo blocks,” Johansson gauge calibration standards, and interchangeable parts. The latter led to Cadillac winning the prestigious Dewar trophy in 1908 after three cars were shipped to England, disassembled, and then reassembled after mixing up the parts. 

Leland sold Cadillac to William Durant's General Motors in 1909 for $4.5 million, joining GM as an executive. It was Leland who encouraged Charles Kettering to develop a practical electric self-starter after a friend of Leland's died after being injured crank-starting a Cadillac.

A dispute with Durant over a proposed contract to build Liberty airplane engines for the U.S. government during World War I led to Leland's departure from GM. Leland, who was very patriotic, wanted to produce war materiel, while Durant, a pacifist, was opposed.

leland liberty engine
National Automotive History Collection

On the basis of a $10 million government contract to make those V-12 Liberty engines, Leland founded the Lincoln Motor Company, planning from the outset to make luxury cars. The company was named after Abraham Lincoln, and a statue of the 16th U.S. president was on the grounds of the Lincoln factory. That statue now stands behind the Detroit Public Library's Skillman Branch, which houses the National Automotive History Collection, the source of the photographs that accompany this article. After the war ended, the Lincoln plant in Detroit was retooled for automotive production, using a V-8 said to be derived from the Liberty's designs.

leland near president lincoln statue
National Automotive History Collection

Unfortunately, the government stiffed Leland on the contract, never fully compensating Lincoln for its work. After an economic downturn in the early 1920s, by 1922 the firm was declared insolvent and was put up for sale by receivers. Though the Lincoln factory and its assets were conservatively appraised at $16 million, the Ford Motor Company made an initial bid of just $5 million. Though it was the only bid, the bankruptcy judge would not approve the sale until Ford raised the bid to $8 million.

henry leland with fords lincoln factory
National Automotive History Collection

In June 1922, Ford security personnel walked 79-year-old Leland and his son Wilfred, a Lincoln executive, out of the factory they had built. Henry Ford knew how to carry a grudge.

Today, Henry Leland, the man who started both Cadillac and Lincoln, is nowhere near as well-known as Tucker. Leland's grave in a southwest Detroit cemetery is marked by a simple ground-level brass plaque that is now deteriorating. While Cadillac or Lincoln could easily afford to restore it, neither of the luxury car companies founded holds him in a place of honor. Lincoln won't, since Henry Ford hated Leland after The Henry Ford Company's demise and rebirth as Cadillac. And Cadillac doesn't seem to want to honor the man who founded its crosstown rival, Lincoln.

It is said that a prophet is without honor in his hometown. Henry Leland started two American luxury automobile companies and he's barely known in the Motor City.

henry leland lincoln factory
National Automotive History Collection