1935 Cadillac V16 Imperial


Series 452-D. 175bhp, 452 cu. in. overhead valve V16 engine, three-speed manual transmission, suspension via front independent coil springs and rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, live rear axle, four-wheel vacuum-assisted mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 154"

On January 4, 1930, New Yorkers were treated to an engineering tour de force. At the opening of the National Automobile Show at the Grand Central Palace, Cadillac unveiled the world's first production V16 automobile engine. The late historian Griffith Borgeson explained it elegantly: "It really made history and it made Cadillac, beyond all discussion, the absolute world leader in motoring magnificence...It was the super engine that set the whole exercise apart." The creative genius behind this powerplant was Owen Nacker.

Born in 1883 in Highland, Michigan, Nacker had been a consultant to Alanson Brush, maker of the 1907-1911 light car that bore his name. He was recruited for Cadillac by Lawrence Fisher (the activist sibling of the seven Fisher brothers who founded Fisher Body Company) from Marmon. Howard Marmon had been hatching a V16 since the latter days of 1926, and Nacker had worked on the project, some say as a consultant. By March 1927, a V8 for the new LaSalle, Cadillac's lower-priced companion car, was reality, designed by Nacker. Certainly shortly thereafter, he was working on Cadillac's V16.

Nacker flouted a great deal of Cadillac tradition. The new engine was designed with overhead valves, which the division had never used. Overhead valves were noisy, but Nacker adopted a new setup developed by GM engineering that effectively provided zero-lash operation, using oil pressure to rotate each rocker arm around an eccentric shaft, taking up slack while backing off as the engine warmed up. Moving the valves to the heads relaxed the constraint that manifolds had to compete for space in the valley between the cylinder banks. Manifolds could now move to the outside. This was also important because the vee angle chosen, 45 degrees, left little room for manifold clutter.

He chose a large aluminum crankcase, with five main bearings. The crankshaft was counterweighted and fitted with a vibration dampener at the front. The timing chain also drove the generator. The two cylinder blocks had cast nickel-iron liners, which extended down into the crankcase. Heads were of cast iron. The central camshaft, with roller-type followers, actuated tubular pushrods, which in turn worked short rocker arms. With the new zero-lash valve actuator mechanism, it was all very silent.

The V16 was, in effect, two inline eight-cylinder engines in one, sharing a common crankcase and crankshaft. Each block had a complete fuel system, including carburetor and vacuum tank, and its own exhaust from valve to tailpipe. There was one distributor but two coils, which were recessed into the radiator's header tank. The engine's power pulses overlapped to produce smoothness, since they occurred every 45 degrees of rotation. Developed brake horsepower was initially 160; eventually it rose to 185, and torque it had aplenty, 300 pound-feet at idle.

Aesthetically it was a work of art, said to be the first powerplant that was truly styled. Wood and clay models were made of the engine as development progressed, and studied for simplicity and appearance as well as serviceability. They were also useful for the “show and tell" sessions during which the program was sold to management. All wiring and hoses were concealed to the extent possible, hidden behind covers or in raceways. Viewed from outside the engine compartment there was no clutter whatsoever.

The engine, of course, was of little use without a body, of which there were plenty to choose from. There were 54 in the catalog from roadster to town car, all from Fleetwood. Some were built in Fleetwood's original facility in Pennsylvania, others from the new Detroit plant. Many of them did triple duty, available also as V12 or V8, for nine months later the sixteen had a twelve-cylinder brother, created by removing the two end cylinders on each bank. The wheelbase was a whopping 148 inches; by 1934 it had grown to 154, the longest of any American car. A few chassis were bodied by outside coachbuilders, such as Murphy, but not many.

After the V16 had made the circuit tour of U.S. shows, a trio of cars was sent abroad to Europe, where they were enthusiastically received.

Historians still puzzle over why Cadillac decided to build a sixteen. The company was well established as a quality builder of V8s, and, aside from Marmon, which was not a serious foe, other American luxury manufacturers, particularly Cadillac's viable competitors like Packard, Lincoln and Pierce-Arrow, were content with twelves. One motivation seems to have been the desire to build the finest motor car in the world. The company's own advertising attempted to explain it thus: “The story of the V16's ascendency is an interesting one. In the first place, this car had its inception in the avowed determination of the General Motors Corporation to produce the world's finest motor car. And while the creation and development of this super car was entrusted to Cadillac, there was made available for the purpose every facility that General Motors itself possessed. No restriction of any nature was permitted to interfere with, or in any way hinder, the realization of the fundamental purpose - to produce the finest medium of personal transportation on earth."

The brochure handed out at the New York show further explained: “The Cadillac V-type eight-cylinder engine raised performance standards as no other automotive power plant ever did, and there is, even now, no pressing need for finer, more capable, or more luxurious cars than the present Cadillacs and LaSalles. Yet, there are sold in this country, every year, fairly considerable numbers of automobiles, foreign and domestic, at prices two or three times those of Cadillac and LaSalle." In other words, there was an upper crust market to be tapped, and Cadillac wished to exploit it. Borgeson puts it down to the same ambition that led E.L. Cord to build the Duesenberg Model J. He also espouses the view that since road building was taking place at an unprecedented pace, there was a desire for a car that would cruise effortlessly on the new highways, in effect an American gran turismo car.

Although Marmon had a head start over Cadillac on its own V16, it did not appear in the marketplace until nearly a year later. Thus the relatively small number of people who wanted such an engine had largely satisfied their desires by the time it was possible to comparison shop. Nearly 4,000 of Cadillac's first-generation V16s (1930-37) were built, three quarters of them in the first year, against barely 500 of the L-head second-generation that followed (1938-40). Marmon managed fewer than 400 Sixteens before the company expired. In the 1950s, America engaged in a horsepower race. In the 1930s, there was a cylinder race. Cadillac won, hands down.

There were two other show-stoppers at the 1930 New York show, the low-slung front-drive Cord L-29 and the similar Ruxton. The Cord lasted two years, while the Ruxton never really got started. The Cadillac V16, however, made it through eight seasons. Borgeson was right. That super engine really did set the exercise apart.

Dr. Atwood purchased this 1935 Series 452-D Convertible Sedan from well-known long time Classic Car Club member Dick Gold of Minneapolis in October 1984. According to Gold, he found the car courtesy of a mailman that he paid to peek into garages for him. Still in the hands of the original family, the V16 was quite a find. According to restorer Steve Babinsky, “it was an amazing original car, with excellent and untouched original paint, chrome, and upholstery. She should never have restored it."

Nonetheless, in pursuit of perfection, Dr. Atwood commissioned Steve Babinsky's highly respected New Jersey firm, Automotive Restorations, Inc. to perform a complete restoration, which was finished in 1991. It had previously achieved AACA National Junior and Senior First status. Fresh from restoration it took a First in Class at Pebble Beach in 1991, followed by appearance at the AACA Eastern Fall Meet at Hershey, winning AACA's 1991 Chocolate Town Trophy. It achieved a Grand National First at Dayton, Ohio in 1992 and was nominated as AACA's Outstanding Vehicle for the year.

Although restored more than 15 years ago, the car is still in amazing condition. The paint - an exact match for the original yellow - is still outstanding, with no visible flaws. All panels are straight and true, door gaps even and all the doors shut well. With a little polishing the brightwork will be flawless. The tan canvas top is as new, a clear plastic cover for use when the car is stored is included in the sale.

The interior is done in brown leather - which was specially ordered to match the original color - and is all in excellent condition. This car is the Imperial model, with a roll-down division window. Ample foot room for rear seat passengers is provided under the division partition. The brown carpet on the floor, also matched to the original, is in superb condition, as is the fully restored instrument panel. The odometer shows 277 miles, probably the distance traveled since restoration. There is an authentic radio in the panel, its power supplied by a Cadillac “B" Eliminator under the hood.

The engine is clean and detailed, the undercarriage spotless in gloss black. The car has not been driven lately, but is expected to be running by time of sale. A thorough recommissioning should be conducted before putting it on the road.

America has built many superlative motor cars, the likes of the Model J Duesenberg, the Cord, and the Marmon Sixteen. Each one is an icon in its own right, each the product of a small, eccentric manufacturer, where things out of the ordinary are possible. The Cadillac V16, on the other hand is proof that the corporate culture of a General Motors is capable of some very independent thinking and the audacity to build a truly exceptional product.

Cadillac's advertising suggested that production would be limited to just 400 cars per year. In fact, no more than fifty of these majestic machines were built in each of the last four years - the majority wearing formal closed coachwork. Only a handful of these wonderful convertible Berlines were built, making them among the most desirable cars of the Classic Era.

AACA National Junior and Senior First status.
First in Class at Pebble Beach in 1991
AACA Eastern Fall Meet at Hershey, winning AACA's 1991 Chocolate Town Trophy
Grand National First at Dayton, Ohio in 1992
nominated as AACA's Outstanding Vehicle for the year.