Henry Martyn Leland was born on February 16, 1843 in Barton, Vermont. He learned engineering and precision machining in the Brown & Sharpe plant at Providence, Rhode Island. He later worked in the firearms industry, including at Colt where he learned furthered his skills in the precision toolmaking trade. In 1870, he founded the Leland & Faulconer machine shop, a successful gear grinding and tool manufacturing company in Detroit.
Leland founded Cadillac out of the ashes of the Henry Ford Company (formerly Detroit Automobile Company) on August 22, 1902. Prior to the formation of Cadillac, Leland and his partners Robert C. Faulconer and Charles H. Norton had had a contract supplying engines to Olds Motor Works in 1901. When Ransom E. Olds turned down an improved engine produced by Leland, the visionary toolmaker ceased upon the opportunity presented to him by the officers of the failing Henry Ford Company to create his own automobile: the Cadillac, named for Detroit founder Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
Religiously devoted to accuracy of machining and quality construction, Leland recognized that in true interchangeability of parts lays the key to a great future automobile industry. Leland imported precision gauges from Sweden that allowed Cadillac craftsmen to manufacture components with standardized dimensions.
In 1908, Cadillac became the first American automaker to win the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain’s prestigious Dewar Trophy for significant automotive advancements. Three randomly selected Cadillacs were disassembled, their parts scrambled, and the three vehicles reassembled using only hand tools. A 500-mile road test proved the interchangeability of each car’s 721 components. With this impressive demonstration, Cadillac became the benchmark in automotive technology.
In 1909 Cadillac was purchased by Billy Durant and it became part of the General Motors. Henry Leland continued to work with the company as the Division’s first general manager. Four years later, Leland combined with Charles F. Kettering and introduced the electric self-starter and lighting systems for which Cadillac was awarded the Dewar trophy for an unprecedented second time. In 1914, under Leland’s leadership, Cadillac introduced the V8 water-cooled engine.
Henry Leland left General Motors in 1917 and formed the Lincoln Motor Company to build Liberty aircraft engines. He named the company after Abraham Lincoln, his hero and for whom he cast his first vote in 1864. After the war, the company’s factories were retooled to manufacture luxury automobiles. Henry Leland produced only 3,407 Lincoln cars before he was forced to offer his company for sale. In 1922, Lincoln was purchased by the Ford Motor Company and Leland and his son Wilfred resigned when it was made clear to them that they would no longer be allowed to control the company they had created.
Henry Leland died on March 26, 1932 in Detroit.