Howard Marmon was a mechanical genius who strove to build the perfect automobile. By some accounts, he did exactly that with his magnificent 1931-33 Sixteen. But the Depression was not a time for perfectionists or super-expensive luxury giants, so Marmon Motor Car Company went out in a blaze of V-16 glory after only a few years of significant production.
Marmon grew up around his father's Indianapolis milling-machine business, Nordyke and Marmon, said to be the world's largest by the turn of the century. In 1902, after earning a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley, Howard returned to the family firm as its chief engineer. He was only 26. That same year, he tinkered up his first car: an air-cooled V-twin with pressure lubrication, then a revolutionary development.
Following in 1904 was the 50-cubic-inch V-4 Model A, another air-cooled ohv design but with an embryonic form of independent front suspension. Only six were built. The next year brought a similar Model B, a 2000-pound four-seater with a 90-inch wheelbase. Marmon sold 25 of those at $2500 each. After the derivative C35 and D36 came the ambitious M37 of 1906, a $5000 seven-seat touring car with a 128-inch wheelbase and a 65-horsepower air-cooled V-8 with a massive 707 cid. Yet the car scaled a svelte 3500 pounds, reflecting Howard's passion for low weight through extensive use of aluminum and various alloys.
The M37 didn't sell at all, so Marmon turned to conventional water-cooled inline-fours in 1909. At the same time, he devised his first Six, the Model 32. Marmon had already discovered the sales value of racing, but the 32 propelled him to the publicity pinnacle when a modified version called the "Wasp" won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. (Other racing Marmons racked up 51 competition victories in 1909-12.) This encouraged Howard to sell a road version, which arrived as the 1913 Model 48. But it sold poorly at $5000 -- then a king's ransom. So, too, did the successor 41 of 1914-15.
Then came the advanced 1916 Model 34. Its 340-cid six was virtually all-aluminum, as were the transmission and differential housings, body, fenders, hood, even the radiator. The 34 was an outstanding performer and its balanced chassis gave good handling. Durable, too. Driven by a relay team, one trekked from New York to San Francisco in only five days to break Cannonball Baker's record run in a Cadillac by a substantial 41 hours. Sales more than tripled.
Nordyke and Marmon was contracted to build 5000 Liberty aircraft engines during World War I. Howard, meantime, joined the Army Air Corps, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He then returned home to usher in an improved Model 34, but sales were difficult due to the 1924 economic downturn. With that, Howard's older brother, Walter, resigned as company president in 1924 (to become board chairman) and hired George M. Williams to put the firm back on its feet.
New president Williams thought the solution was lower-priced Marmons with conventional small-displacement straight-eights. He was right: Sales improved through 1926, when Nordyke and Marmon became Marmon Motor Company. By 1929, volume had risen to 22,300. Meanwhile, Howard set up a "front" firm called Midwest Aircraft, where he developed a V-16.
Marmon Motors continued with Williams' Eights, issuing new examples of that engine type almost yearly. This activity peaked in 1930 with a facelifted Marmon-Roosevelt, revised straight-eight models designated 69 and 79, and a luxurious new Big Eight with 315 cid and 125 bhp. Prices now stretched from $995 to $3170. But this expansion was too soon and too rapid, and Marmon's image became confused. The Roosevelt (named for President Teddy) was a low-priced "junior edition" typical of the optimistic late '20s, but it failed to sell well and also tarnished the high-class aura of senior Marmons.
As a result, registrations plunged nearly 50 percent to 12,369. Amid this bad news came one result of five years' research and dreaming by Howard Marmon: the unbelievable 1931 Sixteen. Packing 200 bhp from 490.8 cid, this amazing giant was guaranteed to do 100 mph. But it carried a giant-size price: $5100-$5400. Worse, the Cadillac Sixteen, which had arrived a year earlier -- much to Howard's dismay -- was draining off what little demand still existed for such extraordinary machines in extraordinarily hard times.