The world’s first production V16: the Cadillac Sixteen

The Cadillac Sixteen has the unusual distinction of being the world’s first production car powered by a V16. It became one of the most expensive and prestigious cars in the United States in the 1930s, and today remains one of the most collectible classics of the era.

Unfortunately for the Sixteen, it was a car designed in the roaring 1920s and released in 1930, not long before the Great Depression descended on the United States and luxury cars became an unwelcome sign of ostentatious wealth.

Fast Facts – The Cadillac Sixteen

  • Also known as the Cadillac V-16 (with the hyphen), the Cadillac Sixteen was undeniably the most desirable car in the United States and one of the most sought after in the world. It was the first production car to feature a V16 engine, offering incredible power, unparalleled smoothness and, of course, unbeatable boastfulness.
  • Cadillac engineers had developed the V-16 in the 1920s, a boom for the American economy that seemed to never end and in which luxury cars like the new Cadillac were in high demand. Unfortunately, the economy collapsed just a few months after the new car debuted.
  • The Cadillac V-16 was sold for two generations, the first from 1930 to 1937 and the second from 1938 to 1940. Little was shared between the cars and the V16s that powered them were completely different.
  • The car you see here is a second generation Cadillac V-16 powered by the newer L-head V16 engine with a displacement of 431 cubic inches (7.1 liters) and the same 185 horsepower as the earlier OHV engine.

The race to build the first American V16

Cadillac was one of the most important car manufacturers in the world in the early 20th century. They were the first to mass-produce a car with a V8 engine (in 1915 no less), the first to use a contact point ignition and the electric starter, and the first to use synchromesh transmissions.

Image descriptionPeriod advertising was only aimed directly at the very wealthiest Americans.

Given their long history of innovation, it should come as no surprise to discover that by the late 1920s, Cadillac engineers were hard at work on a new engine – a V16 that would power their V12, V8 and eight-cylinder would leave rivals in the dust. .

They weren’t the only ones with a V16 in development though, the Marmon Motor Company were working on their own design and Peerless would join the fray not long after.

An arms race was underway in the United States, fueled by the booming economy of the 1920s, a time when wealthy Americans had a seemingly endless supply of dollars for luxury cars. As long as this tap of easy money kept flowing, there would be more than enough demand for the new V16s.

The Great Depression officially began on October 29, 1929.

Cadillac was the first to release their shiny new V16, calling it the Cadillac Sixteen (or the Cadillac V-16) so no one could mistake it for a measly V12 or (heaven forbid) a V8. Perhaps one of the reasons they were the first with a V16 was that they had the wits to cheat Marmon engineer Owen Nacker.

The Cadillac Sixteen

When the Cadillac Sixteen debuted in January 1930, it shocked the automotive world and immediately became king of the hill, especially among American manufacturers.

Cadillac Sixteen V-16 3

Image descriptionAs a second generation model, this car has the more modern body style and all-new L-head V16 engine.

It was powered by the world’s first V16 in a production car, quite a coup for Cadillac, and in 1930, before the stock market hit the bottom, they sold as many as 2,500. Sales would slow dramatically to 750 in 1931, then to 300 in 1932, then less than 50 a year until 1937.

The V16 under the hood of the Sixteen was an engineering marvel by the standards of the time. It is a 45º V16 with overhead valves, a five-bearing crankshaft with counterweights, two valves per cylinder, hydraulic tappets, all connected by two iron eight-cylinder blocks mounted on an aluminum alloy crankcase.

Power output was also impressive, with 185 hp and 300 lb⋅ft of torque from idle to peak torque of 320 lb⋅ft at 1,400 rpm. The engine was so smooth and quiet that it is said that the points and carburetor intakes made more noise than the combustion.

This engine was mated to a 3-speed manual transmission and the torque was so great that it was apparently possible to put the car in top gear when stationary and drive it around almost like an automatic.

Cadillac Sixteen V-16 9

Image descriptionThe interior of the Cadillac Sixteen was as lavish as it was in the 1930s, just as many in the US were feeling the effects of the Great Depression.

A wide variety of body styles were available for the car, dozens to choose from with different wheelbase lengths, with the shorter wheelbase cars reportedly capable of going over 100 mph.

The production cost of each Sixteen was never recouped by Cadillac, the model was kept in production at a loss as a halo car for the brand. As the 1930s progressed, it became clear that the Great Depression would not soon end and plans were developed for a new second-generation V16 model.

This second-generation car would have a simpler and less expensive L-head (flathead) V16 with a displacement of 431 cubic inches (7.1 liters), but would produce similar horsepower and torque to its predecessor.

Called the Series 90, this new car had a significantly updated design and resembled the cars of the 1940s much more than the 1920s cars of its predecessor. While not as desirable as the first generation V16, the later Series 90 tends to be less expensive to buy and maintain, giving it its own popularity with collectors.

Cadillac Sixteen V-16 engine

Image descriptionThis is the L-head (flathead) V16 that was fitted to the later second-generation Cadillac Sixteen. It was a simpler design less complex than its OHV predecessor, but it produced the same amount of power.

The 1938 Cadillac Series 90 V16 pictured here

The car you see here is a 1938 Series 90 Cadillac V-16, it is one of only 315 made for that year and one of only 10 built with the Fleetwood style number 9067 convertible coupe body.

This V-16 was delivered new to Cadillac Auto Company of Boston, many decades later it was refurbished by an owner in the 1990s and in 2007 it won the CCCA Senior National First Prize.

It is finished in authentic maroon over tan leather upholstery, with a tan convertible top, fold-down rear opera seats, banjo-spoke steering wheel, heater and radio.

If you want to read more about this unusual American classic or make a bid, you can visit the list here on Bring a Trailer. It is currently being offered for sale from Saint Louis, Missouri.

Cadillac Sixteen V-16 8
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 7
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 6
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 3
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 2
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 1
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 26
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 25
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 18
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 17
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 16
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 15
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 14
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 13
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 12
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 11
Cadillac Sixteen V-16 10

Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

Leave a Comment