For most of their history, Cadillac and Lincoln have been fierce rivals in the luxury-car field. But they actually have something in common: Henry Leland, the man who founded them both.

Leland was a brilliant engineer who introduced innovations that moved the auto industry forward. He also twice found himself at the mercy of the auto giants he’d helped to build.


Henry Leland founded both Cadillac and Lincoln. Photo Courtesy: General Motors

Henry Martyn Leland was born in Barton, Vermont on February 16, 1843, the sixth son of a Quaker farming couple. The family moved to Massachusetts 14 years later, where the young Leland, already showing a keen ability to work with his hands, got a job at a loom works.

He tried to enlist in the Union Army when the Civil War started, but was considered too young. Gun companies were ramping up war production and Leland went to the Springfield firearms factory, where he became a gunsmith. The knowledge he gained there would eventually shape the future of the automobile.

The key was standardized, interchangeable parts. Guns required meticulous machining, right to the thousandths of an inch, or they wouldn’t fire reliably. But when automobiles hit the scene in the late 1800s, many of their parts were handmade, often by blacksmiths, and each could be minutely different. During assembly or replacement, these parts had to be laboriously tweaked to fit.

Meanwhile, Leland worked at several companies, including one that made hair clippers for horses, where he developed one for human heads that quickly became a barbershop staple. At a sewing machine factory, he created a precision grinding machine that became the industry standard. By 1890, he had moved to Detroit and, along with two partners, opened a company to produce gears and specialized tools.

Leland was contracted to produce a new transmission for Oldsmobile, although a subsequent order for 2,000 engines fell through when Olds didn’t want to pay Leland’s high price. However, his work led to a visit from two directors of the Detroit Automobile Company, a lacklustre firm on the verge of reorganization, who thought Leland could help them.

Leland came on board in 1902, renaming the company Cadillac after the French explorer who founded Detroit. But there was a twist. Detroit Automobile had failed twice under the hand of its chief engineer, who had lent his name to one attempt: the Henry Ford Company. Ford, of course, then went on to his successful third try.

Leland, Using his gunsmith training, insisted on precise parts that could be put on a car without any modification, and which would allow for mass production. Cadillac later won the coveted Dewar Trophy for automotive advancement in 1908 for its standardized parts, after three cars were disassembled and their parts scrambled, and then rebuilt and driven away.

Most car companies were started by men building their own designs, but William Durant had founded General Motors to incorporate existing firms, and he wanted Cadillac. Leland’s company was successful, but the fledgling auto industry was tumultuous, and many firms failed—including a few that initially seemed prosperous. Cadillac’s shareholders preferred the idea of quick, guaranteed cash, so they sold the company to GM for $5.6 million. At Durant’s request, Leland and his son Wilfred stayed on to manage the division.


The 1912 Cadillac was the first car with a self-starter

Like all gasoline cars of the day, Cadillacs had to be cranked to start them, which could be difficult and even dangerous—and a main reason why electric cars, which started instantly, were still viable competitors. When a friend of Leland’s was fatally injured while cranking a Cadillac, Leland insisted on finding a solution. Engineer Charles Kettering did, and in 1912, Cadillac received its second Dewar Trophy for the self-starter.

But Leland’s relationship with GM was stormy, and it worsened when the U.S. got into the First World War. Leland wanted to build aircraft engines for the war effort, but Durant refused. At age 74, Leland walked out and started a new company that would.

Leland had cast his first-ever vote for Abraham Lincoln, and so that became the company’s name. Lincoln received a government contract for 6,000 engines two days after it was incorporated, and it produced 6,500 over two years. Still, the firm was in debt when the contract ended in 1919. Leland had to do something to make money, so he built a new car.

The first Lincolns came out in 1920. They had revolutionary new engines and suspensions, but Leland was an engineer, not a designer. The plain styling looked dated, and sales slumped. In 1921, the company’s shareholders put it into receivership and offered it for sale.

The sole bidder was Henry Ford, who paid $8 million for it—about half of what Leland estimated it was worth. Once again, Henry and Wilfred stayed on, but tension between the two Henrys began almost immediately, and the Lelands left four months later.


February 4, 1922: Henry and Edsel Ford purchased Lincoln from Henry and Wilfred Leland. Photo Courtesy: Ford Motor Company

For whatever reason, Henry Ford then lost interest in the car. (Some speculate he’d bought it solely to spite Leland over a grudge Ford held from his Detroit Automobile days.) It might have died otherwise, but Ford’s son Edsel took it over. While he normally overruled anything Edsel did, Henry left him alone with it. Lincoln’s superior engineering, along with the beautiful custom-built bodies that Edsel swapped out for Leland’s dour designs, bumped it up to become one of the more successful American luxury brands.

Leland spent his final years bitter about the losses of his companies. He remained in good health and surprising physical fitness until shortly before his death on March 26, 1932. And while his name has never been on any car, he remains one of the original and important driving forces of the modern auto industry.


1924 Lincoln Fleetwood Limousine