Today, cars and trucks generally have either four, six, eight or ten cylinder engines. Smaller cars tend to have 4 and 6 cylinder engines and bigger cars and trucks tend to employ 8 to 10 cylinder engines. Have you ever wondered why automotive engineers seem to add more cylinders to an engine when they need more horsepower? Why don’t they just make the cylinders bigger?
We asked the service manager at Kims Chevrolet of Laurel, a local Chevrolet dealer in Laurel, MS, why this is the case and he explained that it is because of engine balance. You see, engines with huge cylinders tend to vibrate excessively because their big pistons are pumped violently back and forth during operation.
A solution is to make an engine with smaller pistons. If you have a larger number of smaller pistons, the engine will run much smoother. For example, if someone constructed an engine with 12 or even 16 cylinders, it would run as smooth as silk. And that’s exactly what Cadillac did.
Back in the 1920s, cars were getting bigger and heavier so engineers were faced with making more powerful engines. The problem was that the only reliable way to produce more power from an engine in those days was to increase its displacement. (Increasing cylinder compression ratios wasn’t possible because of pre-ignition problems. This was before leaded gas.) And, to get more displacement, the ideal method was to add more cylinders. This accomplishes 2 things: First, you’ve got the big displacement you want for more engine power, and second by adding more cylinders, the vibration of the engine is smoothed out.
The Cylinder Race
Since all the major manufacturers were running into the same problem, quite a few started work on V-12 engines. Cadillac was one of them, but behind the scenes they were working a secret engine – Detroit’s first V-16. Their V-16 was essentially two straight-eight engines sharing a common crankshaft. Its bore and stroke were modest, just 3 inches and 4 inches. The overall displacement was a whopping 452 cubic inches making it one of the largest engines of the day. And unlike conventional flathead V-8 engines, the Cadillac V-16 had overhead valves and had hydraulic valve lifters to eliminate valve clatter. This was one of the smoothest, quietest engines ever built.
The Great Depression
The Cadillac V-16 was introduced in 1930 to an astonished public and those that had the financial resources snapped them up. Sales were healthy through most of the early 1930s but sales began plummeting in the late 30s. There were two reasons for this. First, Tetraethyl leaded gasoline was introduced in the mid-1930s. This “leaded gas” allowed engineers to design engines with higher compression ratios so more power was available from smaller engines. The second factor was purely economic. The Cadillac V16-powered cars and others were expensive, top-of-the-line model automobiles. The Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and the demand for ultra-luxury cars quickly sagged.