The Cadillac V-16 (sometimes known as the Cadillac Sixteen) was Cadillac's top-of-the-line car from its January 1930 launch until production ceased in 1940 as the war in Europe killed sales. All were finished to custom order, and the car was built in very small numbers; only 4076 cars were constructed in the eleven years the model was offered. The majority of these were built in the single year of 1930, before the Great Depression really took hold. This was the first V16 powered car to reach production status in the United States.
In 1926, Cadillac began the development of a new, "multi-cylinder" car. A customer requirement was seen for a car powered by an engine simultaneously more powerful and smoother than any hitherto available. Development proceeded in great secrecy over the next few years; a number of prototype cars were built and tested as the new engine was developed, while at the same time Cadillac chief Larry Fisher and GM's stylist Harley Earl toured Europe in search of inspiration from Europe's finest coachbuilders. Unlike many builders of luxury cars, who sold bare chassis to be clothed by outside coachbuilding firms, General Motors had purchased the coachbuilders Fleetwood Metal Body and Fisher Body to keep all the business in-house. Bare Cadillac chassis could be purchased if a buyer insisted, but the intention was that few would do so.
It was not until after the stock market crash of 1929 that Cadillac announced to the world the availability of the costliest Cadillac yet, the new V-16. The new vehicle was first displayed at New York's automobile show on January 4, 1930.
The new car attracted rave reviews from the press and huge public attention. Cadillac started production of the new car immediately. January production averaged a couple of cars per day, but was then ramped up to twenty-two cars per day. By April, 1,000 units had been built, and by June, 2,000 cars. These could be ordered with a wide variety of bodywork. The Fleetwood catalog for the 1930 V-16 included 10 basic body styles; there was also an envelope containing some 30 additional designer's drawings. Research by the Cadillac-La Salle Club, Inc. puts at 70 the number of different job/style numbers built by Fisher and Fleetwood on the sixteen chassis.
Beginning in June 1930, six new V-16s participated in a promotional tour of major European cities including Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Münich, Nüremberg, Vienna (where they won prizes), Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, Zürich, Madrid, San Sebastian, La Baule and Angers. On the return journey from Spain, the V16 caravan stopped also in the town of Cadillac, in south-western France, although that city bears no relationship to the marque, other than its name.
After the peak in V-16 orders in mid 1930, production fell precipitously. During October 1930, only 54 cars were built. The lowest figures for the 452/452A cars of 1930-31 were August 1931 (7 units) and November 1931 (6 units). Minimum production continued throughout the rest of the decade with a mere 50 units being built both in 1935 and in 1937. 1940 was only marginally better with a total of 51 units. Not surprisingly, Cadillac later estimated that they lost money on every single V-16 they sold.
Production of the original V-16 continued under various model names through 1937. The body was redesigned in 1933 as the model 452C. Innovations included Fisher no draft individually controlled ventilation (I.C.V. or vent windows).
For 1934, the body was redesigned again and denoted as 452D, and as 452E in 1935. The V-16 now featured the Fisher Turret Top all-steel roof, though the cars were still built by Fleetwood. This same basic design would remain virtually unchanged through 1937. With a wheelbase of 154.0 inches (3,912 mm) and a curb weight of up to 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg) these are perhaps the largest standard production cars ever produced in the United States. Combined production for the 1934 and 1935 model years was 150. It was redesignated the Series 90 in 1936 as Cadillac reorganized their model names. 52 units were sold that year, with nearly half ordered as limousines. Hydraulic brakes were added for 1937, the last year of production. 50 vehicles were produced.
The V-16 "Series 90" and V-12 "Series 80 and 85", were essentially merged for 1938 with the introduction of the new L-head V-16. The new engine was an "L Head" (AKA flathead) design, and featured a wider (135 degree) v-angle, twin carburetors, twin fuel pumps, twin distributors,twin water pumps and a nine main bearing crankshaft (compared to the OHV V-16's five bearing crank) and produced the same 185 hp (138 kW) as later versions of the original V-16 with even greater smoothness and endowed the '38-'40 Sixteens with the swiftest acceleration of any car in the world at the time regardless of weight as well as slightly improved fuel economy over the OHV V-16 cars. This engine was nearly silent at idle and turbine-smooth in operation. The wheelbase was reduced to 141.0 in (3,581 mm), the body remained 222.0 in (5,639 mm) in overall length. The "Sixteens" (as Cadillac referred to them) were basically series 75 cars with the new V-16 engine although they differed from the firewall forward from the V-8 cars and had several other trim differences. The instrument panels were identical to and changed yearly with the V-8 cars from 1938 to 1940. Only the '38 Sixteens had a horn button which had "Sixteen" in art deco script; the '39 and '40 models, like the V-8 had the Cadillac crest on the button. 315 were sold in the first year, 138 in the next. The production of the 1940 models ended in December 1939.
Main article: Cadillac V-16 engineTwo different V-16 engines were used by Cadillac:
- The Series 452 from 1930 until 1937, a narrow 45° V angle OHV (overhead valve) engine.
- The Series 90 from 1938 to 1940, a lower, wider 135° V angle L-head (in-block valve) engine.
Cadillac V-16s today
The Cadillac V-16 is today recognized as one of the finest automobiles of the prewar era by many authorities. The Classic Car Club of America rates all V-16s as CCCA Full Classics, a rating reserved for only the finest automobiles of the 1925–1948 period. Values reflect these opinions; particularly fine examples of the 1930 production can change hands for more than US$500,000 as of 2004. As always, convertibles are the most valued, and the earlier cars more so than the 1938-40 vehicles. A good condition 1938 sedan can sell for under US$80,000. Certain custom-bodied vehicles have sold for even more.