A History of the Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Co.
Copyright 2004 © by Jeff McVey
Reproduced on OWWM by permission
The Leland, Faulconer, and Norton Co. (LF&N) was founded in Detroit, Michigan, late in 1890. Henry M. Leland, who was the president and driving force behind the company, had come from Brown & Sharpe (B&S) in Providence, RI. He had been in charge of production of the sewing machine that B&S made for Wilcox & Gibbs. While at B&S, Leland was well schooled in the extreme accuracy required for the products they manufactured, including precision measuring equipment. Later, he became a troubleshooter for the company, traveling around the country to solve problems with B&S products. Leland liked Detroit and thought it would be a good place to start a machine shop where he could also serve as a consultant and manufacturer for inventors. Leland's friend, Charles A. Strelinger, had a store in Detroit where he sold machinery, tools, and hardware. Strelinger introduced Leland to Robert C. Faulconer of Alpena, MI. Faulconer, who had made his fortune in the lumber business, financed the new company and became vice-president. Leland brought Charles H. Norton, who would serve as chief designer, along with him from B&S. Strelinger became company secretary.
Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Joseph W. Oliver needed a new trimmer to market as he was stuck with the outmoded Grand Rapids Machinery Co. model. He came to LF&N in Detroit for help. Oliver somehow obtained a partner, Samuel L. Crockett, to start a new business - the American Machinery Co. (AMC). I suspect that the two may have been introduced via Oliver's LF&N contacts. A new trimmer was designed, and a patent application was filed for Oliver by Leland's attorneys on May 26, 1891. It's my guess that the design of this machine, which I refer to as the "no number" trimmer, was mainly an Oliver effort.
Leland's dedication to precision continued at LF&N. He did all he could to ensure that those with whom he worked followed the same principles. If something wasn't absolutely perfect, it was scrapped. Perhaps this is the reason the first AMC trimmer design was stillborn. It appears to have never gone into production.
So, it was back to the drawing board, presumably under the direction of Norton this time. A second AMC trimmer, which would be called the No. 2, was designed. A patent application for this one was filed on November 23, 1891. The AMC partners hired their first employee - Wilfred C. Leland, son of Henry M. Leland, for whom it would be his first job. Along with Oliver, the junior Leland was to be a salesman, traveling to sell the new No. 2 trimmer. Henry Leland also thought it would be good for Wilfred to get some training from the veteran salesman Oliver, as it might be beneficial to him later in business. Meanwhile, Crockett would remain behind to run the office.
In early 1892, the first batch of 500 AMC No. 2 Universal Trimmers was set to go into production. It's known that Leland was dissatisfied with the quality of the work being turned out by Detroit-area foundries. This fact may be the explanation behind the Oliver company legend that his first machines were made by the Builders' Iron Foundry (BIF) of Providence, RI. Having spent many years in that city with B&S, Leland would have been well aware of the quality of BIF's castings. At any rate, it appears that BIF made the castings and shipped them to Detroit, where the machining work was performed at LF&N. Strelinger's company provided the necessary hardware. Sometime later in the year, AMC and Crockett relocated to Detroit. While Oliver was based in Grand Rapids, he and Wilfred Leland spent much time on the road, selling No. 2 trimmers.
In his memoirs, Wilfred Leland explained how a sales presentation of the No. 2 would be given to patterns shops around the country. After setting up the machine, the procedure was to take two blocks of wood, each about five inches square, and trim one end of each. The blocks would then be stacked, with the freshly-trimmed ends of the blocks against each other. When the top block was picked up, the bottom block would be picked up along with it, attached to the upper block only by the surface tension achieved by the union of the perfectly flat, trimmed ends. This impressive demonstration, along with the machine's other capabilities and high-quality construction, was adequate to result in brisk sales.
Henry Leland's dedication to perfection in his machines ran so deep that he would even give his crews pep talks about the value of doing perfect work. This approach was applied to the AMC No. 2 trimmer, and the result was the finest trimmer on the market. As a result, AMC quickly earned respect as a manufacturer of only the highest quality products. The current legacy of the quality of Oliver Machinery is directly based on the reputation that was established by the No. 2 trimmer and the principles invested therein by Henry M. Leland.
Production continued, with a batch of 500 produced each year. The 1892 and 1893 models were marked as being made in New Haven. Leland subsequently found a Detroit foundry whose work could be improved to meet his standards. More No. 2's were produced there, and the markings on the machine were changed to show Detroit as home after the patent was granted on May 1, 1894. Also in 1894, Norton decided to return to B&S, and LF&N changed its name to the Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Co. (L&F). Another batch of 500 machines was produced in 1895, bringing total production of the No. 2 by LF&N/L&F to 2000 units.
In 1895-96, a recession hit the USA. Sales of the expensive AMC No. 2 trimmer dropped off sharply. Oliver was stuck with a large inventory of machines he couldn't sell. So, he didn't order any more of the machines from L&F. The AMC offices were moved to Grand Rapids. Oliver's partner, Crockett, left and moved to England.
After Oliver's AMC parted company with L&F, the latter company also prospered. L&F introduced their own Universal Trimmer around 1896. This is the only woodworking machine that Leland & Faulconer is known to have produced. They opened their own foundry, where the elder Leland could easily reject any castings that weren't up to his exacting standards. They built a special grinding machine that was used to produce the gears for the "chainless" (shaft drive) bicycles that were popular with the ladies in the 1890s bicycle craze. Other early products included a pedestal grinder and a riveting machine.
L&F's Detroit location paid off nicely around the turn of the century when the horseless carriage began to go into production. The experience with bicycle gears resulted in their being awarded a contract to produce transmissions for Ransom E. Olds' "curved dash" Oldsmobile. Later, they made engines for Olds. When Olds turned down Leland's offer for a much-improved version of the engine, Leland found another market for it.
Asked to appraise the value of the assets of the defunct Henry Ford Company (originally Detroit Automobile Co.) for liquidation by its creditors, Leland instead convinced them to stay in business, and use his engine to power a new car. This new company, whose car was introduced in 1903, would be named Cadillac. (Officials at Cadillac still insist that their company arose from the Detroit Automobile Co., rather than admit that it was based on a company named for Henry Ford!) Early production of the Cadillac took place at L&F, and the two companies soon merged, with Henry and Wilfred Leland running the show. Leland's stringent demands for perfection continued in this new endeavor. As a result, Cadillac became "The standard of the world".
The Lelands continued to run the company, even after they sold out to Billy Durant, who included the company in his General Motors empire. In 1910, the over-extended Durant was on the verge of losing control of GM. The bankers refused to lend any more money and wanted to liquidate the company. GM needed a 15 million dollar loan to stay in business. The Cadillac division was still profitable, and had been carrying the rest of the corporation on its back. Therefore, the bankers decided to consult with the Lelands about keeping Cadillac alive, while the rest of the company would be dissolved via bankruptcy. As Henry was overseas at the time, they met with Wilfred. In an all-night session, Wilfred persuaded the bankers to cough up more than enough money to allow GM to continue in business. At the end of the meeting, one of the bankers took Wilfred aside and said to him "Mr. Leland, I want to congratulate you, and I want to say that you have saved the General Motors Company". If not for the efforts of this former trimmer salesman, who was trained by Joseph Oliver, General Motors would not exist today.
Henry and Wilfred continued at Cadillac until WWI. By that time, Billy Durant had regained control of GM (only to later lose it again). The patriotic Lelands tried to convince him to open a factory to help with the war effort, but were unsuccessful. Both promptly resigned from Cadillac and obtained financing to start a new company, which manufactured the Liberty aircraft engine. After the war, their company entered the automobile market with a new car - the Lincoln. At Lincoln, Henry was chairman and Wilfred served as president. Everything came to an end in the 1920s, when as the result of the efforts of others on their board of directors, the Lelands were forced to sell Lincoln off to the Ford Motor Co.