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Cadillac’s V-16: A classic with a capital ‘C’

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Story and photos by Tom Chillemi

There was a time when automobiles were works of art. More than transportation, no cost was spared to create these rolling sculptures.

But beyond appearances, buyers demanded these automobiles have superior performance.

In the autumn of 1929, Cadillac unveiled its V-16 engine—an engineering marvel that would distinguish this American company from all others on the planet.

However, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The stock market had just crashed, and as the Great Depression set in, these magnificent automobiles were symbols of wealth. Stories persist that some who bought the Cadillac V-16 did not drive them, not wanting to flaunt their status.

Because of the Depression and the realities of the marketplace, Cadillac made a total of just 3,250 of the initial V-16 Model 452A for 1930 and 1931. Production of subsequent engine models, at even further reduced numbers, continued until 1940.

In 1985, Alan Merkel of White Stone rescued a 1930 Cadillac V-16 All-Weather Phaeton that had been in storage for many years. Over the next 25 years, Merkel spent nights and weekends bringing back this legendary classic.

An engineer, Merkel had previously devoted 16 years restoring a Cadillac sedan, which he sold when he got the chance to buy the V-16 Phaeton. “When I found this one, I had to sell the first one . . . and started all over again,” he said.

The V-16 engine was developed in secrecy by Cadillac. The engineer drawings labeled it as a “bus” engine.

Cadillac wanted this engine to run as smoothly as possible. The cast-iron cylinder blocks were bolted to an aluminum crankcase. The cylinder “V” configuration was kept narrow, at 45-degrees, so the engine could fit between the fenders and under a long hood.

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It has a 3-inch bore (the stroke is 4 inches) to keep the overall engine length down. Even so, its valve covers are 3 feet long.

It was Cadillac’s first overhead valve engine, and it used a unique hydraulic valve clearance adjustment system to reduce mechanical noise. Smoothness was Cadillac’s goal. With plenty of torque, the engine will pull top gear at 15 miles per hour while doing its work so quietly the musical whine of the straight-cut transmission gears is all that is heard.

The 452-cubic-inch engine produced 169 horsepower that was fed through a 3-speed transmission and was enough to push it to 100 miles per hour. In the spring of 1930, a V-16 crashed during high speed testing, so Cadillac installed a higher ratio rear differential so the top speed would not be so fast.

Merkel’s Phaeton somehow kept the lower rear end, which gives it better acceleration and low-speed pulling power.

Mechanical brakes linked by cables slows the car, which weighs more than 5,300 pounds.

None of today’s cars approaches the Phaeton’s 148-inch wheel base, which compares to today’s extended cab 4-door pick-up trucks. Its tires measure 34 inches across, making them roll better. The huge headlight lenses measure 13 inches across. The headlight shells reflect a panoramic view of the sky.

The level of finish is second to none.

In those days, Cadillac, and other elite manufacturers, would supply a chassis for customers who could have a coach builder create the body for it.

About 250 Cadillac All-Weather Phaetons were built and about 20 are known to exist, said Merkel, who heads a registry of these classics. About 3,250 V-16 engines were produced during the 11-year run. This engineering marvel set Cadillac above all others. Only one other company attempted Cadillac’s feat.

Merkel’s car was originally sold by a Cadillac dealer in Jacksonville, Florida, to Milo Vega, the owner of a cigar factory in Tampa.

The fact that Vega’s factory had space to store the car may have saved it from the scrap iron drives during World War II that claimed so many of the large classics of the 1930s, Merkel explained. When it was discovered, the car had been painted red with a brush, which protected it from rust during storage.

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In 1985 Merkel bought the car from a New Jersey collector, who had stored it for years in a large truck trailer. Merkel finally completed the restoration in 2010, and has put about 1,300 miles on the car since, bringing its total mileage to about 72,000 miles.

Some parts had to be made. “Pot metal,” which was used for some of the car’s trim pieces, was not designed to last 80 years. The inferior metal outgases and pops holes in the chrome plating. Merkel found a foundry that would sand cast the needed pieces in bronze. Then he would machine them and polish them to be chromed. He even had to cast gears that were used as linkage.

Another challenge in restoration was getting the original fuel-delivery system to work. Using a vacuum system, gasoline is drawn from the tank to two reservoirs under the hood. From there the fuel flows downhill to the carburetors. The vacuum pump is driven from the rear of the engine.

Some restorers opt for an electric fuel pump, but Merkel insisted on using the original vacuum pump system.

“It must be airtight to work properly,” he said. “If it draws any air, it will not pull gas.”

Making both banks of 8 cylinders work equally was another challenge. Each side of the engine is fed by its own carburetor.

The artwork continues under the hood, where the intake manifold is ceramic coated to a smooth shiny black. Spark plug wires are routed under covers

Cadillac created a clean engine bay. The control linkage is hidden where possible and other parts are chromed.

Craig Fitzgerald, writing for Hemmings Classic Cars, described the V-16 this way: “The rest of the world may scoff at (America’s) tail finned cars of the 1950s, or our tire-smoldering muscle cars of the 1960s, but they will always lust after the automotive perfection that is the V-16 Cadillac.”

Few who have seen Merkel’s V-16 could argue with that.

posted 10.16.2013

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