Steel Horse - Autocar magazine » 1930′s Cars » 1939 Cadillac V-16 versus 1939 Packard Twelve

Throughout the decade of the thirties, while Chevrolet and Ford were engaged in a pitched battle for supremacy in the low-priced field, an equally intense contest was taking place at the opposite end of the economic scale. Cadillac was determined to dislodge Packard from its long-held status as America’s premier luxury automobile. And Packard was equally determined to retain its position as “King of the Mountain.”

Matters might be said to have come to a head on Januaiy 4, 1930, at the New York Automobile Show, when Cadillac upstaged the rest of the industry by showing off a magnificent new sixteen-cylinder motorcar. It was a formidable challenge to the competition, for nothing comparable had ever before been offered to the public.

Nineteen-thirty was not a propitious time for Cadillac - or anyone else, for that matter - to introduce a line of automobiles whose prices ranged from $5,350 to $9,700, enough in those days to pay for a small fleet of ordinary motorcars. For the bottom had fallen out of the stock market the previous October, and hard times were commencing to make themselves felt. But of course, at that point nobody could have anticipated how deep and how long the Depression would be, and in any case, by the time of the Wall Street debacle it was much too late to cancel the V-16.

The challenge to the rest of the industry, and especially to Packard, was unmistakable. One can be certain that out on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard, the men at Packard paid close attention to the reception accorded this great new Cadillac. Long regarded as America’s leading prestige car, for several years Packard had been under increasing pressure from Cadillac, its principal competitor. The 1929 introduction of the LaSalle, priced nose-to-nose with the least expensive Packards, had intensified the competition in that segment of the market. And now, here was Cadillac with a sixteen-cylinder “supercar.”

Packard, of course, was not unfamiliar with the multi-cylinder game. Between 1915 and 1923 the company had built a superb 90-horsepower V-12 called the Twin Six. Selling for half-again as much as the contemporary Cadillac, this was the car that had established Packard’s supremacy in the high-priced market. Yet it was the Single Six, a smaller, more reasonably priced machine introduced in 1920, that had accounted for the bulk of Packard’s volume for the next several years.

By 1924 the Twin Six had been replaced by the Single Eight, a straight-eight that was just as big and nearly as powerful as the twelve-cylinder car, but not quite as expensive. Together with the Single Six, it pushed Packard’s 1925 production to 32,125 cars, compared to Cadillac’s total of 22,542.

With Cadillac’s introduction of its “companion” car, the LaSalle, in mid-1927, the sales gap narrowed somewhat. By 1928 production figures came to 50,054 for Packard, 41,172 for Cadillac and LaSalle combined. Which was all well and good, but it was primarily upon the high-priced models that each company’s prestige depended; and apparently, in the public’s mind more status was attached to the 109 horsepower Packard straight-eight than to the 90 horsepower Cadillac.

To Lawrence P. Fisher, Cadillac’s general manager since 1925, such a situation was intolerable; and with his encouragement work got under way in 1926 on the development of the V-16. The operation was carried out in the deepest secrecy. Blueprints, supplies and equipment were all labeled “Bus,” or “Coach,” and rumors were deliberately floated that a new V-12 would be forthcoming. (In fact, there was a V-12, developed simultaneously with the V-16 but introduced some months later. But the big secret had to do with the sixteen-cylinder job.)

In overall charge of the V-16 project was the division’s chief engineer, Ernest Seaholm; while development of the great new engine was the responsibility of Owen Nacker, a former Marmon engineer. Unlike the familiar Cadillac V-8, which was of L-head design, the V-16 used overhead valves. Quiet operation was assured by means of hydraulic valve silencers, and smoothness was enhanced by the even firing order, resulting from placement of the cylinder banks at a 45-degree angle to one another.

No question about it: In terms of both power and prestige, the Cadillac V-16 was well ahead of anything Packard had to offer at the time. Performance was outstanding. Displacing 452 cubic inches, the new engine was rated at 165 horsepower; and it was said to be capable of propelling the heavy Cadillacs to speeds ranging from 80 to nearly 100 miles an hour, depending on body contours, gear ratio and the weight of the coachwork.

The V-16 was also one of the handsomest powerplants ever devised. Walter McCall has described it as “the first automobile engine anywhere to bear the mark of a stylist.” Wires and hoses were hidden away; valve covers were trimmed in ribbed, polished aluminum; surfaces were finished in black enamel, with bright accents.


Obviously, a response from Packard was called for. It took the form of a new Twin Six, augmenting the company’s Eight and Eight Deluxe lines, and introduced as a member of the Ninth Series on June 17, 1931. (Packard, in those days, identified its cars not by model year, like the rest of the industry, but by series number.) With its vee’d radiator grille, tapered headlamps and air-craft-style instrument panel, this high-styled car established the pattern for the Tenth Series Packards, slated for display early in January 1933.

Presumably, consideration must have been given to matching Cadillac, cylin-der-for-cylinder. But the old Twin Six had enjoyed a well-established reputation for both performance and durability, and whatever advantages a sixteen-cylinder engine may have enjoyed over a twelve were no more than marginal - and might be thought to have been offset by the increased complexity of the V-16 layout, to say nothing of the additional cost of producing it. So the decision was made that Packard’s response to Cadillac would be another twelve-cylinder car.

Such was the status accorded Packard in those days that when the second-generation Twin Six was introduced, the news flashed across the ticker tape on Wall Street. Even so, there were few in those troubled times who could afford a new automobile of any kind, least of all a costly luxury model. Despite offering four lines of cars for 1932 - three eights in addition to the Twin Six - Packard’s production came to just 8,018 units, an 84 percent drop from 1928’s record total. Packard, along with Cadillac, found itself building superb automobiles for a market that had virtually ceased to exist. In order to survive, both firms began to think in terms of developing lower-priced cars. Not that either Packard or Cadillac was prepared to abandon the upper end of the market.

Packard’s new twelve-cylinder engine, at 445.5 cubic inches and 160 horsepower, was very nearly a match for the Cadillac V-16 in terms of both displacement and horsepower. And it was a fresh development, rather than a derivative of the earlier Twin Six. This time the cylinder blocks were inclined at a 67-degree angle to one-another, rather than the 60-degree placement used for Packard’s earlier 12-cylinder engine. That seems odd, when you think of it, since a 60- (or 120-) degree layout is required to provide a V-12 with precisely equal firing intervals. Any disadvantage resulting from this configuration is purely theoretical, however, for the second Twin-Six engine ranks with the Cadillac V-16 as one of the smoothest engines ever designed.

At first, Packard employed custom and semi-custom coachwork exclusively, with prices starting at $5,800 for the Dietrich-bodied phaeton. This was about $700 lower than the Fleetwoodbodied V-16 in the same body style, though of course it was still beyond the reach of all but the very rich. Then in January 1932 the Twin Six line was expanded to include several factorybodied styles, priced as low as $3,650 for the 2/4 passenger coupe. (This is not to suggest that $3,650 could be considered a “low” price, but by way of comparison, the Fleetwood-bodied Cadillac V-16 coupe sold, at that time, for $5,800.)

Not only was the Twin Six substantially less costly than the V-16, it was also several hundred pounds lighter. Thus, Packard enjoyed a distinct edge in terms of power-to-weight radio, as well as price. And while neither car could be called a hot ticket on the sales floor in those depressed times, the big Packard outsold the Cadillac V-16 by margins as high as four to one. (It should be noted, however, that the Cad V-12, introduced during October 1930, undoubtedly stole some sales that would otherwise have gone to the V-16.)

With the coming of the Tenth Series, on January 5, 1933, the Twin Six name was dropped, and the car was known thereafter as the Packard Twelve. The company was taking no chances that the public might look upon the twelve-cylinder engine as a warmed-over version of the 1915-23 unit, which was by then seriously outmoded. Sales were somewhat better than those of the Ninth Series, but at 520 units the volume fell far short of profitability. Production of the Cadillac V-16, meanwhile, hit a new low of 126 for the 1933 model year. Even the Cadillac V-12, somewhat less expensive than the Packard Twelve, found only 953 buyers that year.


Commencing with the introduction of the Twelfth Series, on August 30, 1934, Packard’s twelve-cylinder engine was stroked a quarter of an inch, raising its displacement to 473.4 cubic inches, and boosting the horsepower to 175. And then on January 5, 1935, Packard invaded the medium-priced field with the One-Twenty. (This was the company’s second attempt at building a more moderately priced car, by the way. The first, known as the Ninth Series Light Eight, was dropped after only one year when it was found that it could only be sold at a loss; and worse, it stole sales from the potentially profitable Standard Eight, whose engine it shared.)

Not only did the One-Twenty sell for less than half the price of the cheapest senior model, known by that time simply as the Packard Eight; it incorporated some important engineering improvements that wouldn’t be seen on the more expensive lines until the coming of 1937’s Fifteenth Series. Perhaps the most important of these developments - certainly the most widely recognized - were independent front suspension, featured by Cadillac since 1934; and hydraulic brakes, which Cadillac adopted a full year before the big Packards got around to it.

Nine months after the debut of the One-Twenty, Cadillac responded with its new Series Sixty. Substantially higher in price than the One-Twenty, it managed nevertheless to undercut the cost of the cheapest 1935 Cadillac by nearly $800.

The One-Twenty and the Series Sixty promptly became the volume lines for their respective manufacturers, while the classic models were produced in minuscule numbers. Cadillac, especially, faced bitterly disappointing sales of its twelve- and sixteen-cylinder cars, though the LaSalle and the Cadillac “60″ were doing well. During 1937, a relatively good year for the industry.
General Motors was able to sell only 50 Cadillac V-16s and 478 V-12s, compared to 13,636 Cadillac V-8s and 32,005 LaSalles. Packard did somewhat better in the luxury department, with 1,300 Twelves leaving the factory. But it was the medium-priced Packards, the One-Twenty and the newly introduced six-cylinder One-Fifteen, that accounted for 94 percent of the company’s volume and probably all of its profit for the year.

With the arrival of the Fifteenth Series, in September 1936, Packard’s senior lines were reduced by one. On paper, it was the Eight that had been eliminated, while both the Super Eight and the Twelve were retained in the line. Closer examination reveals, however, that the Fifteenth Series Super Eight borrowed the engine of the Fourteenth Series Eight, rather than that of the Super Eight - and its wheelbase as well. A bit of badge-engineering here, it appears.

Styling was little changed, except that the radiator shell was given a 30-degree slant and “suicide” front doors were no longer used on the factory bodies. The adoption of hydraulic brakes and independent front suspension provided greater safety and an even more comfortable ride. And thanks to the new front suspension, the heavy vibration dampening bumpers - previously a feature of the senior Packards - were no longer needed. They were replaced by a lighter, simpler design.

By this time, major product planning decisions had been made at both Cadillac and Packard. At Packard it had been determined that the Seventeenth Series Super Eight would be a smaller, lighter and much less expensive car than its predecessors - priced, in fact, to compete with the Cadillac Series Sixty. Plans also called for phasing out the Twelve at the end of the 1939 season. There simply wasn’t enough volume to justify the expense of tooling up for a new model; and Packard was preparing, however reluctantly, to withdraw from the super-luxury market.

Naturally, no public announcement was made of the forthcoming demise of the Packard Twelve. But to those who knew what to watch for, the signs were apparent enough. The huge, 144-inch-wheelbase models had disappeared at the end of the Fifteenth Series. Just fourteen body styles each were catalogued for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Series, down from 24 in the Eleventh Series. And although ten of the 14 remaining models bore Packard factory bodies, all of them were produced on individual order only. The last of the great Packard Twelves left the factory on August 8, 1939. Cadillac had won the contest by default.

In a sense, however, it was a hollow victory. For although Cadillac underscored its status by introducing a completely redesigned Sixteen for 1938, the new model was destined to have a short life. Priced midway between the previous V-12 and V-16 Cadillacs, and intended to replace them both, this second-generation Supercar shared with the eight-cylinder Series 75 its freshly restyled Fleetwood bodies - 12 of them, ranging from a smart convertible coupe to a formal town car. In fact, apart from differences in the grille, hood louvers and some minor trim items, the V-16 could hardly be distinguished, visually, from the V-8. Except, that is, for its price tag, for it cost some $2,140 more than the eight-cylinder version. Put another way, for the price of a V-16 sedan the buyer could have a Series 75 Cadillac in the same body style, with a Buick Century convertible and a Master Deluxe Chevrolet thrown in for good measure. Since the eight-cylinder Cadillac was a thoroughly competent performer in its own right, it is small wonder that the V-16 ran into a wall of buyer resistance.

First year sales of the new model totaled just 315, which must have been a bitter disappointment to general manager Nick Dreystadt, and after that it was downhill all the way. Just 138 of these fine automobiles found buyers in 1939 and 61 in 1940. And when that season drew to a close, Cadillac gave up the struggle.

Still, the second-generation V-16 was an interesting car, and a fine piece of engineering. The original sixteen-cylinder engine had been very expensive to produce. Cylinder banks were cast separately, and of course a great deal of time and attention had gone into the engine’s appearance. It was a very tall engine, thanks to the combination of overhead valves and the narrow, 45-degree “Vee.” Thus it was found to be quite unsuitable for the lower hood lines that were coming into fashion. Nor did it accommodate itself readily to downdraft carburetion.

The second-generation Cadillac V-16, in contrast, was a “square” engine, with bore and stroke each measuring 3!4 inches. The block was a single casting, with cylinder banks set at an angle of 135-degrees to one another, in what looked almost like a “pancake” layout. The new mill, six inches shorter, 13 inches lower and 250 pounds lighter than its predecessor, had fewer than half as many parts as the original V-16. Accordingly, it was a good deal cheaper to manufacture. The L-head configuration was used this time in lieu of overhead valves; and hydraulic valve lifters replaced the previous combination of mechanical lifters and hydraulic silencers. Displacement, at 431 cubic inches, was 4.6 percent smaller than the earlier type; yet horsepower remained at 185, same as the final edition of the ohv V-16. And if the L-head lacked the earlier V-16’s remarkable good looks, it didn’t matter very much; for thanks to its nearly flat shape together with its placement, low in the engine compartment, it wasn’t particularly visible, anyway.

But the day of the “supercar” had passed. The Packard Twelve and the Cadillac V-16 were both relics of a bygone time, the like of which we shall never see again.

Driving Impressions

For our comparisonReport subjects, SIA called once again upon General William Lyon, who has in his Southern California collection a superb Packard Twelve phaeton and an equally fine Cadillac V-16 convertible sedan, both of 1939 vintage.

For many years Packard had been noted for its smartly styled phaetons; but by the mid-thirties demand for that body style had all but disappeared. Packard’s last factory-bodied phaeton was a member of the Fourteenth Series, which may cause knowledgeable readers to wonder about the Seventeenth Series example pictured here. That’s where the Derham Body Company, of Rosemont, Pennsylvania, comes in.

Founded in 1887 as a carriage-build-ing enterprise, Derham became an early supplier of coachwork for fine motorcars. Prominent among its customers were the Packard distributors in Philadelphia and New York. And while Derham became known especially for its formal, chauffeur-driven body types, it also produced the occasional sport coupe - and during the thirties - some attractive open types.

As the Depression deepened and demand for custom-bodied automobiles dried up, one by one the famous coach-builders closed their doors. Derham survived in large part by modifying factory bodies. In some instances sedans were converted to town cars; at other times softly padded tops were added, smaller rear windows were fitted, or the configuration of the greenhouse was altered.

In the case of our comparisonReport Packard, Derham worked its magic on a convertible sedan, transforming it into the smart phaeton pictured here. How much the firm charged the original owner for this modification, we have no way of knowing. Today, the operation would be prohibitively expensive; but skilled labor was still comparatively cheap in 1939, so the cost may have been relatively reasonable. Added during the transformation was a pair of jump seats, not normally available in the convertible sedan. (Notice, by the way, how smoothly and neatly the top folds. Derham’s workmanship, whatever it cost, was obviously of the highest quality.)

Our Fleetwood-bodied Cadillac, on the other hand, is strictly a stock example, though it is a very rare car. During the 1940 season, only four convertible sedans were built on the V-16 chassis, this one bearing body number four. The body is all-steel, in contrast to the Packard as well as the first-generation Cadillac V-16, both of which employed composite wood and steel construction.

Partly as a result, the Cadillac is the lighter of these two cars by at least 500 pounds. (We can’t give an exact figure, since we do not know the Packard’s precise weight. It is safe to assume, however, that it doesn’t vaiy much from that of the convertible sedan from which the phaeton was derived.)

The Packard had been treated during the mid-1980’s to a thorough, four-year restoration by Richard Martin; while the Cadillac, purchased at auction during 1988, needed considerable mechanical work when General Lyon acquired it. A previous owner had gone through the engine and clutch, but hadn’t made much of a job of it. Cylinder walls needed honing, and a ten-inch clutch plate had been installed instead of the 11.5-inch type specified by the factory. John Sobers, who maintains General Lyon’s cars, replaced the rings and bearings and did a proper valve job, as well as installing the correct clutch. Today, both cars perform like new.

There is ample front leg room in both of these cars; and even the tallest rear-seat passengers are able to stretch their legs at full length. Seating, in both instances, is marvelously comfortable. The same is true of the ride; in both cases, the suspension is on the soft side, without being mushy.

We have found no performance statistics on these two cars; but beyond question the Cadillac, with a 16 percent advantage in power-to-weight ratio, is the quicker of the two. This is not to suggest that the Packard is any slouch. It’s a fast, powerful automobile by anyone’s standards. Starting in top gear at ten miles an hour, we drive each of the cars up the long, winding, relatively steep driveway leading to the Lyon home. Both the Cadillac and the Packard picked up speed so rapidly that halfway to the top we had to ease off on the throttle!

In some respects, the Packard is the easier car to drive. Both clutch and brakes are power-assisted, so only minimal pedal pressure is required. The Packard also has substantially greater braking area than the Cadillac, which uses the same binders as the lighter, less powerful Series 75 V-8. So the advantage goes to Packard in this respect.

Neither car is built for hard cornering. These are luxury cars, after all, not hot rods; and they lean over rather sharply in fast turns. Steering effort, though considerable, is somewhat less than we expected, given the weight of these machines. The Packard has the advantage of needle bearings in the steering mechanism. But the Cadillac, in addition to being a quarter of a ton lighter, uses smaller-diameter tires. The result, it seems to us, is about a stand-off in terms of steering ease. (Robert E. Turnquist, writing in The Packard Story, observes that “Although the Twelve was fitted with 8.25 x 16 super cushions, the 7.50 x 16 six-ply gives it better handling qualities and the interchange is recommended.”)

Both cars are fitted with steering-col-umn gearshift controls, standard equipment on the Cadillac since 1938 and available as a $240 option on the Seventeenth Series Packards. In both instances shifts are easy; though the Packard’s linkage is tighter and its action somewhat more precise. Both transmissions are synchronized on second and top gears. A few of the Packard Twelves in this series were built with vacuum-assisted gearshift mechanisms, but this car is not one of them.

Both engines are counterbalanced for smoothness, and both are whisper-quiet; but thanks to its use of composite construction, sound insulation is better in the Packard. The result is that, without taking anything away from the Cadillac, the Packard has a slightly more luxurious “feel” than its rival.

So, which to choose, if this were 1939 and we were given that option?

Hard to say; for the answer really depends upon one’s priorities. The Cadillac is a much later design than the Packard. There’s an immediate awareness of the difference in both styling and performance. The Cad is faster, livelier, a little nimbler than its competitor. On the other hand, there’s a hard-to-describe “feel” of luxury in the Packard that the Cadillac can’t quite match, and despite styling that was already four years old when this car was built, it was still, in 1939 - and remains today - an exceptionally handsome automobile. Packard also has the advantage in cost: Comparing stock convertible sedans, in 1939 the Packard was priced about $600 below the Cadillac. Were the Cadillac’s four additional cylinders worth the price of a new Chevrolet business coupe?

Perhaps not, as far as we are concerned, but that’s a personal judgment, and a highly subjective one.

by Аrch Brоwn

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