In the early 20th century, and especially before the war, there was much more freedom in car design, unhindered by modern safety and emissions regulations. Of course, I’d much rather have a crash in a modern Hyundai Elantra than a Duesenberg Model J, but it did mean that in the olden days, there were some truly incredible creations.
One of those was the venerable Cadillac V16. Despite being expensive, impractical and absolutely enormous, this engine was nevertheless desirable as a result of the prewar market’s obsession with engines that, above all, ran smoothly; massive straight sixes and eights were popular due to their smoother revving than V engines, but often didn’t make enough power and were too long to be practical.
V-shaped engines were the natural solution, cramming more cylinders into a similar space, and Cadillac was determined to shove as many as they could under that classic split-folding hood. In this video, we get a taste of the biblical sound this many cylinders makes; if you prefer the rumble of a Mustang’s low-tech V8 over the shriller pitch of a flat-plane Ferrari, you’ll really love this:
This 1930 Cadillac has a typically arcane starting procedure, involving timing adjustments and levers on the steering wheel, but once it gets going, it makes a sound genuinely unlike anything else outside an airplane engine or a modern Bugatti. This particular example appears to be in beautiful condition to boot, sporting clean chrome in the engine bay and spotless whitewall tires (thus, its value likely broaches the half-million-dollar mark). It even has classic flattened tailpipes that were designed to be as tasteful and low-profile as possible.
Only around 4,000 V16 Cadillacs were made, with most being built in 1930 though the model lasted for ten years. Then there was the stunningly beautiful, 13.6L Cadillac Sixteen concept car in 2003, but it was sadly too out-there to reach production; James May really liked it, though.