Motoramic

August 22: Cadillac was founded by Henry Leland on this date in 1902

Justin Hyde
Motoramic

Henry Leland had to stop a funeral. An experienced engine builder and businessman, Leland had been hired by Henry Ford's investors to liquidate what was left of the Henry Ford Co. in 1902, after Ford had grown sick of their meddling and set off on his own. Leland looked around Ford's plant and told the investors the company should keep going — renamed for the French explorer who founded Detroit, Antoine de la Month Cadillac. On this date 111 years ago, Henry Leland's genius created Cadillac, one of three successes that would eventually make Detroit as we know it today, but break Leland's spirit in the process.

By most accounts, Leland wasn't easy to work for. An engineer by trade, he demanded precision from those around him, often bluntly. By the time the Ford investors brought him in, Leland had a reputation as a talented engine builder, believing parts should be interchangeable, and his engine was compact enough he carried it into the meeting with investors. By 1903, the first Cadillac with Leland's engine hit the market, and soon Cadillac became the best-selling cars in America, renown for a reliability that most start-up carmakers couldn't match.

After the investors sold Cadillac to General Motors in 1909, Leland and his son stayed on as its managers. When GM teetered on the brink of collapse in 1910 from its acquisition binge, it was Leland's personal appeal to Wall Street bankers that led to a financial lifeline for the company — but one that also brought a new board of directors who didn't understand Leland's demand that his vehicles be great rather than good enough. Leland fought with them over many of his technical innovations; after a friend was killed while trying to start a car with a hand crank, Leland oversaw the development of the first electric starter. He also built the first water-cooled V-8 engine, the descendants of which power millions of vehicles today.

Sticking to his principles sped Leland to his ruin; he quit GM when it refused to aid the effort for World War I, deciding to build a factory for V-12 aircraft engines. Leland named the factory after the first president he'd voted for — the Lincoln Motor Co. When the Army abruptly cancelled the contract and left Lincoln with a massive debt, Leland returned to luxury cars, with the first Lincolns rolling out in 1920. But an economic downturn forced the company into bankruptcy, and only Henry Ford saw fit to bid for its assets. While Ford made a show of keeping Leland, then 79, on at Lincoln, he quickly undermined Leland and his son, until both resigned in protest and filed suit. Leland died a decade later, having started the two great American luxury automakers and saved GM, but with nothing to show for all of it.

Well, not quite nothing. During the internal debate at GM over whether to build his V-8, Leland had Cadillac's ad agency craft a rebuttal that ran once, in the Saturday Evening Post in January 1915. "The Penalty of Leadership" stands as one of the greatest ads ever written, and works as well as a manifesto for Leland and anyone who has ever fought for greatness against settling for good enough:

In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man's work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone -- if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius. Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountback, long after the big would had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by. The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy -- but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant. There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions -- envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains -- the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live -- lives.

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