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The La Salle brand was launched in 1927 by General Motors as a lower-priced companion to Cadillac when the world was flying high - an early example of niche marketing. It was named, like Cadillac, after an early French New World explorer.
The La Salle brand was launched in 1927 by General Motors as a lower-priced companion to Cadillac when the world was flying high - an early example of niche marketing. It was named, like Cadillac, after an early French New World explorer.

1937 La Salle Convertible

Gee, his old La Salle runs great Add to ...

Most old cars roll through the years referred to by the names their manufacturers chose for them, but a very special few find a place in the hearts of their owners that merits something a little more personal.

And with its rich chocolate-y brown paint, an engine that purrs like a kitten up to its ankles in heavy cream and gears that shift with silk stocking smoothness, Ralph Turner's 1937 La Salle Convertible more than lives up to the name he gave it - Brown Velvet.

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That term of endearment, however, wasn't bestowed until more than a decade after Turner rescued the dilapidated and damaged American classic from confinement in an Eastern Ontario back-country shed, and drove it home to Toronto, a trip punctuated by periodic clouds of steam from its leaky radiator. It's actually been part of his life for almost six decades now.

If the La Salle name is remembered at all in non-automotive circles these days, it's likely due to its mention in the theme song of the 1971-83 television sitcom All In The Family , in which Archie and Edith Bunker sang the line: "Gee, our old La Salle ran great. Those were the days."

For the La Salle brand, "those days" stretched over a mere baker's dozen years. The brand was launched in 1927 by General Motors as a lower-priced companion to Cadillac when the world was flying high - an early example of niche marketing. It was named, like Cadillac, after an early French New World explorer.

Styling was by emerging West Coast design star Harley Earl, who went on to head GM's design group, and within a couple of years La Salle was outselling the senior Cadillac brand.

La Salle's popularity and success kept itself, and Cadillac, aloft through the Depression years. In 1937, the year Turner's car was built, the Cadillac division built 47,000 units, 32,000 of them La Salles and 3,850 of these convertible sedans, which sold for $1,680 (U.S.). Buyers were responding to styling changes that year and a new 322-cubic-inch, 125-horsepower V-8.

With a new lower-priced Caddy line arriving for 1941, La Salle finally lost its market lift and was grounded in 1940. But in that brief span of 13 years, the always stylish and always classy La Salle established itself as one of the legendary cars of the era.

Turner, now 82 and semi-retired from his Toronto law practice, says his interest in cars developed while helping his father to fettle and polish his pride and joy, a 1930 McLaughlin Buick Sedan.

"I loved that car," he says, but it was eventually sold - because the tires wore out. That was in the wartime year of 1943, when rationing of a variety or products was in force, including tires.

"It's original Goodyear Diamond Treads were absolutely worn out and we had to buy another car. You just couldn't get tires."

Its sale "broke my heart," says Turner, but the car left an indelible memory and a desire to one day own an equally worthy vehicle.

That opportunity arrived in the summer of 1951 when Turner, then 21, and his 17-year-old brother John were "squiring" the daughters of a neighbouring Toronto family around at a Perth-area family cottage.

One day while filling up their shared '38 Chrysler sedan at a "funny old gas station with a porte cochère [roof over the pumps]out front" in a place called Mississippi Corners, Turner noticed a shed with bulging front doors held together by a chain and padlock.

What it contained was obviously too big to fit properly and, on peering in, a curious Turner noticed an "LaS" emblem in the middle of a rear bumper. Looking up, he recognized the unique rear window that identified the La Salle as a convertible sedan.

He then discovered it had been driven there from Montreal, been involved in an accident and subsequently tucked away by its owner, who, when tracked down, was willing to part with it for a not-insignificant $200. But buying it was one thing, getting it home was another.

The brothers returned to Toronto, loaded up the '38 Chrysler with "every damn thing we could think of" that might assist in getting the old La Salle running, and then trekked back to Mississippi Corners. The La Salle's gas tank was leaking, so they had to rig up a hose and five-gallon can to feed the carburetor, and carry plenty of water to top up its leaking radiator.

The accident the La Salle had suffered had bent its left front suspension, but the brothers determined it was driveable, just, and set off on the long slow haul home, stopping every 10 miles or so to top off the erupting radiator.

Turner and his brother shared it for a while before he became its sole owner, and he drove it until he purchased the 1948 Chrysler New Yorker that had served as the limousine for the president of Goodyear Tire, whose legal department he was articling in at the time.

The La Salle went into storage until Turner could afford to start restoring it properly. When that time arrived, it was "torn down to the last bolt" and put back together over a period of six years, using parts from a La Salle hearse found in Barrie and towed home behind his '52 Chrysler New Yorker convertible, and the expertise of an English mechanic and panel beater.

"I called myself the sorcerer's apprentice," Turner says. "I went for parts and held things while he pounded on them."

The car was finished in the early 1960s and, since then, Turner and his wife Annetta have put about 80,000 miles (130,000 kilometres) on Brown Velvet's odometer, despite being distracted by ownership of some other interesting automobiles, including a 1929 Bentley Speed Six and a pair of Toronto high society 1930s Packards, which he owned for a time with his brother.

Brown Velvet currently shares garage space with a recently purchased 1929 Packard Super Eight Roadster and both are driven regularly.

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