With fortunes being made practically overnight, the 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity in the United States. Because of this, by the end of the decade many automakers were preparing new models of ultra-luxury cars. Cadillac, at the time being one of the finest marques in the world, released a radically-advanced car in 1930 with the world’s first V16 engine. It was a jaw-dropping advancement in automotive technology. Here’s the story.
In 1902, the Cadillac Automobile Company was formed by a brilliant engineer by the name of Henry Leland. The company was named for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit in the 1700s. Cadillac was not originally a luxury marque. Its earliest models were basic and were powered by a 10hp, one-cylinder engine, pretty similar to Ford’s earliest models. Thanks to Leland’s background as an engineer and machinist, however, even the early Cadillacs were built with a level of precision that was uncommon. In fact, Leland was the man who introduced the concept of “interchangeable parts” to the car business. This was a breakthrough in a time where much automobile construction was closer to blacksmithing and artisan construction.
The Luxury Market
By the 1920s, Cadillac was making fine automobiles and began to move into the American luxury market. There were several luxury car companies at the time, but the standard-setter was Packard. As much as Rolls-Royce is today, Packard was not just a fancy car it was an instantly recognizable symbol of wealth and status. In fact, there were some that bought a Packard car solely because of the social statement they made. Things changed at Cadillac when, In 1925, Lawrence Fisher became Cadillac’s new president. Fisher, one of the principals behind the famous Fisher Body Company, was a flamboyant and ambitious businessman. His mission? To achieve Packard-like status in the car business.
Origins of the V16
Fisher’s first step was to boost Cadillac’s cash flow by developing a smaller companion make to the Cadillac line. It was called the LaSalle and it was a hit, quickly outselling the Cadillac line. With a solid win tallied, Fisher set out to create a new flagship car for Cadillac. In 1926, Fisher hired Owen Nacker, previously a senior engineer at the Marmon Motor Car Company, as the new head of engine development. Fisher directed him to design the world’s first V16 engine.
To ensure that its impact would not be spoiled, the Cadillac V16 was developed with an intense level of secrecy. As a cover, the engine was described as a V12, not a V16, even within Cadillac. In truth, Nacker was also working on a V12 as a follow-on to the 16-cylinder car sharing many of the same parts and tooling, but few outside Nacker’s engineering team no one knew he was actually creating a V16.
The Grand Entrance
After nearly four years of clandestine development, Larry Fisher shocked Cadillac dealers on December 10, 1929, declaring that certain Cadillacs would be available with a newly designed V16 engine. The “Cadillac Sixteen” made its formal debut at the New York Auto Show on January 4, 1930 and was the toast of the show.
The Aircraft V-16
Cadillac discontinued its V16 engine in 1940 just in time for Chrysler to jump onboard. In late 1941, Chrysler started work on their first V16 engine. This engine was an entirely different animal. Chrysler’s V16 was being built for aircraft. Development took place over several years and the first prototypes were installed in several P-47 aircraft in 1945. The engine was enormous, a full 122 inches long and weighed 2430 lbs dry. Unfortunately, this engine never saw production according to Button Chrysler of Kokomo, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in Kokomo, IN. Two things stopped this 2500hp beast from production: World War II had just ended and the first jet engines were being built. The power to weight ratio of jet engines was so superior that internal combustion engines quickly came in second place.