LaSalle Story

In 1990, I purchased a basket case auto in the hopes of restoring this classic V8 car to its original splendour. Little did I know that my limited experience (I had previously restored a Fisher body 1927 Chevrolet 4 cylinder sedan), was not totally adequate for this project. I would need to buy and learn to use a MIG welder in addition to other tools and skills to finish the car. Also, there was so much destruction from years in the elements as well as scores of missing and broken pieces I didn’t even know about.
What I did know was the absence of a wooden roof, sills and floor. The seats were gone as was most of the dash. Parts from the front end and steering were missing in addition to cowl lights, head lights and tail light with their brackets. Many of the remaining pieces left with the car were broken pot metal. The rear metal piece around the back window was made of aluminium. It had two 8-10 inch splits on each corner. The rain had deteriorated all of the remaining windshield, window and door mechanisms. There were also five rotted solid metal disc wheels, rusted undercarriage, motor, rad with shutters.
In December 2009, I wrote my fifty first article for the Alberta Pioneer Auto Club entitled “The Restoration of a 1928 Lasalle Five Passenger Coupe” A Twenty Year Journey. I have included the last paragraph:
I drove the car from my shop in the back yard to the front driveway
A couple of times for photos shoots and that’s the extent of my
driving this car for 2009. With winter here, I will have to wait until
spring for a few trips to local car shows after I set the toe-in and
camber, then the car will be finished, maybe.
In 2010, I moved to Airdrie, organized my house and property, built an addition to my double garage, etc., etc. Months passed then years. In the meantime, the engine seized and had to be rebuilt which included babbitting, machining and parts….and so more time passed.
NOTE: During my early years of restoring the Lasalle, there was no Internet. Old fashion communication by mail, house phone, word of mouth, swap meets, etc were required.
The Lasalle Engine
Once I opened up the HC 53 V8 engine, I found that the mice had been living there for years. Their urine trails in the blocks had destroyed the steel valve springs, cam roller lifters and the aluminium cam roller guides. Finding these motor parts was a real challenge. Water had mixed with the motor oil in the oil pan which corroded pan and screen. The removal of dead mice from the oil pan didn’t improve my hope for the engine rebuild. I was able to get help from a mutual Lasalle owner for oil lines and the rotted aluminium guides etc. that I needed. The crank case was made of aluminium but it was unaffected from years of neglect. I cleaned and reassembled the water and oil pumps.
A friend’s father was able to rebuild the heads while members from APAC poured new babbitt for the mains and rods. Another APAC member did the machining for the rods while a local engine business did the line boring, crank and cam machining. The original distributor was gone and someone had replaced it with a more modern one. I lucked upon a distributor restorer in Lethbridge who assured me that he could make it work and it did. Now on to the fuel system.
Fortunately, an original Cadillac/Lasalle up-draft carburetor Type 1 and vacuum tank were still attached. Foolishly, I had removed the vacuum tank float system years before and installed it on my 1927 Chevrolet when that one had failed. I had forgot that I had switched the tank tops which proved to be another error for me. I never got the fuel vacuum system to work even with a box of accumulated spares in a box. After assembling that V8 engine myself, I was able to easily start the engine which was one of the most exciting moments in that car’s frustrating life. But my inexperience played itself out again.
I had refinished and installed the intake and exhaust manifolds. In one of the manifolds was a corroded butterfly controlled by a dash lever. I didn’t know what it was for except maybe cold weather starts. I could start the car but the carburetor always leaked when the engine was turned off. Totally frustrated, I removed that carburetor too many times to count to recalibrate, reseal, and whatever else came to mind. I had it checked and rechecked by fellow car buddies as well. I installed an expensive car kit as well as installing an in-line fuel pump/fuel regulator and fuel filter. I put a new fuel line directly through the vacuum tank with a shut off valve among many other adaptions such as finding, rebuilding and installing another rare and expensive carburetor Type II. Nothing worked. The car would start and the fuel leaked out the carburetor when the engine was shut off.
Luckily for me, I talked to everyone who might have some old car knowledge and was willing to listen to my frequent woes. An older and very knowledgeable antique car owner/restorer happened to mention off the cuff that my problem sounded like a pressure problem. BINGO, light bulb, whatever, problem solved. That damn dash lever for the carburetor intake was never moved by me. It was always shut OFF. All I had to do was turn the lever to the OPEN position and voila, no more leakage.
When I first owned the Lasalle, I reassembled the body as best I could on a 4×8 sheet of plywood and traced out a sill/floor design. From that design I made the sills from white ash and then designed the oak floor and back seat area which fits over the rear axle. I then had to use whatever pieces of rotted wood that existed for patterns to create the doors, trunk, windows, door posts, the structure surrounding the rear window and educated guesses for the roof rails, roof ribs and the front windshield and cowl assembly. Needless to say the accumulation of wood tools was immense for different power saws, power and hand planers, routers, drills and wood bits, belt sanders and others.
My experience with the 1927 Chevrolet 4 door sedan did come into play as the Lasalle was Fisher body design as well. I knew for sure that there was no way I would make the roof ribs and cover them like the original with chicken wire, batting and vinyl roof. A fellow APAC member suggested that I could install wood door veneer skins onto the ribs thus making it solid and quieter. I designed the ribs with a gradual curvature which I believed would fit the outline of the coupe. I added a few extra ribs for strength keeping in mind the positioning of the interior roof light when I found one. Many years later as I was finishing the car, I glued a thin foam base to those roof panels and attached the vinyl material. The original aluminium trim which held the roof material in place around the curved rear window was destroyed so I had to make another one using various materials which would look good and keep the area water proof.
When I bought a MIG welder and learned to weld new sheet metal to the bottom of the body and doors, I nailed the metal to the mainly oak wood frame that I had constructed. As much as the tasks were time consuming and frustrating, I did enjoy some of it, if I was making progress. Once the rebuilt doors, cowl, and rear trunk section were attached I had to tackle the metal window and windshield winders which were rusted or missing in addition to the wood inside window pieces. Making the pieces also required fitting them which was again very time consuming. Once the body was finished the critiques’ eyes were essential before continuing.
I should mention that I happened upon a method of cleaning metal pieces . A number of years ago, I met an old timer who told me of a concoction which he guaranteed would clean all the metal including removing the rust rather than sand blasting. I used his concoction for the smaller metal pieces but the fenders, cowl and disassembled trunk section I submerged in an acid solution at a friend’s shop which cleaned up the metal. However, all of the smaller metal pieces from the frame to window winders, whatever, I submerged in the home made concoction of molasses and water. It takes more time than other methods but it works!
I had written in an article (September,1993) for the APAC newsletter about this method of cleaning metal which was cheap, environmentally friendly and effective. People who used this method have contacted me over the years and swore to its effectiveness. One of my friends who restored his fathers’s 1920’s farm truck immersed the cab, fenders and hood into the molasses mixture. He swears that it worked.
After washing the molasses off the metal pieces, I had to weld up the broken ones, find window and door springs then attach them to the wood pieces. What a chore that was! Without measurements I had to do a lot of guessing and reassembling until the car took shape except for the wood frame around the rear window because the aluminum body sheet was split in the two corners. I finally found someone who would weld that old brittle aluminum. Once that was done I had to readjust the wood frame so it could be nailed on.
The trunk lid was not too bad to rebuild but to fit it back into the rear end was a mean task. It actually took a number of years until I was painting the car that I was able to fit the lid properly. This was obviously not the time to be fitting body pieces. Also I could not figure out how the lid stayed up once the lid was opened.
Years ago, I had corresponded with a Lasalle owner and finally visited him in Ontario in 2008. At that time he owned a 1927 and a 1940 Lasalle. I learned later that he had recently purchased a 1928 Lasalle coupe. I contacted him about the car and told him about my trunk lid problem. He told me that his Lasalle lid mechanism was still in place and he would send me a picture. Once I had the photo in hand it was only a matter of hours until I had cut up one of my bar clamps, located two retaining pieces from my metal scraps and built a similar working mechanism.
The other exterior metal piece needing attention was the spare tire carrier attached to the frame cross member at the back of the Lasalle. This large cast iron carrier must have been yanked with a tremendous amount of force as it did not align with the frame. Under advice, I clamped it to my large vice and retrieved my trusty sledge hammer. BANG,BANG,BANG. Hey, it looks pretty good and it lined up when installed.
The centre of the spare tire carrier had three bolts to hold the solid disc rim and a fourth bolt dead centre I assumed to hold a locking mechanism. I needed to create another way of securing the spare tire for looks if nothing else. One of my oldest car buddies who unfortunately was a Ford man offered me a locking mechanism for a smaller bolt. No problem. I cut off the original bolt and welded on a smaller bolt which worked. Another Lasalle car buddy and extremely talented man fashioned me a large steel curved plate which worked. I drilled out the centre to accommodate that smaller locking bolt and ground out three places on the edge to fit beside the bolts. Some sanding and polishing made it look respectable. I took it to a trophy shop which etched La Salle on it. After some clear coats it was fitted in place and locked.
Chroming pieces for my classic Lasalle was another major challenge. The Lasalle was a more expensive car than most cars of that era which meant hundreds of shiny metal parts. The large rad shell was purchased as were a number of other essential pieces from a car enthusiast in Montana. When the shell arrived it needed chroming so I took it to the Calgary company which had chromed hundreds of my car pieces. The company had always treated me fairly and had not lost any of hundreds of pieces. I waited and waited but no rad shell. It would be revealed after many, many months that someone in their company had sub contracted the chroming job. The final product was acceptable but that time delay was very disappointing.
Most of the car parts were made of white pot metal and were covered in nickel. For convenience and cost I chose chrome. The remaining pot metal parts on the wreck had deteriorated over the years and those pieces had to be replaced or remade out of metal such as steel or brass which could be chromed. For the most part the interior and exterior door and window handle and winders, four hood latches, cowl vent levers, and numerous other pieces were cast in brass. The rough cast pieces could be filed, fitted, sanded and polished by me which really reduced the cost of chroming.
Unfortunately, I sent what original parts I had to a foundry in Alberta to have new pieces cast. After an extended period of time had passed, I was notified that the parts I ordered were ready. I sent a cheque to cover the cost of production and asked that the new parts be shipped but not the originals at this time in case some parts needed to be redone. What a mistake! The new pieces arrived which were acceptable so I tried to contact the company. I wanted the originals returned so I would have complete sets of outside and inside handles and cranks. Those original parts never arrived. After fruitless telephone calls and letters, I finally learned that the foundry had burned down and there went my original pieces. Ultimately, a search was resumed for parts to complete the sets plus the other pieces. It took years! Fortunately, I found a Cochran’s artist who worked in brass. He was willing to cast parts for me. His generosity helped me complete most of my needed parts.
In addition to the aforementioned parts, I had to locate a rear tail light, an interior dome light and two corner lights, an exterior courtesy light for passenger side, two cowl lights, and the list goes on and on. As well as these parts the dash cluster was white pot metal which fell apart in my hands. Dash gauges were damaged or gone, clock and cigar lighter were gone , dash and steering wheel levers were damaged. Some steering wheel pieces and dash pieces were made of a plastic type material and were damaged or missing. The three interior rod ends were damaged or gone as were the two vanity boxes. Did I mention that the horn on the driver side attached to the missing head lights bracket was gone? I was able to locate a restored horn in the USA before I actually located those huge headlights and its assembly unit.
In the early 90s, I contacted a well-known car parts dealer in eastern USA. He was able to supply me with the complete head light unit for a very generous fee. When the large box arrived and I opened it, was I disappointed. The whole unit was dirty and well-weathered as if it had been resting on the ground for years. The original depressed glass headlight lenses were discoloured but not broken. The nickel/brass head light pots were dented and cracked. The inside steel pieces which keep the pots in shape were rusted and useless. The LaS emblem and rods which attached to the head lights were made of pot metal. They were pitted and useless. Now what?
I pick and filed and silver soldered those head light pots. A craftsman who worked for a car friend in the oil industry made the steel interior pieces for the head lights which I soldered into place. I located a poorly cast brass LaS emblem which I filed, polished and fitted the new rods which had to be made on a lathe by another buddy. I reworked the emblem unit so it fit into the head lights. The large steel rod which holds the cast iron fender brackets was made from a similar sized steel rod which I cut, filed, sanded and polished. I was able to clean, file, sand, fill, prime and paint those heavy cast fender brackets.
When the head light parts were returned from the chrome shop and assembled, that light unit looked great. One of my car buddies who had a table at the local Spring car swap meet was able to provide original GE Mazda 1110 head light bulbs. I rewired the headlights, installed the bulbs and attached a 6 volt battery to test the bulbs. They worked! I tested the head lights many times in my darkened garage. Man, those lights looked wonderful and were a kind of inspiration! All of that work occurred in the early 1990s. The head light assemble was stored for nearly 20 years until it could be bolted to the front fenders of my Lasalle.
One of the more interesting challenges was the Lasalle screw-on hub caps. Only two original pot metal caps came with the wreck. One of them had a serious crack through the treads. Both were useless. Sound familiar? After much researching for not, I came up with the idea of trying to find another foundry to make new one. I threw out caution again and visited a well-known bronze sculptor with a studio in Cochrane. For a reasonable fee, he would cast four hub caps as long as I was not in a hurry. The Lasalle car body wasn’t built yet so “He’ll no, let’s go!” Using the lost wax method, he cast the four hub caps. They were perfect casts. With caps in hand, I next approached a Cochrane machine shop to have the cap treads machined. At that time, a young BCIT graduate machinist was working there. He took on the challenge as he subsequently did for many of my steering and wheel jobs. I retrieved the caps and after filing, sanding, etc. the hub caps were ready for chroming. Those hub caps are heavy, expensive and look original on the Lasalle. I went to a hobby shop and found the paints for the Lasalle crests. To install and remove those chromed hub caps, I have to use a rubber oil filter strap.
Above the windshield on the outside is a glass and metal sun visor. The original glass was tempered, cracked, green and would not be reused. The supports brackets on each end were white pot metal and broken. What else could I expect? With assistance from a good car buddy who was very talented in his garage/shop, four new brass bracket pieces were hand made and readied for chroming. I sent the four pieces out of province to a chroming shop. The four pieces came back near perfect and at a cost that would have approximated the cost of chroming all of the other hundreds of previous parts for the Lasalle.
And so goes the list of missing and/or damaged car parts. Over the years, I was able to find, repair, manufacture, polish, chrome or paint hundreds of parts. To describe my attempts to cut and make sheet metal pieces, pick and file, shrink and weld, fill and sand, prime and paint would take volumes. Whatever exists on that Lasalle so far was done by me with a lot of assistance. The frame, front and rear axles, transmission, torque tube, drive shaft, brakes and brake rods, steering wheel and steering column, radiator support and shutters, wheels and hubs, studs and hub caps, front and back bumpers, rear springs, love joy shocks and gas tank to name a few had to be restored and/or found, repaired and/or manufactured. Enough already!
It would not be fitting to leave out some comments and photos of my paint job on my Lasalle. My experience painting the 1927 Chevrolet did give me the confidence to tackle the Lasalle. Finding an appropriate location was still a problem as my garages were alway dirty from so much car restoration activity. I had moved twice which meant rewiring for 220 amp for my compressor and rewiring for sufficient lighting.
Metal prepping, sanding, primer painting and repeat work does take its toll. If one isn’t fussy at these stages, then the end results can be down right depressing. So a keen eye and repetition is required. Having friends and others stopping by with their comments can also be beneficial, sometimes.
My quantity and quality of car body equipment had improved as the years went by. Electric sanders of many types, long boards, sanding blocks, touch up paint guns, primer guns, base coat gun and clear coat gun were essential equipment for the task.
Choosing colours for my Lasalle was a very personal thing. The original Lasalle colours I saw and applications just did not inspire me. When I narrowed my choices down to two colours, red and white which I believed I could handle, my confidence was assured.
Photos tell the story of my painting the dash in primer and red coat before installing in the car. The body was painted separate from the doors, fenders, under door pans, trunk lid, hood pieces and rad shutters. The head light assembly was painted separate as were the wheel rings and the disc wheels.
All and all, I am very happy with my workmanship and colours. Let others be the judge as I am content regardless!
Now once most of the exterior was finished or nearly so it was time to think and I mean think about the upholstery as it is a costly undertaking. To get to that stage, I would need some essentials such as a sliding driver seat, a folding under the dash passenger seat and a rear bench seat none of which came with the car. After a number of years, I was able to get a well weathered but moveable driver seat with some rusted springs and a folding back rest for the passenger seat.
The unique passenger seat, I had seen in a photo but I had no idea how it was built. The back had to fold onto the seat and then the whole seat had to
fold up under the dash thus giving passengers access to the rear bench seat. This access from the passenger side was the only way to get to the back seat in the Lasalle coupe. Using the USA Cadillac Club roster, I located a club member restoring a 1929 Cadillac five passenger coup in the US Midwest. I contacted the owner and he very generously sent me photos, drawings and video of the front seats and rear seat removed from the coupe. In addition, he drew a pattern for the passenger seat hinge. It was enough! I hack sawed the hinge from 1/4” plate steel and welded it to a cut out mounting plate so it could be bolted to the floor and the seat bracket I made for each side. From the photo, I made the floor rest bracket from 3/8 steel rod and attached all of it to the 3/4 inch plywood seat base. It worked! It took the metal pieces apart, filed, sanded and polished the parts for chroming. Making that passenger seat mechanism was one of the more rewarding experiences of the whole Lasalle. The two piece rear seat was not.
Due to the fact that I guessed the measurements for the car as well as the large width of a five passenger coupe, I was unable to find a rear seat. I assumed that another Fisher body rear seat would work such as the one in my 1927 Chevrolet four door sedan which I sold years before. I borrowed a 1920s rear seat from a friend and copied the wood back of the seat which attached below the back window. I had no idea of the width or the height so I just went ahead and attached the back of seat to where I thought it might fit. I made a seat base from plywood and just set it below the back piece. It turned out that once I found springs for the seat and back my measurements were out. I remodelled the floor below the seat which was no easy task. Luckily for me the person from APAC who upholstered the Lasalle was familiar with old cars. He adjusted the arm rests we salvaged, refitted the seat kick plate and made all of them fit. He did a great job selecting the right materials for the car interior. He installed the head liner, the seat coverings, the carpets and the door panels. Now remember, there was no pattern for me so there definitely there was no pattern for him.
The interior wood trim for the windows and dash, we believe was walnut from the few rotted pieces left with the wreck. I was able to acquire a number of solid #1 pieces of 3/4 inch walnut from a mansion under construction in Calgary. The scrap pieces of various lengths and widths were destined for the scrap pile. A retired carpenter/car buddy generously gave them to me rather than burn them in his basement fireplace. From this walnut, I was able to make all of the trim for the doors and windows. I even made a piece to cover the window crank above the windshield. I lacked the skill to tackle the curved dash piece which was cut out by a shop teacher friend of mine. I am very proud of the interior wood work with the slotted brass wood screws, however the interior wood work was not complete without the vanity boxes.
These boxes are found beneath the side windows. I always knew this coupe came with them from 1991 interior photos I had from a Texas car. It wasn’t till 2009 that I saw photos of the vanity boxes in a 1928 Lasalle for sale in British Columbia. One box contained a retractable cigar lighter similar to the one on the passenger side of my dash. I knew finding these boxes would be near impossible so I convinced my carpenter/car buddy who donated all of the walnut to take on building the boxes. Once these beautiful boxes were completed, they were finished the same as the rest of the walnut in the Lasalle and affixed below the side windows.
An original Lasalle coupe came with interior curtains which I thought was a nice feature. Of course the side window curtains and retaining brackets were gone. The rear window curtain was there with broken brackets and some original rotted silk material. I had placed the rear rod, broken brackets and material in a plastic bag for years. As I was finishing the interior, I retrieved the plastic bag from the shed so I could show the upholsterer the material. I unravelled and removed the material from the metal rod then decided to clean up that metal rod to see what’s what. The rod ends still moved and with some manipulation the rod would spring back when it was turned. Unreal! I decided to clean and paint that rod.
The small piece of white metal still attached was used as a pattern to make two new rod brackets. I had a piece of solid 1/2” brass stock just wide enough to work. I traced the pattern onto the brass and clamped it in my bench vice. With hack saw, die grinder, and files, I worked that first piece into a close resemblance of a rod end. Now with some confidence I tackled the other bracket. Once completed, I set up my polishing wheel and went at them. They looked good in brass so I clear coated them rather than having them chromed. I now had to attach the ends to the rod. One end had to be anchored to the rod and the other free play. With set punch, drill bits and Dremel, I attached one end and added some glue to ensure adherence.
That curtain rod worked so off to the upholstery shop where I ordered two new adjustable rods for the side curtains. Back in my garage, I made another two sets of brass matching rod ends. The rods were ready for upholstery but I had to make three walnut oval rods to be placed inside the curtains at the bottom. Once they were made, the upholstery shop was able to finish the curtains and we attached them to the Lasalle. They looked great except I needed three curtain pulls. I asked around and ended up in a fabric shop where I stood out as quite a hopeless oddity I guess because the lady clerks were most helpful. I ended up with three chocolate coloured pulls and attached them to the curtains.
One of the final essential car fixtures I required so that the Lasalle would pass inspection was a working windshield wiper which is a vacuum type on this car. I had over the years found two Trico motors which would fit this car. After many attempts to repair them even by installing very expensive, original repair kits, I was unable to get the blade to move. Please, please just move a bit so I could claim it was functional. No damn way would either of those two motors work. I had reworked all of the vacuum system from engine to the cowl to the dash to the outlet above the windshield to no avail, grrrrr! The copper line to the check valve on the cowl seemed okay. The check valve seemed to work. The vacuum pump attached to the cam was reworked and seemed to function. The line from it to the check valve was solid. The outlet on the check valve to the vacuum tank had been closed off as I was using an inline fuel pump. The line from the check valve to the back of the dash was functioning as the metal line from the dash valve to the top of the windshield. The malfunctioning had to be the white pot metal valve on the dash which I had tried to repair with metal glue. I tried to recheck it but when I removed it from the dash it fell apart in my hand. Now where was I to find that dash piece.
Frustration led me to my collection of brass fittings which I had accumulated over a 25 year period. In the brass drawer were two water valves I assumed. There was two ends which would take copper tubes and an on/off valve. With much experimentation and diligence, I was able to attach the two copper lines for intake and outlet. When I put air pressure to one end and worked the valve with a pair of pliers, I could turn on and turn off the air. It had to work if I could fit it through the dash hole and make a knob for the valve.. I was able to find a chromed brass drawer knob and drilled it out to fit the valve stem. When I put air pressure through the copper line, air came out above the windshield and the on/off knob worked.
Finally through the hot new feature called the Internet, I was able to locate a US company which repaired Trico motors. After sending photos of my two motors, they replied that they could repair one of the two types. Months later they contacted with the good news that the motor was ready for shipment after payment. It arrived! I installed and started the engine. Did that sucker move across my wet windscreen. The last essential part of the car was attached and working.
My car buddy mentioned that a Lasalle 303 Phaeton Torpedo ‘27 was for sale in Europe. The price was very impressive in Euros and even more so in Canadian dollars. What intrigued me in one of the photos was the Trippe Safety Lights (clear glass lenses labelled Trippe Speedlight) attached to front bumpers brackets. I mentioned these lights to my car buddy who said he had two of them at home. What? These I had to see! He stopped by one day with the mismatched pair. Both aged and wonderful. He tested them on my 6 volt battery and they both lit up. I wanted them! We agreed on a price and he left without them.
On my workbench I began to dismantle them and clean the parts. My buddy advised me to be very careful of the rare and expensive glass lenses which I was. Once dismantled, I cleaned and chrome polished the main pots and retaining rings. One of the large interior reflectors had a considerable amount of glue which needed to be scraped off. The other reflector had an easy removable gasket. Those delicate half reflectors with the Trippe name plate took some very careful cleaning especially the weathered one. Some serious CLR and scrapping was required. I also had to cut some felt padding to size to glue on the back of the reflectors as well as the 1/2 reflectors.
The heavy brackets to attach the lights to the front bumper brackets were sand blasted at my friend’s machine shop in Crossfield. I was able to get a nice day so I could hang them outside and paint them black. My buddy soldered new wires to the light bulb sockets and installed the wiring around the rad. Meanwhile, I wired the lights to a switch under the dash. These new lights make a nice vintage addition to my 1928 Lasalle.