On January 4, 1930, Cadillac stunned the fine car market at the New York Auto Show with the introduction of its breathtaking new V16. With it, Cadillac instantly catapulted itself to the head of the luxury class in one brilliant stroke. Until then, only Bugatti had produced a sixteen-cylinder engine – accomplished by bolting two eight-cylinder inline engines together, an innovation that was originally intended for aircraft use.
Cadillac’s V16 was the first true 16-cylinder engine to be built from scratch, a project led by Owen Milton Nacker under conditions of the strictest secrecy. In order to avoid knowledge of the project leaking from lower-level GM engineering departments and parts suppliers, a well-coordinated disinformation campaign included cover stories and notes on various blueprints indicating that the project was actually Cadillac’s contribution to a new GM bus project.
The 45-degree cylinder bank angle and overhead valve design kept the V16 narrow, while its external manifolds allowed easy access to the engine compartment. Furthermore, Cadillac’s V16 was the first automotive engine ever to be “styled”; all the wiring was hidden, and the engine compartment was dressed up with plenty of gleaming, polished aluminum, porcelain and a pair of beautiful valve covers with brushed aluminum ridged surfaces featuring the Cadillac emblem.
While Cadillac rated the V16 at 175 hp, it produced some 14 percent more. Its mission, however, was not absolute performance and speed, but rather to propel Cadillac’s massive 148-inch chassis and the multitude of heavy and luxurious bodies built by Fleetwood and other custom coachbuilders of the era. With 320 ft-lbs of peak torque available at just 1,200 to 1,500 rpm, the mighty V16 certainly achieved its design objectives. It was also incredibly smooth, thanks to its sixteen evenly spaced firing intervals, along with a massive but well-balanced forged crankshaft, capably supported by five main bearings.
Other special V16 innovations included a silicon-aluminum crankcase, five-point engine mounts to reduce vibration and advanced overhead-valve cylinder heads, as well as a set of refined pistons and rings. For ignition, the V16 used a single distributor with two sets of breaker points, controlled by two separate ignition coils.
Cadillac managed to survive the rapidly declining luxury-car market of the early 1930s thanks to the financial support of GM, its massive parent company. Without this financial support, Cadillac could never have produced such a limited-production, luxurious automobile. Although the cars were brilliantly designed, their shrinking Depression-era market meant that the V16 was of course produced in tiny numbers for those few who were capable of paying more than ten times the cost of a contemporary Chevrolet convertible. Without doubt, the few examples remaining today offer a rare glimpse into one of the most exciting automotive eras of all time.
175 hp, 452 cu. in. V16 engine with overhead valves, three-speed selective synchromesh manual transmission, solid front axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs with hydraulic dampers, ¾-floating rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel vacuum-assisted mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 148"