Cadillac, Marmon, and Peerless were all working on V-16 engines at the end of the 1920s, but Cadillac was the first to unveil its V-16, on January 4th of 1930 at the New York Auto Show. The engine was constructed using two blocks of the new Buick 8-cylinder engine mounted on a common crankcase set at a 45-degree angle. The engine displaced 452 cubic inches and was rated (conservatively) at 175 horsepower and 320 foot-pounds at 1,200 to 1,500 engine revolutions. Unlike many of its competitors, Cadillac mostly offered finished and complete cars bodied by GM’s in-house coachbuilders, Fleetwood and Fisher. The new V-16 was a great success; over 2,000 cars were ordered in the first seven months of 1930 before sales fell due to the economic climate as well as the introduction of Cadillac’s new V-12 engined chassis.
With the introduction of the new Cadillac V-16, the cylinder wars were brought to new levels and Cadillac asserted its dominance of the luxury car market. Up to this point in history, Bugatti had already produced a 16-cylinder engine by mating a pair of inline eight-cylinder engines, however, Cadillac’s 16-cylinder was the first true engine to be designed and purpose-built from scratch. Clandestine development began in 1926 and was led by Owen Milton Nacker and GM Engineering chief Charles Kettering.
This was the first engine to be ‘styled’ with completely hidden wiring and the use of polished aluminum, porcelain, and a pair of valve covers with brushed aluminum ridges prominently featuring the Cadillac emblem. There were external manifolds, a silicon-aluminum crankcase, five-point engine mounts, evenly-spaced firing intervals, and a large, well-balanced forged crankshaft, supported by five main bearings. Hydraulic valve-silencers allowed for whisper-quiet operation and a single distributor with two sets of breaker points were controlled by two separate ignition coils.
Among the unavoidable drawbacks of Cadillac’s new flagship automobile were its timing, introduction during the Great Depression, and the rapidly declining luxury car market of the early 1930s. Very few could afford to pay the exorbitant price tag that was often more than ten times a contemporary Ford or Chevrolet. Cadillac managed to survive thanks to the financial resources of GM, its parent company. During its production lifespan that lasted through 1940, a total of 4,378 examples of the V-16 were built, including a completely redesigned engine for the final three years.
The 1934 Cadillac Model 452-D Sixteen had a 154-inch wheelbase, an overall length of 240 inches, and shared the Fleetwood bodies with its eight- and twelve-cylinder siblings. Both flat and vee-shaped windshield designs were available, and catalog bodies listed over 50 body styles of 2- to 7-passenger designs. Prices began at $6,600 and rose to over $8,800. The designs became more modern and in-vogue with pontoon fenders, flowing bullet-shaped headlights, aerodynamic grilles, and streamlined styling. The crease across the nose of the front fenders found on previous model designs was abandoned, and three spears were placed on the front fender skirts and hood side panels.
The engine was backed by a three-speed selective synchromesh manual gearbox with a twin-disc clutch, and braking was handled by mechanical brakes with vacuum assist on all four wheels. A 4.64:1 drive ratio and 17-inch wire wheels were standard; a radio, side-mount covers, heater, flexible steering wheel, spotlight, and seat covers were optional equipment.