Luxury Car Evolution: 1938 Cadillac Series 90 V16

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The early days of the 'Standard of the World.'

Formed in 1902 by engineer Henry Leland, Cadillac quickly gained a reputation for technical excellence. Engineering and manufacturing techniques were second to none, and GM recognized this when they acquired the firm in 1909, making them their new luxury brand. Cadillacs sold well over the next twenty years, and even though it was hit hard by the Great Depression, they recovered surprisingly well.

The reason why this was surprising is that it was just a few months after the market crash when Cadillac announced their new biggest and most expensive model yet. This new model was the V16, which took a number of different forms, but the ultimate expression of the car was the Series 90. This was introduced in 1938, just in time for WWII to kick off. Cadillac's chief prewar rival was Packard, and Cadillac suffered during the Twenties while pitting their V8-powered cars against Packard's more powerful and smother-running V12-powered models. Beginning in 1926, Cadillac set in motion a plan to outdo Packard with bigger and better models of their own.

Cadillac therefore designed a V12 to join the ranks with the V8 models; and then went on to make a V16, a first in a production car, for their new flagship model. Another key element of this plan was for Cadillac to acquire their own coachbuilders. Luxury cars at the time were typically sold as just a chassis, with the bodywork being completed by a third-party coachbuilder of the customer's choosing. Cadillac wanted to streamline this process, but still offer a wide range of different coach options for their wealthy clients. The solution to this was to buy Fisher Body and Fleetwood Metal Body to handle these coachbuilding needs.

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Between the two coachbuilders, there were some 70 different body styles offered by Cadillac for the V16. If none of these offered quite what you were looking for, there was still the option to purchase a chassis to be taken to the coachbuilder of your choice, but few customers went with this option. The design of the V16 is attributed to an engineer named Owen Nacker, formerly of the defunct Marmon Motor Car Company. It was essentially two Buick straight-eight engines joined together at a narrow (45 degrees) angle. This was an overhead-valve design which displaced 452 cubic inches and produced 185 horsepower.

This was a lot of power in 1930, but more important, it ran smoother than its competitors. Luxury cars tend not to be too concerned with out and out speed, but a smooth-running engine was and is highly coveted. The V16 was met by a hugely positive response when it debuted in January of 1930. By April, Cadillac had already built 2,000 of them, all the more amazing considering the recent market crash. Prices varied, depending on the body style, but most were in the area of about $8,000, or about $103,000 in today's money. But once that big initial demand had been met, sales fell off sharply.

By the mid Thirties, and for the remainder of the V16 lifetime, production would stay at about 50 units per year. The taller car designs of the late Twenties and early Thirties gave way to lower and more streamlined art deco designs by the late thirties, and the V16 would receive new and elegant designs in 1938. This was the Series 90, and it included an all-new V16 engine. The new side-valve design had an unusually wide (135 degrees) V angle. This was done to make the engine sorter, in order to accommodate the lower hood of the new car. The new engine displaced 431 cubic inches, slightly less than the previous engine, but still produced 185hp.

It was just as smooth in operation as the previous engine as well, but thanks to a new hydraulic valve lifter system, it was even quieter. Since the Series 90 debuted so close to WWII, it was one of the most fashionable and technologically advanced designs of any prewar luxury car. There are plenty of other examples of refined and luxurious prewar cars, but Cadillac made the kinds of world-class customization and refinement offered by those models available in a more mass-produced form. The fact that around 4,000 V16 cars were produced meant that Cadillac was able to keep the price down enough that their motto "Standard of the World" really meant something.

The Bugatti Royale was fine and all, but the V16 was a car you might actually be able to buy. Boutique-built production runs of 6 units were a thing of the past after the war, and the V16 had set the template for post-war super-luxury cars. That said, the Series 90 had a short and small production run. Sales were better than they had been for the V16 for the few years before the Series 90, but the Great Depression was still a factor in the marketplace. The V16 was killed off in 1940. This was one its best years, sales-wise, but WWII necessitated a switch in production at the factory.

The V16 was the genesis point for modern luxury cars. It introduced the world to the idea that a car could be luxurious and special while still being mass-produced. It was a herculean effort for GM, and they lost money on ever V16 they sold, but it is an undeniably important car. Cadillac paid tribute to this car with the Cadillac Sixteen concept in 2003. This huge coupe boasted Cadillac's first V16 engine since the war, a massive 13.6-liter unit. It was unbelievably impractical, but Cadillac went back and forth on the idea of producing it up until 2008. The decision not to build it made sense, but it was still a shame.

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