How Marmon Cars Work

This Marmon HCM Prototype never saw production, falling victim to the Depression as with so many cars of that era.

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.

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This 1932 Marmon Sedan, like many late-model Marmons, owed its style and design to the popular Sixteen.

Marmon advertised the Sixteen as "The World's Most Advanced Car," and not without reason. Beside overhead valves actuated by pushrods from a single camshaft, the engine employed all-aluminum construction that was a triumph of the foundry art. Both the block and crankcase were cast as a single unit, the block actually being a "Y" in section. One dual-throat downdraft carburetor fed the fuel, and a single cast manifold served both cylinder banks.

Despite its size, the engine weighed a relatively light 930 pounds fully dressed, some 370 pounds less than Cadillac's slightly smaller V-16. This contributed to a weight-to-power ratio of just 4.65 pounds per horsepower, an impressive figure for the day, ­likely rivaled only by Duesenberg.

Howard's passion for minimal weight was naturally evident elsewhere. The hood, front and rear splash aprons, running- board aprons, spare-wheel mounts, headlamp and taillamp brackets, and even the fuel-filler pipe were all made of aluminum. Because of this, few cars could approach the Marmon for sheer speed or through-the-gears acceleration. It accelerated faster than even the mighty Duesenberg Model J, though the Duesie had a higher top speed due to the superior breathing of its twin-cam engine. But while the Marmon was certainly pricey, it cost little more than half as much as a Duesenberg chassis.

The body design caused as much stir as the engine. This ­wasn't Howard's work, but he deserves credit for hiring an industrial designer at a time when that profession was in its infancy. The designer was 47-year-old Walter Dorwin Teague, Sr., though he admitted that his son did all the original ­sketches and drawings, as well as the full-size renderings and some interior concepts, including the unusual aircraft-type instrument panel. W.D. Teague, Jr., then a student at MIT, completed these tasks on weekends and in summer school.

Since the name of the youngster's father carried considerably more prestige, Marmon publicity gave credit to Teague, Sr. Indeed, he handled the contract work with Marmon and translated the concept into production form.

With no resemblance to any previous Marmon, the Sixteen looked modern but not radical. A raked Vee'd radiator devoid of ornament or badge led to a hood concealing the water filler. The doors extended down almost to the running boards. The fenders were designed to hide chassis components. Further accenting a low-slung profile were a prominent beltline that ran absolutely straight around the body, a windshield raked to match the radiator, and ultralow rooflines.

The Sixteen was touted as a "new concept in fine cars," with styling and engineering given equal emphasis. All but three of the 390 Sixteens ultimately built carried "standard" bodies built by LeBaron: five sedans, two coupes, and a victoria.

The only custom bodies known are two Waterhouse tourers and a very individual victoria built by Hayes to a design by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. These were likely artifacts of Howard's plan to offer 32 "regular" custom styles by the likes of Murphy, Waterhouse, and Judkins: town cars, all-weather phaetons, limousines, speedsters, and "sunshine-roof" sedans. Minuscule sales precluded this grand idea ­(announced in September 1931).

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Flagging sales left this 1932 Marmon touring model as one of the last production cars the company would debut.

As if the Sixteen weren't enough, Marmon offered five different Eights in two 1931 series. The first series, announced in August 1930, comprised the 120-inch wheelbase Model 79 with the 110-bhp, 303.2-cid engine; the 114-inch Model 69 with an 84-bhp, 211.2-cid engine; and the 136-inch Big Eight, still with a 125-bhp, 315.2-cid powerplant.

The last became the Model 88 for the "second series" issued in January 1931, and was reduced some $450 to spark sales -- which it didn't. At the same time came a new Model 70 to replace both the model 79 and the 69; it used the 69's engine but sold for $950-$1045, far less than its predecessors.

Despite this weeding out of less-popular models, Marmon sales dropped by over half. Registrations (the only reliable figures available) totaled 5687 for calendar '31, good for only 25th in the industry between LaSalle and struggling Reo. Sixteen sales were hobbled by a long delay.

Prototypes attracted much attention at the winter auto shows, but deliveries didn't begin until April 1931. By that point, most prospects had opted for a Cadillac Sixteen or something less conspicuous. As a result, Cadillac's Sixteen outsold Marmon's by a 10-to-1 margin.

Besides plummeting sales, Marmon was also now contending with wracking internal problems. The engineering department split into two warring camps, production people had trouble getting out the Sixteens, and the sales force was struggling to overcome the Roosevelt's low-bucks image.

Retrenchment seemed the only course, so the 1932 line was pared to just the Sixteen, the 70, and the 125. The last was a two-model line offered on a 125-inch wheelbase to replace the Big Eight/88, and it gave away nothing but a shorter distance between the wheel centers and many dollars in price. Both the sedan and coupe listed for just $1420 versus $2220-$2920 for comparable predecessor models. Yet for all this, registrations were the lowest yet, just 1365.

Those price and model reductions left some feeling that Marmon was about to leave the fine-car field. Actually, it was preparing to do just the opposite. For 1933, the Sixteen was the only Marmon you could buy, and you could get one for about $1000 less on average. The coupe and sedan dropped to $4825, the seven-passenger sedan fell to $4975, and the convertible sedan eased to $5075. Specifications were unchanged.

The price cuts didn't solve the big problem. Marmon Motor Car Company was broke. It was duly sold in January 1934 to the American Automotive Corporation, organized and backed by Harry Miller, the famed Indy race-car designer, and a hot-shot promoter named Preston Tucker, whose own postwar car would win both fame and infamy. But they couldn't get things moving again, so Marmon was liquidated by receivers in 1937. The new company produced Marmon-Herrington trucks into the 1980s and truck components, such as four-wheel-drive conversions, after that.

Left stillborn was the HCM Special, a revolutionary V-12 car designed by Howard Marmon and chassis engineer George Freers. This envisioned a cut-down Sixteen with four-wheel independent suspension, tubular "backbone" frame, and an aluminum body with new Teague styling highlighted by slab sides, pontoon fenders, and integral headlamps and trunk. A prototype was built for $160,000, financed out of necessity from Howard's personal fortune, but it never had a chance. It was stored on the Marmon estate in North Carolina until Howard's death in 1943, eventually it made its way to industrial designer Brooks Stevens' automotive museum in Mequon, Wisconsin.

Like so many other makes, Marmon fell victim to the Depression for lack of corporate strength and a strong market base. All it had was brilliant engineering and bold visions. Too bad they weren't enough for any car company in those very hard times.

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