1930-1940 Cadillac V-16

Developing the Cadillac V-16

The advent of cars with more than eight cylinders has sometimes been ascribed to simple multiplication. Cadillac had progressed from single to four, to eight; Packard from single to four, to six, to eight, to 12 (with the 1916 Twin Six).

cadillac v-16
An early "Madam X" seven-passenger
Imperial Cadillac V-16.

Sooner or later, somebody would go for 16. But there was more to it than that, as Cadillac's William Strickland noted in a paper for the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1930:

"With the continual development in smoothness and power of the Cadillac V-8 went the research work into greater and finer attainments for the future. Improvements called for a survey of the possibilities of advancement in engineering design . . . preceded or paralleled by a survey of the demands of the more enlightened engineers and car owners."

Custom bodies, comprehensive equipment, increased passenger and cargo space, and the demand for performance all combined to influence luxury car manufacturers to add cylinders. Cadillac had considered and rejected other methods of increasing power and performance: a supercharger (not reliable enough for everyday use), a four-speed transmission (insufficient, probably a blind alley), and higher-displacement eights (which implied problems with thermal efficiency).

Continued Strickland: "We did not believe it possible to obtain the increase of power by any known design of combustion chamber, either L-head or overhead valve, although we have followed with research work all the celebrated suggestions. Higher mean effective pressure can be of value only if smoothness, especially at low speeds, is not interfered with."

cadillac v-16
Owen Milton Nacker is credited with engineering the V-16.

The person most directly responsible for engineering the Sixteen was Owen Milton Nacker, who had been brought to Cadillac by Lawrence Fisher especially for the assignment, accompanied by secrecy that would do justice to a modern CIA plot. Cadillac historian Roy Schneider has noted that the Cadillac Twelve, which Nacker was ostensibly there to build, did not appear until six months after the Sixteen, and was actually a "decoy" to deflect attention from the latter:

"Nacker actually did perfect the Cadillac V-12 and V-16 concurrently, using wide interchangeability -- but whenever drawings or quotation requests left his office for the outside world, they indicated the twelve-cylinder configuration."

Sixteen collector Norm Uhlir told Cadillac chronicler Maurice Hendry: "Many of the people on the lower levels of engineering and particularly outside suppliers, thought Cadillac was doing some design work for one of the other GM divisions because many of the design requests and blueprints referred to the vehicle as 'Bus' or 'Coach.' "

The theory was that everybody was working on Twelves, but a surprise Sixteen would trump the field -- and it did. To read about the evolution of the Cadillac V-16, continue on to the next page.

For more information on cars, see: