Cadillac Sixteen
Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

When Cadillac rolled out its amazing 16-cylinder engine at the Detroit Opera House prior to the Detroit auto show, it drew gasps of surprise – and more than a few cheers – from hundreds of assembled media people. As an encore, GM’s luxury car division confirmed this blockbuster announcement when corporate luminary Bob Lutz drove onto the stage in a stunning Cadillac sedan with the new powerplant tucked neatly under its lengthy hood. Perhaps the exercise heralds a new era in automotive powerplants – echoing the automotive scene many decades ago when manufacturers fought endless technological battles on the engine front with none of the high-tech backup today’s engineers have to draw on.

Over the years, automakers have tried every imaginable engine configuration in their efforts to capture market share. In the early days of motoring, many automobile engines boasted but a single cylinder but automotive designers, being the creative people they are, ensured that multiple cylinder engines soon followed.

The first 4-cylinder motor car, the Panhard et Levassor, appeared in 1896 and it developed a humble 8 horsepower. An in-line 8-cylinder engine appeared in 1902, produced by a French company, and perhaps surprisingly, the first in-line six didn’t turn a crank until 1903. Several automakers tried V-8 engines between 1905 and 1909, but none were very successful, although one of the experimenters was no less than Rolls-Royce. In 1910, De Dion Bouton put the first V-8 into series production and the design was copied and improved on by Cadillac in 1914/15. This move prompted Lincoln and Ford to follow the path which led to the V-8s we’re familiar with today.

Over the years, just about every imaginable combination of displacement and number of cylinders has been tried by one automaker or another. A Belgian maker even produced a 9-litre 4-cylinder engine in 1921 which must have had pistons the size of ice cream tubs. The vast engines characteristic of racing cars of the Edwardian period must have been amazingly exciting to watch in action. Straight eights had a run of popularity during the 20s and 30s, which probably
accounts for those extra-long hoods on touring cars of the day. A look at the history books indicates that 12-cylinder engines have been around for many years and as far back as 1932, North American buyers had a choice of no less than six different makes with 12-bangers under the hood. You could buy a “twelve” from Auburn, Cadillac, Franklin, Lincoln, Packard and Pierce-Arrow. In France, Hispano-Suiza and Voisin offered twelves and in Germany, Horch and
soon-to-be-revived Maybach got the job done. You could even buy two Czech cars with twelves – Tatra and Walter – but only Daimler offered one in Britain and Italy didn’t build one at all.

In recent years, several automakers have offered 12-cylinder engines, including Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – plus Italian exoticicar makers like Ferrari and Lamborghini. But 16-cylinder engines are rare birds indeed. Only three 16-cylinder engines were ever marketed in production cars and one of these – the Bugatti Type 47 of 1930 – never made series production.

Cadillac built a 16-cylinder engine between 1930 and 1940 and Marmon, a marque known only to enthusiasts these days, offered one from 1931 to 1933. Of course, race cars have used all kinds of weird and wonderful engines over the years, but these have been more or less limited production units for racing applications only. Auto Union (now Audi) planned to develop a sports supercar around its 16-cylinder racing engine back in 1934, but the plan was shelved.

Cadillac Sixteen
Cadillac Sixteen. Click image to enlarge

Cadillac’s new engine is part of an effort to recapture the great days when the luxury automaker used the advertising slogan: “Standard of the World.” Back in the 1930s, even diehard Rolls-Royce buyers in Britain could be swayed by the latest Cadillac and the company believes the V-16 powered car is the right way to go to win back that kind of devotion. In recent decades, Cadillac has lost ground to the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus and it aims to recapture a piece of that market with a car that every motorist can aspire to. Says Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman for product development and chairman of GM North America: ” The sixteen is a modern interpretation of everything that made Cadillac the standard of the world and can again. It’s a reminder of a glorious past…”

The Cadillac engine – a concept right now – is of 13.6-litres displacement and develops a whopping 1000 horsepower. It’s actually more compact than one might imagine and is naturally built to the highest technological standards. The big surprise is that it musters those 1000 horses without any turbocharger or supercharger assist. It’s a normally-aspirated engine and according to GM, will have a level of fuel economy closer to a V-12 or even a V-8, despite its
massive displacement.

The car Cadillac showed in Detroit is a stunner with very modern lines, yet evoking cues from years past. It should be a fitting rival for such contenders as the Mercedes-Benz S600, BMW 750iL and even the new Maybach super-luxury car. Perhaps even Rolls-Royce and Bentley are getting a little nervous at news of this new Cadillac.

There’s only one threat on the horizon engine-wise and that’s a rival powerplant from Bugatti which develops – sorry Cadillac – 1001 horsepower!

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