The 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity in the United States, with fortunes made practically overnight by means both legitimate and otherwise. By the end of the decade, many automakers were preparing a new breed of ultra-luxury cars aimed at that rich new market — not realizing that the Great Depression was about to bring the party to screeching halt. This week, we examine one of the most famous of those elite cars: the 1930-1937 Cadillac V-16.
The Cadillac Automobile Company was formed by Henry Martyn Leland in 1902. The company, named for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit in the 1700s, emerged from the collapse of the Henry Ford Company, Ford’s second automotive effort, which was reorganized under Leland’s management.
By 1909, Cadillac had become successful enough to attract the attention of William Crapo Durant, chairman of the recently founded General Motors Corporation. Durant bought Cadillac for $4.5 million, although Leland and his son remained in charge until 1917. (Leland went on to found Lincoln, which was acquired in 1922 by Henry Ford and transformed into a division of Ford Motor Company.)
Cadillac was not originally a luxury marque. Its earliest models were powered by a 10 hp, one-cylinder engine, not much different in concept from Ford’s earliest runabouts. Thanks to Leland’s background as an engineer and machinist, however, Cadillacs were built with a level of precision uncommon in the early auto industry. Cadillac pioneered the use of interchangeable parts, a novelty in an age where most automobile repair was closer to blacksmithing. The company also introduced a number of other innovations, most notably the electric starter, developed by Charles Kettering in 1912.
By the 1920s, Cadillac had moved into the luxury market, but it had yet to truly establish itself as a prestige make. There were many luxury car companies in America during the early twenties, many of them now forgotten, but the standard-setter was Packard. As much as Rolls-Royce (or, in later years, Mercedes-Benz), Packard was not only a fancy car, it was an instantly recognizable symbol of wealth and status. Anyone could make an expensive car, but creating something as prestigious as a Packard was another matter entirely.
In 1925, Lawrence P. Fisher, Jr. became Cadillac’s new president and general manager. Fisher was also one of the principals of the Fisher Brothers Body Company, a highly successful Detroit coachwork firm in which GM had acquired a controlling interest in 1919. (In 1926, GM acquired it outright, and transformed it into the Fisher Body Division.) A flamboyant and ambitious businessman, Fisher wanted Cadillac to meet Packard on its own terms.
THE CADILLAC V-16
Fisher’s first step was to boost Cadillac’s bottom line by adding a smaller companion make, the LaSalle, to which end he hired a young stylist from Hollywood named Harley Earl. Next, Fisher set out to create a new flagship, a car that would take Cadillac into the most elite levels of the luxury market. Fisher felt Cadillac’s existing V-8 engine had neither the power nor the sense of occasion for the task.
In 1926, Fisher hired Owen Nacker, previously a senior engineer at the Indianapolis-based Marmon Motor Car Company, as the new head of engine development. At Marmon, Nacker and Howard Marmon had discussed the possibility of the ultimate “multicylinder” engine: a V-16. The engine apparently was only in the conceptual stages when Nacker left Marmon, but it was exactly what Fisher had in mind. Various automakers, including Daimler, Hispano-Suiza and Delage, had V-12 engines, but not even Bugatti had a 16-cylinder car.
To ensure that its impact would not be diluted, the Cadillac V-16 was developed with a level of secrecy more befitting a new military aircraft than a car. As a cover, the engine was described as a V-12, not a V-16, and even within Cadillac, all paperwork described it as a coach or bus engine. In truth, Nacker was also working on a V-12 as a follow-on to the 16-cylinder car sharing many of the same parts and tooling, but few outside Nacker’s engineering team had any idea of what they were actually creating.
It went almost without saying that the new Cadillac V-16 would be big. In the twenties and thirties, the only reliable way to produce more power was greater engine displacement. Contemporary metallurgy, lubrication, and cooling systems limited maximum engine speeds; 4,000 rpm was a lofty speed for most engines of the time and sustaining such speeds was courting disaster. Increasing compression ratios was also impractical. Despite the advent of leaded gasoline, developed by Charles Kettering a few years earlier, available fuels did not have the octane rating for compression ratios much above about 5.5:1. Mechanical superchargers offered exhilarating short-term power increases, but most were noisy and temperamental and had the potential to destroy an engine in short order. Large-displacement engines had their drawbacks, including bulk, weight, and fuel consumption, but they were by far the safer choice.
One drawback with engines of very large displacement is that as the displacement of each cylinder grows, so too does its potential for harshness and vibration. Each cylinder in a four-stroke engine fires only once every 720 degrees of crankshaft rotation and the cylinders do not fire at the same time. The power stroke of each cylinder pushes the engine in a different direction, creating what are called coupling forces. Depending on how the cylinders are arranged, those forces cause the engine to shake in one or more directions. The bigger the cylinders, the greater the forces generated by each power stroke, and the greater the resultant shaking. The ideal solution was to add more cylinders, allowing a generous total displacement, but keeping each individual cylinder relatively small. Adding more cylinders also increases the frequency of the power strokes, which serves to damp the vibration of each individual cylinder. All else being equal, an eight-cylinder engine is smoother than a four, a 12 is smoother than an eight, and a 16 is smoother than any of the others.
A multicylinder configuration has other advantages as well. It allows the stroke of each piston to be kept relatively short, reducing internal friction. Even with a two-valve-per-cylinder design, it also increases the engine’s total valve area, improving volumetric efficiency. Its principal drawbacks are complexity and fuel consumption. An engine’s efficiency is reduced by pumping losses, the energy expended to draw air and fuel into each cylinder and expel the exhaust; additional cylinders mean additional pumping losses. A big 12- or 16-cylinder engine is frighteningly thirsty, although in those pre-OPEC days, fuel economy was not a major concern for luxury car buyers.
The new Cadillac engine was a 45-degree V-16, essentially two straight-eight engines sharing a common crankshaft and crankcase. Since each cylinder fires once every 720 degree of crank rotation, the 45-degree angle between the cylinder banks gave even firing intervals (the ideal angle for a V-8 engine is 90 degrees; for a V-12, 60 degrees). Its bore and stroke were modest, 3 inches (76.2 mm) and 4 inches (101.2 mm), respectively, giving an overall displacement of 452 cubic inches (7,413 cc). This was hardly the biggest engine in the business — the Bugatti Type 41 Royale had a monstrous 778 cu. in. (12,763 cc) straight-eight, while Hispano-Suiza’s 1931 V-12 was 575 cu. in. (9,425 cc) — but it was comfortably larger than Cadillac’s existing 353 cu. in. (5,791 cc) V-8. More to the point, it was bigger than Packard’s 385 cu. in. (6,306 cc) straight eight or Duesenberg’s 420 cu. in. (6,884 cc) eight.
Unlike Cadillac’s V-8 engines, which were flathead designs, the Cadillac V-16 had overhead valves (see our article on the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 for more on the distinction between flathead and OHV layouts). It used hydraulic valve lifters to eliminate valve clatter and had fully machined combustion chambers.
The Cadillac V-16 was a truly massive engine, weighing around 1,300 pounds with all accessories. As a concession to the poor quality of contemporary fuel, it had a compression ratio of only 5.35:1. It was initially rated at 175 gross horsepower (131 kW), although it was quickly restated as 165 hp (123 kW). Both numbers were certainly conservative, since the V-16’s dynamometer tests would have justified a gross rating closer to 200 horsepower (149 kW). None of those figures is impressive today, although they were a substantial improvement over the 90 horsepower (67 kW) of the Cadillac V-8. More important was the V-16’s torque output, 320 pounds-feet (433 N-m) at only 1,200 rpm, which ensured that it could lug along uncomplainingly at very low speeds in top gear. It was astonishingly smooth and refined, with a silky power delivery that was not matched by any other engine for many years afterward.
THE CADILLAC OF CADILLACS
The chassis of the Cadillac V-16 was appropriately grandiose, stretching 222.5 inches (5,651 mm) on a 148-inch (3,759-mm) wheelbase. Its engineering was not complex: a heavy platform frame with solid axles, suspended on semi-elliptical leaf springs like a 19th-century carriage. It had mechanically operated brakes (Cadillac would not adopt hydraulic brakes until 1936), and power steering and automatic transmission were still years in the future.
Other than the engine, the principal mechanical innovation was the three-speed Synchro-Mesh transmission, introduced on Cadillacs the year before, with synchronized second and third gears. It made shifting relatively painless, although with the V-16’s massive torque, top gear was satisfactory for most situations. Most of what we would consider luxury equipment was not yet available, but a heater was optional, as was a radio. In-car radios were still in their infancy, and the installation was complex and troublesome.
Many luxury cars of the era had custom bodies built by outside coachbuilders to the customer’s specifications. Duesenberg, for instance, offered no off-the-rack bodies at all, presuming that any customer able to afford one of their cars could also afford bespoke bodywork. As part of General Motors, Cadillac had access to two “captive” coachbuilders, Fisher Body and the Pennsylvania-based Fleetwood, which Fisher had acquired in 1927. Most Cadillac V-16s had “factory custom” bodies by either Fisher or Fleetwood, based on a few basic body types: two-door coupes, two- and four-door convertibles, four-door sedans, and town cars.
If you were buying a Cadillac V-16, your catalogued options included 10 Fisher-built body styles and a whopping 72 Fleetwood styles. The distinctions between them amounted to variations on a theme, such as one-piece or vee windshields, vertical or raked; curved or straight beltline moldings; a raised or flat hood; straight or curved sills; and so on. (Many of the variations are not easily distinguishable to the untrained modern eye.)
Individualists could also — for an extra charge, of course — mix and match the various elements to create a new combination not in the catalog. Failing all that, you could order a bare chassis and send it out to the coachbuilder of your choice, although very few customers actually did so. Interior choices were nearly as voluminous, with the Color Book listing 40 different interior-trim selections and a broad assortment of paint and upholstery color options.
With so many choices, it’s inevitable that many of the cataloged styles were produced in very small numbers, making some Cadillac V-16 cars literally unique. The most common choice was the seven-passenger Le Baron sedan, which cost $6,225, less shipping and accessories. The most glamorous were the dozen or so “Madam X” variations, taking their name from Madame X, a highly successful 1929 film based on the Alexandre Brisson play. The least expensive choice was the two-passenger, rumble-seat roadster, which cost $5,350; the most expensive was the seven-passenger town brougham, which ran to $9,200. In 1930, the price of any of these cars would buy a very nice house in many parts of the country.
Despite the huge engine, the Cadillac V-16 did not offer sports car performance. The lightest of the cataloged bodies weighed well over 5,000 pounds (2,275 kg) with some topping three tons (2,725 kg). Some of the lighter-bodied cars were said to be capable of 100 mph (160 km/h), but for most, 80-85 mph (130-135 km/h) was probably the limit. It mattered little, except for bragging rights, since there were still very few roads where it was possible to sustain such speeds. Fuel consumption was at best 8 mpg (29.4 L/100 km). To its credit, the V-16 proved to be a reliable, durable engine, far less finicky than many of its more exotic foreign rivals.
THE CADILLAC SIXTEEN’S GRAND ENTRANCE
After nearly four years of clandestine development, Larry Fisher finally announced the new car in a letter to Cadillac dealers on December 10, 1929. It declared that there was nothing in the world to compare with the new Cadillac, which he described as the pinnacle of exclusivity and style. The Cadillac Sixteen made its formal debut at the New York Auto Show on January 4, 1930.
It will not escape students of history that the Cadillac V-16 bowed barely two months after the dramatic stock market crash of late October 1929. Despite the crash’s ominous economic implications, however, the Cadillac V-16 proved to be a sensation. A thousand were sold in the first four months of production, a small number by Chevrolet standards, but impressive for such an expensive car. Total sales for its short 1930 model year were 2,887.
The Cadillac V-16 was followed by a host of multicylinder rivals. The Marmon V-16, which had been delayed by development problems and Marmon’s 1926 financial crisis, finally debuted in October. Although it was an impressive, all-aluminum engine that exceeded the Cadillac in both displacement (491 cu. in., 8,044 cc) and power (200 hp, 149 kW), it was overshadowed by Cadillac’s earlier debut. Only 390 Marmon 16s were built before the company went into receivership in early 1933.
Packard, meanwhile, responded with a new Twin Six, which arrived in the spring of 1932. Before long, Lincoln, Auburn, Franklin, Pierce-Arrow, and even Rolls-Royce had new V-12 engines, although no other automaker matched Cadillac and Marmon with a V-16 of their own.
By the fall of 1930, Cadillac V-16 sales had slowed considerably. Production of the nearly identical 1931 models fell to 364 units, dipping to 296 for the 1932 model year. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the worsening economy that put the brakes on V-16 sales — although that would come soon enough — but the introduction of Cadillac’s own V-12, which was announced at the end of July and went on sale in October 1930.
In Part Two, we’ll look at the Cadillac V-12 and the fate of the multicylinder monsters.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for these articles included Dennis Adler, Speed and Luxury: The Great Cars (Oceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 58-63; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Barach’s Cadillac History site (1999-2008, Motorera, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/index.htm, accessed 5 December 2008); Arch Brown, “Regal Ragtop: 1935 Cadillac V-12 Fleetwood Convertible Sedan,” reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), and “SIA comparisonReport: Battle of the Behemoths: Cadillac V-16 versus Marmon V-16,” Special Interest Autos #106 (July-August 1988), pp. 24-31, 59-60; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); John Steele Gordon, “The Man Who Saved the Cadillac,” American Heritage, 20 July 1995, www.americanheritage. com, accessed 5 December 2008; Maurice D. Hendry and Dave Holls, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History, Fourth ed. (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly, 1990); Beverly Rae Kimes, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, Second ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, Inc., 1989); Wilfred Leland, Master of Precision (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1996); Samuel B. Malin, “The Cadillac V-16—Some Notes on Its Design,” The Michigan Technic Vol. 43, No. 4 (January 1930), pp. 10, 40, 48; Alan Merkel, “Where Did All the Sixteens Go?” Special Interest Autos #106 (July-August 1988), pp. 32-35, 64; Yann Saunders’ Cadillac Database (2001, www.car-nection. com/ yann/Dbas_txt/indx2001.htm [now www.cadillacdatabase. com], accessed 4 December 2008) and Glossary of Terms, 12 December 1999, www.car-nection. com/ yann/Dbas_txt/Fact_ndx.htm [now www.cadillacdatabase. com], accessed 17 January 2000); Norman F. Uhlir, “History of the Cadillac V-16 1930-1940,” Motor Trend January 1965, pp. 78-83; Rob Wagner, Classic Cars (New York: MetroBooks, 1996), pp. 20-28; and Richard Wright, “Industry History Chapter 10,” The Auto Channel, 1996, www.theautochannel. com, accessed 5 December 2008).
Information on Cadillac’s postwar V-16 and V-12 came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Great Expectations: Cadillac’s Postwar V-12 and V-16,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, Ltd. 1981); Roger Huntington, “It makes sense…New V-12 for Cadillac,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 9 (September 1965), pp. 70-71; Richard M. Langworth, “Cadillac’s Colossal Postwar Multi-Cylinders: V-12s and V-16s for the Sixties? Well, maybe…” Special Interest Autos #64 (August 1981), pp. 24-29; Karl Ludvigsen, The V-12 Engine: The Untold Inside Story of the Technology, Evolution, Performance and Impact of All V-12-Engined Cars (Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 2005); and Daniel Strohl, “Success! Cadillac’s OHC V-12 engine photos found,” Hemmings Blog, 14 April 2010, blog.hemmings. com, accessed 19 October 2010.
Our inflation estimates were based on the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Please note that the inflation figures cited in the text are approximate and are provided solely for general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!