The Evolution of Cadillac’s V-16: A Story of Resilience and Innovation

The Decline and Near Demise: 1930-1937

Between 1930 and 1937, Cadillac faced significant challenges with its prestigious 452 V-16 series. Production numbers steadily declined, culminating in a mere 61 units in 1940. The financial strain was so severe that General Motors even considered shutting down the Cadillac division entirely.

A Bold Comeback in 1938

Despite these setbacks, Cadillac made a daring move in 1938 by unveiling an entirely new V-16 model. This decision sparked considerable debate, with industry experts questioning the rationale behind launching such an ambitious project during tough economic times. However, what remains beyond dispute is the groundbreaking innovation this new V-16 embodied.

Revolutionary Design and Engineering

The 1938 V-16 was a marvel of engineering. Its cast iron construction featured uniquely compact, square-shaped cylinders measuring 3¼ inches in bore and stroke, resulting in a total displacement of 431 cubic inches. Its distinctive 135º v-angle cylinder arrangement and side valves simplified the engine’s construction and servicing needs.

Advanced Features for Enhanced Performance

Key design elements included wide V-style manifolds, dual carburettors, and a pair of eight-cylinder distributors, all of which made maintenance more manageable. Weighing 115 pounds less than the V-12 and 250 pounds less than its predecessor, the 452 V-16, this engine was lighter and more efficient. The rear cylinders were ingeniously positioned behind the firewall, allowing it to fit seamlessly within the 141-inch wheelbase chassis.

Power and Smoothness Redefined

This engineering masterpiece generated an impressive 185 brake horsepower, enabling the Cadillac 38-90 to achieve a genuine top speed of 100 mph. Its exceptional quietness and smooth operation set this model apart, offering an unparalleled driving experience.

Subtle Style Enhancements Over the Years

In the years following its introduction, Cadillac continued to refine the V-16 model. These enhancements included a redesigned dashboard, updated taillights and bumpers, and the introduction of sealed beam headlights in the final 1940 model, marking the end of an era for this remarkable series.



The story of Cadillac’s V-16 is one of resilience and innovation. From the brink of closure to creating an engineering icon, Cadillac’s journey during these years showcases its commitment to excellence and its ability to overcome adversity with groundbreaking design and technology.

Source: Bonhams Cars

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