The Pearl of Great Price

I’ve always been a LaSalle guy. Ever since I saw my first one, I could see the flow and the character of the body design. And I was hooked. That plus it had underneath a great, high-class chassis and mechanicals available at the time.

I got to talking with a couple friends one afternoon, about TRUE classic cars and such. And one of the guys told me about a website of a car dealer in Portland, who sells all kinds of antique cars. So I went to make a casual check.

And I found what I can only term as a Pearl of Great Price there for sale. I am one of those people who never, ever, says out loud what we all-too-casually abbreviate as OMG. But the words escaped me this time, because it’s one of those, ‘Oh Lord, just LOOK at this…’ things.

Beauty. Style, Flair. A presence. And it’s for sale. And.

It’s a LaSalle!

Not JUST a LaSalle, it’s a LaSalle convertible, probably one of the most iconic cars in my mind for looks. Gorgeous, swoopy lines, sweet-looking in every angle, even just sitting there. Begging me to buy it, get in, and take my wonderful wife for a ride…

LaSalle cars were designed by the great Harvey Earl, who had LaSalle as his first real design job. He later became chief stylist for GM. LaSalle was built to be priced between Buick and Cadillac, because General Motors was losing an awful LOT of sales to Chrysler, and they needed something affordable to the Cadillac shopper, and upmarket to the Buick shopper.

Oddly enough, there are no biographies of Harley Earl to be found. One thing I remember from being around Old Car Nuts was that Harley missed the LaSalle name, and had actually designed the Buick Y-Job (the first real concept car – Google it and marvel!) to be a resurrection of the LaSalle name. What’s not generally known is the Y-Job became Harley Earl’s personal car, and he drove it every day for many years.

I have two good stories about two different LaSalles:

I was out driving one day about 40 years ago and saw this antique car in the middle of a field. I was working as an Apprentice at a place where we worked on antique cars; both doing and helping find parts for restorations, so I knew the value of a classic, and had a realistic mindset about what it takes for a good restoration.

A short detour: There are three mindsets toward restoration.

First is the ‘put it back to perfect’ mindset, where you create something so perfect that you don’t dare drive it; instead you load it into a covered trailer and take it to car shows. You lose the spirit of the machine, that spirit of what it was designed to do: to be driven and enjoyed. Only a few people get to see it and enjoy it, usually after paying usurious fees to enter a car show.

The second is the ‘restore to run’ mindset, where you bring it back to a point where you can drive it and enjoy it on a frequent, even daily basis. You honor the design and build of the machine, and at the same time, allow others to enjoy it vicariously with you. And you have the frequent pleasure of the experience of a classic. I am of this mindset.

And then there’s the third mindset: Take something pretty good and ruin it for all time by hotrodding it. Now this isn’t complete anathema if you have what’s otherwise a basket case that has no real hope of seeing the light of day again on four wheels. But if you start with something fairly good, you just plain ruin it for all time – not only in value, but aesthetics. This to me, is true anathema.

Back to our story of 40 years ago: So I parked the car, and went out into the field (no fences), had a look at it, and went to the farmhouse door. I explained that I’d seen the car in the field, and that if the price was right, I might be the guy who would give it new life as a nice restoration; I’d never hotrod it or sell it to a hotrodder. The farmer said, “Sure you can look at it, let’s borrow the battery from the tractor.” Wrench in hand, we stopped at the barn, he pulled the tractor battery and we went tromping all the way out there. I thought, “This guy is crazy. That car’s been sitting for at least a few years, from all the grass growing around it. No way is this car going to start, it’s been sitting too long.” Two turns of the starter, and … silence. I started to say something to the old guy, and he pointed to the gauges on the dash. The oil pressure was climbing. I went around to the front, and here the engine was running almost silently. For all her age, she was ticking over smoothly – even after sitting for what must have been years. The old guy explained to me that LaSalle used the same engine that Cadillac sold to the military for their tanks, and so it was nearly bulletproof. But his price was way too high for a guy who was newly-married.

And this is like the one I went tromping a half mile out into the middle of a pasture to look at. I didn’t have $1500, otherwise I could have had it. Notice it’s not the DeLuxe version, no chrome on the hood sides, under the headlights or chrome trim rings. Wheels are painted a contrasting color, red when the car is black, robin’s-egg for blue cars, and so on:

 

Here’s a second story, one to tug at your heart.

One afternoon, a fella that looked fairly well-to-do came walking into our “gas station” where I was an Apprentice and he had an antique 3-gallon gas can in his hand. I dutifully filled it (with Super!!) for him, and commented that it must be one heck of a lawn mower he had there. The guy smiled and asked to see Bob (our owner), and I said sure, he’s inside, just go right in. I was busy with other stuff, and when I finally got back inside, Bob said, “Just you wait about a half hour.”

Sure enough, it’s a half hour later, and in comes rolling this stunningly gorgeous, showroom-condition, dark blue, ’38 LaSalle. A little old gal was sitting in the right seat, and the guy was sitting in the left. I commented on the car, saying that he sure had one heck of a beautiful car there, that LaSalle was my favorite marque; and all he did was smile sadly. A tank of gas later, they were rolling out, to go burn up that tank of gas on a long day’s ride.

After they rolled out, Bob told me the whole story: There was a young couple who bought the retail space about four doors down from our gas station and built themselves a really nice neighborhood grocery store business. They made sure to treat everyone well, not charge too much, and therefore made a decent living. They had a not-very-good-car, but Bob at the station took good care of it and them. When the store was closed on Sundays, they used to go for drives in the country, like many folks of that day. (Even growing up, I remember doing that with my folks.) The husband had for years promised the wife, “As soon as we have the money saved up, I’m buying you a Cadillac and we’re going to take it for our drives in the country every weekend.” Meanwhile they’d had a nice family, a couple boys and a girl.

That day finally came about 20 years later, and in 1938 they went into the Cadillac dealership. Fully intending to buy a Cadillac, they fell in love with the styling and the color of a LaSalle sitting there on the showroom floor. They felt it had been made just for them. They paid cash for it, and right away took it for a drive in the country that afternoon, all the family riding along.

But tragedy struck: Six months later, the husband was dead of a heart attack. The wife continued to run the grocery store with the kids, and shortly afterward, she came to Bob and asked how to store the car for a while. (The grocery store had a modest garage.) Bob went back and got a couple guys from the station, and they put the car on blocks, pulled the battery, drained the fuel, radiator, and crankcase. They waxed the car, covered it up really well, and there it sat. Eventually the kids grew up and went to college. The temptation to sell the car was strong for the wife when bad times came, but her memories of her husband kept her from doing it.

The kids turned out to do very well in what they chose to do, and they both sent home support to their mother. The oldest son made a great living in California. He was close enough that he could fly up periodically to see his mom and to take her for a Sunday drive.

He took her for rides at least once a month through all the summer months until she passed.

Afterward, Bob tried to buy the car a few times, and the answer was always the same: “You couldn’t afford it, Bob!” The son did the right thing: he sold it to someone who appreciated it just as much as he and his mom did. And as far as I know, it was driven and enjoyed regularly.

So for a very long time, I’ve had ‘a thing’ for LaSalles.  You really have to see them in person to really appreciate the gorgeous, swoopy lines. And this is very much like the one that ‘slept’ up the street from our “gas station”; it was the DeLuxe body style; with chrome on the louvers, chrome trim on the trunk, a radio, and full wheel covers:

 

 

Okay, that was then. So what about this one I saw for sale?

Here are a couple photos of what I as an antique car nut, and a fan of LaSalle in particular, have to call The Pearl of Great Price. And I think you’ll see what I mean:

 

Here she is, singing a siren song, begging me to buy, get in, take her home, and get my wife to go for a drive:

 

 

So that you can appreciate the good, functional, ready-to-drive restoration, here’s the listing on the website of the car dealer in Portland: http://www.memorylaneclassiccars.com/forsale/1939-lasalle-2door-convertible/

Sigh, yeah.

I can only thank God that he made us with such great imaginations, to create things of such beauty and fun.

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