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Dispute with Ford left Henry Leland a broken man

Making Their Marque Despite career successes with Cadillac and Lincoln, the "Grand Old Man of Detroit" saw his empire dismantled by a disgruntled business rival.

Henry Leland was a machinist and inventor in addition to being an auto engineer. The National Automotive History Collection / AP
Henry Leland was a machinist and inventor in addition to being an auto engineer. The National Automotive History Collection / AP

Henry Leland may not be a household name, but few pioneers of the motor industry have left such a legacy. Awarded the moniker "the Grand Old Man of Detroit" he founded two legendary marques, rescued an automotive giant and had a bitter feud with the most celebrated car maker of all. Remarkably, he achieved all this after his 60th birthday, for Leland was not a child of the automotive age.

Born on a Vermont farmstead in the 1830s, he fought in the US Civil War and was a passionate supporter of Abraham Lincoln. In the latter half of the 19th century, he gained a reputation for precision engineering, firstly with infamous firearm maker Colt, then in inventing the Barbary hair clippers and latterly with bicycles and ship engines.

In 1900, he won his first commission from the motor industry with a contract for Oldsmobile. He developed an engine producing three times the power output compared with other engines of the day through precision engineering. But the cost was too great and his association with the company was a brief one.

In 1902, Leland was asked by investors to carry out a liquidation audit on the Henry Ford Company, a precursor to the marque that became one of the most successful companies in the world. It was Ford's second unsuccessful car company and he had already been sacked. But Leland saw potential in the plant and persuaded the investors to relaunch it with a model using the engine he had developed for Oldsmobile. He delivered an impassioned speech about the future of the motor industry and, filled with zeal and admiration, the investors agreed and made Leland the director of a new company. They named it after the French explorer and adventurer Antonie de la Mothe Cadillac, who helped found Detroit.

Powerless to intervene, Henry Ford looked on in disbelief as this opportunist seized his company. Ever one to bear a grudge, he took a very keen interest in Leland's subsequent career; their paths were destined to cross again. With a reputation for quality and reliability, Cadillac rapidly became a respected marque and, within five years, became the best-selling car in America, boasting the slogan, "If you buy a Cadillac, you buy a round trip". Leland's adoption of interchangeable parts, a philosophy he learnt at Colt, gave Cadillac an advantage, as it dramatically reduced ongoing costs. Nevertheless, despite the marque's unparalleled success, the motor industry remained a volatile investment in the first decade of the 20th century, and when his investors received an offer from William Durant, head of General Motors, they jumped at the chance. Leland negotiated the deal himself and Cadillac was incorporated into GM at the then eyebrow-raising price of US$4.5 million.

Cadillac soon became the prize thoroughbred in the GM stable, so much so that, by 1910, it was the only profitable arm of the group - GM was on the brink of bankruptcy and needed help.

Durant, who was known as a reckless dandy and speculative investor, took the older, level-headed Leland with him to plead with bankers for a salvage loan. Leland made a presentation on Cadillac and, against the odds, managed to secure the loan and rescue GM.

In 1913, Leland made a trip to Europe and returned prophesying war. This set him on a collision course with Durant, who refused to set aside any production capacity for munitions. Leland felt so strongly about the issue that he resigned, secured a government loan and founded his own company to assist the war effort. He named this patriotic enterprise Lincoln and set to work producing engines for fighter planes. After the war, he switched back to car production with Lincoln, becoming one of Cadillac's main competitors.

Despite establishing a successful brand, Lincoln required a rescue package of its own in 1922 and the only buyer was a certain Mr Henry T Ford, whose fortunes had drastically improved since the two men last crossed paths 20 years before. Forced to swallow his pride, Leland accepted a derisory bid of US$8m for the company, half the value of its assets. It was, in part, an act of revenge and, in part, a shrewd investment. Leland was dismayed when Ford forced Lincoln's workers to use parts that had been deemed substandard, and when Ford began stripping Lincoln's assets, Leland made a desperate bid to reclaim control, issuing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and gatecrashing Ford's New Year's Eve party to issue a subpoena. But the lawsuit left him a broken man and he was forced to retire. He died at the ripe old age of 89 in 1932.