The winter of 1930-31 was a bittersweet time for Howard Marmon. His pièce de resistance, the Marmon Sixteen, had debuted to great acclaim at the Chicago Auto Salon in November and the following month he received a medal for outstanding achievement from the Society of Automotive Engineers, awarded for the Sixteen’s magnificent engine. Although a second shift was added to the assembly line when full production began in April, there was trouble at the Marmon Motor Car Company. As with other luxury car makers, its profits had turned to deficits as the Depression deepened, and two rounds of pay cuts were followed by layoffs of most engineering staff. What had once been a bright future had become very, very uncertain.
Howard Carpenter Marmon was the son of an Indianapolis manufacturer of milling machinery. With an engineering degree from the University of California, he joined the family firm, becoming vice president and chief engineer within three years. Enamored of all types of machinery, he built a car of his own design, completed in 1902. Remarkable for its use of full pressure lubrication, it had an air-cooled power train with no universal joints, made possible by mounting the running gear on a separate subframe. He built six cars in 1904, unusual in their use of aluminum castings in their bodies, and sold them to neighbors.
By 1909, Marmon was in full production of water-cooled cars, including the Model 32 that would be built for seven years. In fact, it was a Model 32, called the “Wasp,” that garnered international acclaim for the company when it won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The Marmon 34 of 1916 made even greater use of aluminum, but teething problems with its design and Marmon’s lack of business acumen hindered sales. Marmons became more conventional during the 1920s, and the car operation was spun off from Nordyke and Marmon, the machinery firm. Although well built, Marmons were nearly indistinguishable from other prestige cars of the decade, and sales were mediocre.
In 1926, Howard Marmon began work on his masterpiece, a sixteen-cylinder luxury car. The heart of the new model was a compact even-firing 45-degree V16 of 491 cubic inches. Overhead valves were pushrod-operated, and the aluminum block had wet cylinder liners. Its operation was so smooth that a light flywheel was possible, which in turn facilitated rapid acceleration. The valve gear was carefully designed to be compact and well lubricated, making it nearly silent, despite mechanical adjustment. The Sixteen developed 200 brake horsepower, rode a chassis with a 145-inch wheelbase and was clothed in attractive Art Deco- inspired bodies.
Although the bodies were built by LeBaron, and carried LeBaron’s prestigious cowl tags, it was a father and son team of industrial designers who penned the car’s svelte lines. Credit is conventionally given to Walter Dorwin Teague Sr.; while it was his son who sketched the lines and details that ultimately entered production. A student at MIT, Walter Dorwin Teague Jr. was a gifted designer who would go on to design some of the most influential automobiles of his time.
Magnificent though it was, the Marmon Sixteen was not ready for production until early in 1931, by which time Cadillac’s V16 had been on the market for over a year. Initial prices were as low as $5,200, $750 less than the equivalent Cadillac, but Cadillac had a head start and the advantage of a larger business base. The first Marmon Sixteen customer did not take delivery until April 1931. For the year, just over 200 Sixteens were produced, out of some 5,700 total sales. The total for 1932 was just ten percent of an underwhelming 1,365 total cars, from which it seems odd that the eight cylinder cars were discontinued entirely for 1933. It is not hard to understand, though, that with just 86 Sixteens sold that year, about a third of which must have been leftover ‘32s, Marmon was in receivership by the first of May.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in January of 2009 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona.
200bhp, 490.8 cu. in. overhead valve V16 engine, three-speed manual transmission, suspension via front and rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, solid front axle, live rear axle, four-wheel vacuum-assisted mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 145"
Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Simon Clay