1933 Marmon Sixteen
1933 Marmon Sixteen. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Huge multi-cylindered cars have always had a special mystique. The furthest we have gone in that direction since the 1930s have been V12s from such manufacturers as Ferrari, Jaguar, BMW and DaimlerChrysler, and the W-12 from Volkswagen and its subsidiaries.

Cadillac recently showed a V16 powered concept car, although production is highly uncertain. It was a reminder of Cadillac’s V16 heritage when it offered V16s from 1930 to 1940. During the Depression era only 4,403 were built during the entire 11-year run.

Two other contemporary manufacturers, Peerless and Marmon, offered V16s. But Peerless Motor Car Company was in its death throes and only one 1931 V16 prototype was built before Peerless left the car business. The V16 still survives in a Cleveland museum.

Although Marmon was also suffering financially it did manage to produce a V16 for a short time that was arguably superior to Cadillac’s. The Marmon name went back to 1851 when Daniel Marmon and a Mr. Nordyke formed a company in Richmond, Indiana to manufacture flour milling equipment. Nordyke and Marmon later moved to larger premises in Indianapolis.

In 1899, Daniel’s son Howard Marmon, a mechanical engineer, joined the business. In just three years at only 23 years of age he was appointed chief engineer. He and his brother Walter, also an engineer, ran the business; Howard looked after engineering and Walter was the administrator.

Howard was keenly interested in the emerging automobile, and in 1902 built his first one with an air-cooled, overhead valve, V-twin engine. It had pressure lubrication and drove the rear wheels via a driveshaft. Young Marmon’s engineering brilliance was already expressing itself.

This was followed by a V4, and by 1904, Nordyke and Marmon was in the automobile business, building and selling six identical cars that year. Twenty-five were sold in 1905.

Marmons quickly established a reputation for mechanical excellence and made extensive use of aluminum in their bodies and engines. They abandoned air cooling in 1908 and used water cooled engines from 1909 on. Marmons did well in competition, culminating in the Marmon “Wasp” winning the first Indianapolis 500 mile race in 1911. This was tremendous publicity and orders poured in.

The company expanded and contributed to the First World War effort by manufacturing 5,000 Liberty aircraft engines. But Nordyke and Marmon began losing money in the 1920s and reorganized into the Marmon Motor Car Company in 1926. The flour milling machinery business was sold to farm implement manufacturer Allis-Chalmers, and Marmon prospered for a few years with six and eight-cylinder cars.

In 1929, Marmon went exclusively to straight-eights and sales peaked at over 22,000 cars, sparked by the addition of the low priced eight-cylinder Roosevelt which unfortunately proved to be a star-crossed model. The onset of the Depression dropped sales to 12,300 in 1930, then under 6,000 in 1931.

Marmon’s future looked dim, but Howard had one more ace to play. Since 1926 he had been working on the design of a “super car” with a V16 engine. Cadillac beat him to the punch and had sold almost 3,000 V16s by the time the Marmon V16 reached dealer showrooms in 1931.

The Marmon Sixteen was a fabulous car. Its 8-litre (491 cu in.) overhead valve, aluminum, 45-degree, V16 developed 200 horsepower, compared with the Cadillac Sixteen’s 175. The cylinder block and heads, rocker covers, oil pan, dual water pumps, oil pump and bell housing were aluminum. The Society of Automotive Engineers was so impressed it gave Marmon a special award for the engine.

In addition to being well engineered, the Marmon Sixteen was fast. In a simulated road test of a 1932 Marmon Sixteen, Road & Track (7/’59) estimated that it could accelerate to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 14 seconds and reach a top speed of 169 km/h (105 mph). They remarked on its “incredible smoothness,” and reported that the Marmon accelerated smoothly in high gear from 8 km/h (5 mph), a desirable feature before the fully automatic transmission arrived.

The new Marmon proved its durability too. During a test at the Indianapolis Speedway a Sixteen covered more than 2,900 km (1,800 miles) in 24 hours, a record that stood for 22 years.

The Marmon Sixteen was a wonderfully engineered car but it had arrived at the worst possible economic time – the depth of the Depression. Only 390 were sold before the company went into receivership in 1933. Although race car engineer Harry Miller and entrepreneur Preston Tucker tried to revive the Marmon in 1934, they were unsuccessful.

That was the end of Marmon cars but not its automotive connection. Walter Marmon and Arthur Herrington teamed up to produce a Herrington-designed four-wheel drive system for trucks, particularly Fords. They also manufactured trucks and buses, and Marmon-Herrington survived until 1964.

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