Cadillac V-16 Convertible Sedan

For years, automotive writers have struggled to find suitable superlatives with which to describe Cadillac’s 16-cylinder motor cars – and for good reason. Aside from simply looking to outdo the competition, the idea, of course, was twofold – smoothness and torque. Engineers have long known that the more power pulses in a revolution, the smoother an engine can be. And in the days before automatic transmissions, the best way to provide silky acceleration was to maximize torque. The best cars allowed the driver to select high gear at minimal speed and then proceed without the fuss and discomfort of gear changes.

Thus, the idea for a 16-cylinder engine was born. As Cadillac’s (and GM’s) flagship, it was offered with only the best coachwork – mostly custom crafted by Fleetwood. As the company’s in-house coachbuilder, Fleetwood allowed Cadillac complete control over the quality and engineering of its bodies – not to mention keeping the profits in-house.

The first series of V-16s, built from 1930 through 1937, was a tremendous success as the standard-bearer for the world’s largest carmaker. They were whisper quiet, supremely powerful and utterly unmatched by the competition. Their only downfall was profitability; it is widely believed that GM lost money on every one built. This is not hard to imagine, given that the market dropped from thousands of units annually in the beginning to less than fifty cars per year for the last four years. The Great Depression was well underway, and even the well-heeled felt the need to curtail their spending.

The solution came in 1938, with the introduction of the second-series V-16. Far more conventional, it dispensed with the original design’s complicated and trouble-prone hydraulically compensated valve-lash adjustment system in favor of a much simpler side-valve configuration, packaged in an unusual 135-degree bank angle – nearly horizontally opposed. It offered comparable horsepower and torque, in a package that weighed 250 lbs less and was far less costly to build. Nonetheless, Cadillac surprised everyone at the October 1937 New York Auto Show by introducing its revised Series 90 V-16 models.

For 1938, Cadillac shortened the wheelbase of the V-16 from 154 inches to 141.25 inches, the same as the new Series 75, enabling the use of Series 75 bodies. The simpler engine design, plus the economies derived from shared bodies, enabled the prices of 1938 V-16s to be reduced by a wide margin. Twelve Fleetwood body styles were catalogued for 1938 and 1939, comprising a full range including coupes, convertible coupes and sedans, and a full complement of five and seven-passenger sedans and limousines. The latter were called Formal Sedans or Imperial Sedans, depending on whether they had a division window. Styling was directed by GM’s young emerging legend Bill Mitchell, with design cues from his groundbreaking Sixty Special, which was also new for 1938.

The new Series 90 V-16 line had its best production year in 1938 with 315 built, followed by just 138 units for 1939. With only 61 cars built in 1940, the model was quietly laid to rest. It had been a good run, just over 4,400 cars over 11 years and two generations of the V-16. While it remains unlikely that Cadillac ever realized a financial profit from such a low-production model, its true value in prestige for Cadillac remains incalculable today.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in March of 2011 at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Florida.

185 bhp, 431 cu. in. L-head V-16 engine, three-speed manual transmission, independent front suspension, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 141.25"

Source: RM Auctions

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