The Return Of The V-16
THE MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT DURING THE DETROIT auto show in January 2003 occurred at the Detroit Opera House. General Motors spent almost a million dollars turning the hall into a cocktail lounge and showroom and then used it to unveil its most audacious concept car in many years, the Cadillac Sixteen. A clear homage to the most glamorous automobiles of the 1920s and 1930s, the Sixteen includes a champagne refrigerator and a crystal Bulgari clock, but that’s not what caught everyone’s attention. Under the hood is a 13.6-liter, 16-cylinder, 1,000-horsepower engine. It is the first 16 the company has built in more than 60 years. Why? In the words of Bob Lutz, GM’s chief of product development, “This car will show the world that we simply will take a back seat to no one.” Or, as he said in a less guarded moment about the company’s reputation as a top-end automaker, “Everybody is tired of taking crap.”
The V-16 concept has been re-emerging lately as automobile companies look for ways to outdo one another in ultraluxury panache. Bugatti is preparing a 16-cylinder car for production, Bentley has built a prototype, and other makes may follow. The development is in a way a step far into the past, for V-16s were some of the showiest luxury cars from the golden age of most of a century ago. They were big and strong and smooth. Then smaller engines advanced to where they could do the job just about as well and much more cheaply, and the expensive 16s were all but forgotten.
When automobiles began, one- and two-cylinder power plants were the rule. They were adequate for going 10 or so miles an hour on cobblestone streets and dirt country roads, but drivers soon wanted better performance—more power and some smoothness and flexibility, a term that meant less shifting of gears. The answer was 4- and 6-cylinder engines. Hours could be very large and powerful, and they were popular in sports and race cars, but they could also be rough. The extra cylinders of the 6 addressed that. By the time of World War I, the 6 had become the standard for high-grade cars, while 4s still powered inexpensive automobiles and some sports-type models. Then V-8 and V-12 engines were introduced, further improving power, smoothness, and flexibility. The V-8 was a particular engineering advance. It offered almost the performance of a 12 in a compact unit that was far more economical to build.
Yet the 8-cylinder engine took nearly two decades to become standard. In the late 1920s, increased high-end competition led to revised V-12 designs and the birth of the V-16. This happened just in time for the Depression to ruin the demand for luxury cars. The big engines were in trouble almost as soon as they appeared, and World War II, with its rationalization of production, put an end to them completely. At the same time, improvements in 8-cylinder technology gave the V-8 enough smoothness and power to make it a lasting automotive benchmark. Now nobody needed a V-16 anyway.
ETTORE BUGATTI’S 16-CYLINDER AIRPLANE ENGINE OF World War I was the catalyst for the ultimate automobile power plant. The American engineering genius Fred Duesenberg set up a factory to build the Bugatti design for American military use and soon developed a 16-cylinder variant of his own. Howard Marmon, another brilliant American engineer and carmaker (who had previously approved the V-16 project for the U.S. Army), was inspired to build an automobile version.
In the mid-1920s both Marmon’s company, in Indianapolis, and General Motors, in Detroit, decided to build V-16s. Their goals were identical, to increase sales by making their cars centers of attention, both technically and visually. Cadillac did it first. “Exceedingly de luxe” was one of the superlatives used by the press to describe the Cadillac V-16 when it made its debut at the New York Automobile Show on January 4, 1930.
Larry Fisher, the Fisher Body Company brother who ran Cadillac, said their aim had been to build a few cars with “supreme possibilities.” Fisher’s engineers Owen Nacker and Ernest Seaholm had designed and developed the engine at a skunkworks setting, in a secluded area of Cadillac’s Detroit factory. The engine was made from two 8-cylinder blocks bolted to an aluminum crankcase in a 45-degree V. Each block had its own carburetor. The cylinders had a three-inch bore and a four-inch stroke and displaced 453 cubic inches to produce 165 horsepower at 3,400 rpm. Overhead valves with a silencer, smaller pistons, and relatively short stroke (reducing vibration) made for very smooth power. The car was introduced with a sedan-landaulet body—that is, with a convertible top over the back seat—designed by GM’s Harley Earl, then just beginning to become the biggest name in American car styling. It had a long 148-inch wheelbase, and its price started at $5,350, as compared with $3,295 for Cadillac’s least expensive V-8.
The company produced a big folio-size catalogue for the car, with a pocket holding dozens of scale drawings of various body styles printed on tracing paper. “Pencil on the drawing the modifications you would like …,” it advised. “Then ask your Cadillac-LaSalle dealer for an estimate.” Customers did just that.
A New York Times reporter who took a demonstration ride reported supreme “flexibility” without changing gears, the car could slow to a crawl and then accelerate effortlessly up the hills of northern Manhattan. A caravan of six of the Cadillacs, each with a different body style, drove through Europe, ending in October of 1930 at the Eondon automobile show (where the Marmon V-16 was also displayed). King Alfonso of Spain owned three before being deposed in 1931; the former president of Mexico Emilio Portes Gil bought one, and other cars went to rajahs in India.
The V-16 looked like good business at first. About 2,500 sold in 1930, when total Cadillac sales were 12,000. But the Depression deepened. Not 150 were built in 1933. Even so, the car’s prestige helped sell less expensive models, making Cadillac the bestselling luxury car in the country by 1936. And so the company developed a second-generation V-16 for the 1938 model year. It had a more practical engine, displacing 431 cubic inches and producing 185 horsepower; its cylinders were angled in a much wider V, allowing for a simpler and less costly valve design and easier servicing; and its 31Ainch bore and stroke made it more economical to operate.
CELEBRITIES LIKED THE CARS. MAE WEST, FOR IN stance, selected a formal sedan with a passenger compartment that hid her from public view, which she used until World War II began, when she donated it to a girls’ school. As with every Cadillac of that era, the documents detailing the specifications of her car survive.
Cadillac gave up on V-16s in 1940. The Depression had put the supercar out of style; only 500 second-generation V-16s had been made during the model’s three years. But Cadillac had not been alone in the field. G. Montague Williams, the president of the Marmon Motor Car Company in the late 1920s, sometimes drove factory prototype cars home. His sons, Bruce and Monte, would race to the front door for the chance to drive them around the driveway. One evening Bruce got into what looked like an ordinary sedan, and came back amazed. He asked his father what he’d just driven. “Oh, you noticed,” was the reply. “That’s the Porcupine. ” The Porcupine was Marmon’s name for its prototype 16-cylinder car. The project was so secret that an aircraft-engine company had been set up just so components could be ordered without revealing their true use.
The production version of what Bruce Williams drove, introduced to America in November 1930, contained a 200-horsepower all-aluminum 491-cubic-inch engine, with two banks of eight cylinders set at a 45-degree angle. It had a far better power-to-weight ratio than the Cadillac, and every car came with a certificate guaranteeing that it had been test-run at the Indianapolis Speedway. Mileage was in the 8-per-gallon range: It needed its 29-gallon gas tank.
The New York City-area section of the Society of Automotive Engineers gave Col. Howard Marmon its “Most Noteworthy Automotive Engineering Development of the Year” award for 1930 for his new V-16. But one English critic complained about its inefficiency. “Apparently everything has been sacrificed to smoothness of engine torque,” he concluded. Marmon had begun work on the engine in the fall of 1926, and the car was ready for production four years later. With the Depression worsening, the market held up no better for Marmon than for Cadillac. Marmon built fewer than 400 V-16s before production ceased in 1933 and the company quit the automobile business altogether.
But the short-lived marque certainly had the power to inspire loyalty. People tended to buy Marmon 16s in pairs. The actress Ann Harding had two convertible sedans, for example. A Williamstown, Massachusetts, couple ordered a brace with custom-built bodies for driving around their 1,400-acre estate. Each car had a second speedometer in the back seat: they were, of course, chauffeur-driven, and the owners insisted they not go faster than 25 miles per hour.
And there was a third American V-16—just barely. In the early 190Os Peerless was a leading American luxury automobile manufacturer; it and Packard and FierceArrow were called the “three P’s” of fine motoring. By 1929 it was marking time building conventional motor cars, until a former Marmon executive, James Bohannon, was brought in to resurrect the company. Bohannon knew about the V-16 Marmon was developing and decided to emulate it in hopes of bringing back Peerless’s cachet. He got Alcoa to help with both power-plant development and chassis construction.
The car was ready by early 1931. Its engine produced 170 horsepower. With a specially made aluminum frame and aluminum axles, it weighed only 4,000 pounds, versus 5,000 to 6,000 for Marmon and Cadillac. Three prototypes were driven across the country to Pasadena, where the coachbuilder Walter M. Murphy was to finish bodies for them. But only one, a sedan, was completed when Peerless, like Marmon, left the automobile business altogether.
And that was, for decades, the end of the V-16 on the North American continent. Overseas, in the early 1930s, Ferdinand Porsche designed rear-engine V-16 racing cars for Germany’s Auto Union car company. They set many world records, but the engines were never used in passenger cars. However, they appear to have provided the inspiration behind recent efforts by Auto Union’s postwar parent, Volkswagen, to revive 16-cylinder technology. Since World War II, the 16 has returned sporadically. Among its more recent appearances was in the Cizeta Moroder V16T, a sports coupe produced in tiny numbers in Italy in the early 1990s. Then in 1999, soon after Volkswagen took control of both Bentley and Bugatti, the company unveiled two 16-cylinder power plants, both configured in a kind of W, with two banks of cylinders in staggered rows of four. The Bentley Project Hunaudieres never made it past prototype stage, but the Bugatti Veyron, a coupe named after a 1930s Bugatti race driver, is being readied for production this year.
The Bugatti’s turbocharged 16-cylinder engine has a 7,993-cubic-centimeter displacement and produces 1,001 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. The production prototype was completed last August and made its American debut later that month. When it becomes available for sale later this year, it may cost as much as a million dollars. It’s a rearengine two-seater with a top speed of 250 miles per hour and can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds.
By contrast, the Cadillac V-16 prototype unveiled in January—no one knows yet whether it will actually go into production—is a four-door hardtop sedan bodied in aluminum, with a roof of glass. Its 1,000-horsepower allaluminum engine displaces 13,600 cubic centimeters, twothirds more than the Bugatti. Will it really need all that power? It incorporates what GM calls Displacement on Demand technology, which keeps half or even three-quarters of the cylinders shut down most of the time, starting them up only during fast acceleration or when hauling heavy loads.
But there’s the one catch. The new 16-cylinder automobiles don’t demonstrate revolutionary technical advances, as their predecessors 70 years ago did. But their splendor and intricate details offer rare prestige. A rather dreary economic debate has broken out over whether this glamour will pay for itself by bringing more buyers to related lower-priced cars, as happened with Cadillac once before, or will just prove too expensive for the real world, as also happened with everybody. But for the moment, at least, that argument is lost in the excitement these bornagain vehicles are generating.