Today the number of cylinders in a car engine is pretty much defined by the type of car it is in. Economy cars tend to have 4-cylinder engines, mid-level sedans have six, trucks have eight cylinders and exotic sports cars have 12 and some even have 16 but that’s pretty rare.
More power needed
Back in the 1920s, the standard engine in virtually all cars was an in-line four. When more power was needed, automotive engineers just made them bigger and higher compression. The problem was that just making pistons bigger introduced vibration problems and increasing compression ratios introduced pre-ignition problems The solution? Add more cylinders. Adding more cylinders not only gave you more displacement and less vibration.
Cadillac was first
Since all the major manufacturers were running into the same problem, quite a few started to work on V-12 engines. Cadillac was one of them, but behind the scenes they were also working on their first V-16. The Cadillac V-16 had overhead valves and hydraulic valve lifters making it one of the smoothest, quietest engines ever built. The only problem was that they were very expensive to manufacture and Cadillac ceased production in 1939.
Chrysler started work on their first V-16 engine in 1941. The application wasn’t for automobiles, however. Because of the storm clouds of war forming in Europe, the engine was being designed for high-performance aircraft. The Chrysler V16 development took almost four years. It was enormous, a full 122 inches long and weighed a whopping 2430 lbs dry. Unfortunately, the Chrysler V16 never saw full production according to robertschryslerdodge.net. This is because the first jet engines were being developed and the power to weight ratio of jet engines was so superior to that of internal combustion engines.
British Racing Motors
Although their application wasn’t for passenger cars, British Racing Motors (BRM) designed a high-performance V-16 engine in 1947. It was designed primarily for Formula One motor racing. According to the factory, the BRM V16 put out some 600HP and could easily spin up to 12,000 RPM. The problem with the BRM was reliability. It was a very complex engine and possessed such poor reliability that it was unusual for a BRM V16 to finish most races.
The Porsche Flat-16
Built in the late 1960s, Porsche made a flat-16 that was built just for racing purposes. It was going to be the motor that powered Porsche’s 917s that would compete in the Can Am series. Power was big back in those late ‘60s/early ‘70s days, and Porsche’s first thought at making more power than their flat 12 was to build up to a 16.
Still made today
Yes, you can still get a car with 16-cylinder engine in it today. The only problem is that the car will cost you almost 3 million dollars. This car is the ultra-exotic Bugatti Chiron and it comes loaded with their impossibly complex W16 engine. The W16 designation is used because it’s made up of two narrow-angle V8s, which forms a ‘W’. The W16 comes with a pair of turbochargers per cylinder bank (four turbos!) and is capable of over more than 1000hp. Bugatti has the title of world’s fastest car firmly in the crosshairs and will likely meet those expectations.