TCS Daily

I Shoulda Had a V-8

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 23, 2004 12:00 AM

In September 1914, just 90 years ago, the makers of a very good American car made a dramatic leap from good to great.

That was when Cadillac, which had already established a reputation in the luxury field with its high-quality four cylinder cars, introduced the all new "Type 51" with a V-8 engine.

This is the car that firmly established the idea of V-8 power in automobiles and paved the way for the allure, mystique and practical appeal of V-8 power plants that lasts to this day. It also changed the concept of the luxury car forever, bringing a car of exceptional quality within the reach of millions of customers.

Many of the premier luxury cars of today are, of course, V-8s, and it is interesting that Jaguar, troubled by flagging sales, is currently spending big bucks to tout its new XJ8L with a new V-8 engine.

Advances in internal combustion engine technology give today's motorists a wide variety of smooth powerful engines -- fours, sixes and eights -- and the perfection of the V-6 over the past couple of decades has given them power and acceleration rivaling V-8s.

But there's still something about those extra two cylinders. Drive a Chrysler 300 with its fine V-6, for instance. Then get behind the wheel of a 300 with the new Hemi V-8. Whooee! Automotive engineers can give you technical reasons for the difference but it's better just to experience it, to feel it.

And when you do, say, "Thank you, Wilfred Leland."

Various manufacturers had toyed with V-8s in the opening decades of the 20th century, a time when most engines were "straight" fours and sixes (all cylinders in line). In 1905, Rolls-Royce introduced a V-8 car called the Legalimit. In 1906, the American maker, Marmon, featured a 60-horsepower V-8 at the New York auto show, but it was an expensive "one-off."

The French seemed to be fascinated with them. One of the entries in the Paris-Madrid road race of 1903 was a V-8 built by French aviation enthusiast Clement Ader. Luxury-maker Darracq raced a huge 200 hp V-8 in 1905.

And it was one of France's (and the world's) oldest automotive firms, De Dion, that introduced what could be called the first production model V-8 in 1910. It was of meager horse power and complicated design, and by the time an improved version was introduced in the United States in 1912 it still had breathing and cooling problems.

That was the same year that Cadillac, headed by one of the true legends of automobile manufacture -- Henry M. Leland -- made one of the most profound changes in automotive history by introducing the electric self-starter. (That in itself is a story for another day.)

Not only could Cadillacs be started from behind the wheel rather than from in front of the radiator with a hand crank, they also operated with the first reliable integrated electrical system providing starting, ignition and lighting.

This advance only enhanced Cadillac's worldwide reputation as a quality car. But

Cadillacs were powered by a four-cylinder engine -- a superb four, to be sure -- but a four in a time when the "big six" was the standard of performance among competitors.

Makes such as Pierce-Arrow, Stevens-Duryea and Peerless had overcome early vibration problems to produce smooth and powerful sixes. Leland and his engineers began pondering Cadillac's move into the six-cylinder field. But Leland's son, Wilfred, had another idea.

A man, like his father, with a natural gift for things mechanical, Wilfred was aware of the problems of engine crankshaft balance and consequent vibration in sixes. He posited the idea of a V-8 -- in effect the mating of two proven four cylinder engines at a 90 degree angle. This would make a more compact engine with a shorter, stiffer crankshaft and lighter moving parts which would allow for better performance at higher speeds.

In 1912-13, Cadillac engineers bought, ran, tore apart and closely studied two V-8s -- the De Dion and an airplane engine, the Hall-Scott V-8, designed by Col. Edward J Hall, who would later gain fame with the great Liberty engine produced for the Allies in World War I.

Building on these engines' virtues, but cautioned by their vices, the Cadillac team built a prototype V-8 that proved impressive. Henry Leland ordered it refined and readied for production. Throughout 1913 and early 1914 the project was carried out in exceptional secrecy. An unassuming concrete block building just outside Detroit (its sign read like something from a Roadrunner cartoon: "Ideal Manufacturing Co.") housed the early work of design and re-design, exhaustive testing and ultra-precise mechanical work for which Leland was famous.

The engine that Cadillac introduced in its Type 51 model for 1915 bore a passing resemblance to the De Dion, a fact which engendered some invidious comments over the years that Cadillac had simply "copied" the French. In fact, the Caddy motor was in every way superior. It was lighter, but more powerful (70 hp to the De Dion's 50). It ran cooler (the first car to have a thermostatically controlled cooling system) and it boasted the best electrical system in the world.

Its power, smoothness and, at the time, almost incredible range of performance from low to high speeds, were such departures from the norm of the day that the automotive world was bowled over. In Britain, the editor of The Motor wrote that the Cadillac's "running is a revelation. The word flexibility takes on a new meaning."

In America, The Automobile magazine would look back late in 1915 and rightly hail the new Cadillac engine as having "ushered in an epoch." But as automotive historian Maurice D. Hendry has pointed out, "the economics of the car were actually more important than the technical aspects."

What really stunned Cadillac's competitors about its new V-8 was the price at which the car was offered. Lavishly equipped and beautifully appointed, the models ranged in price from $2,700 to $3,350 at a time when those of comparable quality and reputation were priced at $5000, $7000 and higher.

Cadillac was introducing a new concept of high quality mass production that would redefine the luxury car field with a product so reasonably priced that it would in effect create a new market. Historian Hendry notes that "when the Lelands revealed that their first year's production schedule for the V-8 was not thirteen hundred but thirteen thousand units, it was clear that the American luxury car market would never be the same again."

Some rivals, like Packard, realized that they could not survive by making very expensive models for a relative handful of very rich motorists. They tried, with varying success, to imitate Cadillac's approach. Others, like the prestigious Pierce-Arrow or the massive Locomobile, or the Peerless, would die slowly but grandly over the next two decades on a diet of limited production.

Cadillac, meanwhile, would move from strength to strength, eventually producing V-12 and V-16 engines that are engineering legends. But its V-8 -- steadily improved, often on the cutting edge of engineering innovation -- would be at the heart of its extraordinary worldwide prestige.

There is a myth, long abroad among half-informed auto enthusiasts, that the "first production V-8" was the little flathead introduced by Henry Ford in 1932 after a $300 million crash program. It was a remarkable achievement, and a remarkable engine for the price, much loved in various iterations over the next 22 years. Depression era bank robber Clyde Barrow made a point of stealing V-8 Fords whenever possible. He wrote to Henry Ford, "even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt eny-thing to tell you what a fine car you got in the V 8."

But with its V-8, Ford had embarked at its own speed and in its own unique way along a path made wide by Cadillac. Over the next four decades advances in engine technology, metallurgy and precision machining would result in vastly improved straight sixes and eights. Packard, Buick and Chrysler straight eights are fine examples. But in the 1950s, V-8s would begin to proliferate, with the Chrysler hemi and Chevrolet's 1955 design as leading examples.

Modern V-8 engines are a revelation in silky smoothness, power and efficiency. But a drive in an early Cadillac V-8 remains a revelation in itself as you experience the remarkably smooth, silent power and civilized manners of cars 60, 75 or even 90 years old.

Contributing Editor Bennett owns a 1949 Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special sedan and a 1966 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.


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