Early History of the Lincoln Motorcar Company

Henry Martyn Leland

To fully appreciate and understand the history of the Lincoln Motorcar and the Company, you must first look at its founder, Henry Martyn Leland. Born February 16, 1843 to parents Leander and Zilpha Leland in Barton, Vermont he was raised in a devoutly Christian household in a strict and frugal manner with an active sense of morality. His being named Henry Martyn after the noted British missionary in India provides some insight to his upbringing. At a little over the age of 14 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Leland went to work as an apprentice mechanic in the textile industry at the Crompton-Knowles Loom Works. As the US Civil War broke out, Leland attempted to enlist in the Union Army but was denied because of age. Leland idolized the new President Abraham Lincoln and the profound belief of the Union’s cause. However, his skills were not overlooked and he was first assigned to supply a Blanchard lathe to the Springfield Armory and was eventually employed there as an expert mechanic. This becomes a significant part of Leland’s professional training as it exposed him to mass production and interchangeability. Interchangeability and precision was the corner stones of what made American machine tools the premier in the world, especially when applied to firearms and munitions. At the end of the Civil War, Leland was laid off from the Armory, but was quickly hired by the Colt gun factory in Hartford, Connecticut where he spent two years making precision his “all consuming goal.” On November 7, 1869 Leland’s only son Wilfred was born and would later play important roles in several business ventures to include Lincoln.

After Colt, Leland landed a position with the well-known company of Brown and Sharpe, a world leader in the machine tool and measurement industry. During the last half of the 1880’s, Leland would travel around the mid west of the United States as a sales representative to machine tool companies providing advice and selling products. One such visit was to George Westinghouse who was failing in manufacturing precision air brake assemblies for the railroad, that is until Leland came along. Leland, in 1890 finally was able make a long time ambition come true when he along with two partners founded a machine shop under the name Leland, Faulconer, and Norton. The company was slightly reorganized when Norton left the company in 1894 and was now just Leland and Faulconer. Wilfred, now in his early twenties was also part of the firm. The company excelled at manufacturing steam and gas engine parts mainly for the marine industry.

In 1899, Ransom Olds approached Leland and Faulconer for the manufacture of transmission gears as he had tried on his own and failed. Olds eventually gave orders for complete engines under identical specifications to both the Leland and Faulconer machine shop and to a shop run by John and Horace Dodge. The Leland and Faulconer engines were rated at 3.7 HP vs. the Dodge Brother’s version at 3.0 HP. The difference was attributed to precision machining. Once during an auto show in Detroit, the two engines were running “side-by-side” with gauges showing identical performance. A man appeared from the crowd and showed the senior Mr. Leland that the Leland and Faulconer engine had a brake mechanism attached to the engine to slow it down to match the speed of the untampered Dodge brother’s engine. The mysterious man from the crowd would later be realized by Leland as Henry Ford.

In the early summer of 1902, William Murphy representing a group of stockholders of an automobile company approached Leland to advise them on manufacturing their “motorcarriage.” The company was the Henry Ford Company. The stockholder’s complaint was that Ford was tinkering and trying to make a racecar and the investors wanted to manufacture a car for profit. Upon the entrance of Leland, Ford left the Company with great disgust, agreeing on only a small cash settlement and insisted on changing of the company name. Rather than disbanding, Leland convinced the Board to keep the company intact and true to his sense of tradition it was named after the French founder of the city of Detroit, the Cadillac Automobile Company. The arrangement was to be like that with Olds, Leland and Faulconer would supply engines to Cadillac. The car itself was designed by L & F employees Alanson Brush, Ernest Sweet and Frank Johnson. This arrangement however was not satisfactory to Cadillac who within a year urged Leland to merge with them. In October 1905, Faulconer was bought out, Henry Leland took over as General Manager and Wilfred was assigned as assistant Treasurer (under Murphy) of Cadillac. Under Leland’s management, Cadillac won the coveted British Dewar Trophy based on interchangeability.

Cadillac was leading the industry in precision and was “ripe” for takeover by one William C. Durant, an empire building visionary who had recently acquired both Buick and Olds into his stable. On July 29, 1909, after several attempts, he succeeded in capturing Cadillac for $4.5 million, cash! The cash sale (cleverly maneuvered by Wilfred) caused Durant to succumb to investors and through careful negotiations by Wilfred Leland, all the divisions at General Motors were saved, leaving only Durant to be booted. Both Lelands were left to the task to train the other divisions on manufacturing and precision. Again under Leland’s management, Cadillac won the second Dewar Trophy, this time for its integrated electrical system based on designs by Kettering and Dayton Engineering Labs (Delco). Topping this was Leland’s announcement that Cadillac would introduce a practical V-8 engine for its 1914 model. Unfortunately Durant was not sitting idle and through some clever stock maneuvering, in 1916 he again took control of General Motors. The Lelands and Durant coexisted at GM and Cadillac until the US entrance to World War I. The patriotic Lelands wanted Cadillac to produce aircraft engines for the war effort and Durant; more of a pacifist did not. Henry and Wilfred Leland resigned from Cadillac and took with them many devoted Cadillac employees. The new Company would be named after a long time idol of Henry Martyn Leland, a leader who represented honesty and the causes of the Union (from a war fairly fresh in peoples minds), Abraham Lincoln. Thus the Lincoln Motor Company was formed in August 1917 for the purpose of manufacturing Liberty V-12 aircraft engines. When the War contracts had terminated in January 1919, 6,500 engines had been produced at Lincoln. This left the Lelands with a skilled staff of workers and a large factory: manufacturing a motorcar was inevitable.

Two long time acquaintances of Leland, Ernest Sweet and Frank Johnson were charged with designing the new motorcar. The engine had similarities to the V-8 designed at Cadillac however the angle between the cylinders would be a radical 60 degrees versus the industry’s traditional 90 degrees. Engine vibration was reduced by sixty percent over its wider-angle competitor. Production processes included breaking in of the engine for over 100 hours (while connected to an electrical dynamo to supply power to the plant) and then being opened and inspected. Chassis’s were fitted with temporary bodies and driven for 100 hundred miles to eliminate squeaks and alike. The results were a bare chassis costing some $4,000 and complete cars as much as $6,600. In comparison, Ford’s model T’s were fetching a little over $400. The first vehicle produced was on September 14, 1920 and by March 8, 1921, only one thousand units were produced. Two problems faced the Lelands and Lincoln; a poor economy effected all auto manufacturers and ultra conservative body styles and designs failed to win over customers. Cadillac sales fell by almost half as other firms such as Pierce Arrow almost folded completely. No brilliance in body styling could have wooed customers who just simply weren’t buying. Dealers were canceling orders and the original start-up capital of $8 million in cash plus an additional $4.2 million in loans were drying up. Lincoln was in trouble. Wilfred arranged financing with New York investors, but that came to a screeching halt when news of a Government $4.5 million tax debt from the war effort was being imposed. The Lelands turned to Ford for loans but were tuned away. They again turned to Ford, this time through more formal legal channels to save Lincoln. Henry Ford was less than excited. He didn’t like large flashy vehicles, but his son Edsel was fascinated by large autos of all kinds. Edsel and a group of Ford executives negotiated with the senior Ford and made a tender offer of $5 million for Lincoln, which was already in receivership for anyone to buy. A Federal Judge monitoring the sale revised the amount to $8 million to cover all creditors. Lincoln was officially sold to Ford on February 4, 1922.

Left to Right: Edsel Ford, Henry Ford, Henry Leland, and Wilfred Leland

This page last updated on
2 January 2016