White Elephantitis

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SIXTEEN CYLINDERS AND EIGHT MILES A GALLON

You may think that elephants are found in Africa and India but those dealt with in this series have come from Coventry, Milan, Barcelona, Indianapolis and Antwerp, so obviously white ones are different, especially if they are automobiles.

The other day I tracked down an exceedingly rare species to its lair in darkest Sussex. It was none other than a V16 Cadillac, as difficult to run to earth as a Duesenberg J, a working Double Six Daimler or a Bugatti Royale.

I found it in a pretty decent state of health, thanks to John Rolfe, who, in a career embracing various aspects of the Motor Trade, has acquired a liking for and exclusive knowledge of automobiles from America. The white elephant of which be is keeper and which he exercised for my edification, is an example of a car of which only one other is thought to live in England, or possibly in Europe—the one sold at the recent Sword Auction for £375.

That was a 1935. limousine in very good condition. The Cadillac with which we are now concerned is thought to be earlier, probably 1930/31; its engine number is 3,026, which might imply the 26th built in 1930. The car now carries a three-letter London registration, but this is explained by its fond owner from Texas bringing it to this country in 1938 to use on his holiday. When the Hitler-clouds floated over England in 1939 he returned home in something of a hurry, leaving behind his handsome Cadillac. It languished in London until 1956, when it was discovered by a dealer. His efforts to get it running again proved unsuccessful and Mr. Rolfe was able to acquire it for a modest sum, its complicated power unit partly dismantled and the body in sorry condition. He towed the big car to Sussex and has spent the last six years painstakingly rebuilding it. When it was brought out of captivity for my inspection its hibernation was over by a mere three weeks and much remains to be done.

The Cadillac, without dispute America’s best car, had been made in V8 and V12 form when, in 1930, their great V16 burst upon an astonished World. Several were seen in Cologne that year and a chassis came to Olympia that autumn, endowed with English coachwork. The chassis cost £1,500, the limousine £2,450, a measure of the quality of Cadillac coachwork.

The design appears to have been started in 1926 and developed over a period of three years. Clearly, the V16 Cadillac from Detroit was constructed regardless of cost.

The engine has a bore and stroke of 76.2 x 101.6 mm., giving a capacity of 7,406 c.c. and an R.A.C. rating of 57.5 h.p. The iron cylinder blocks spigot deeply into the crankcase, which, like the rocker covers, is of light alloy. The cast-iron pistons each have three wide rings with radial grooves on their working faces. The o.h. valves are push-rod operated, their rockers, in common with non-working parts of the power unit, being copperised. The camshaft is driven by a self-tensioning chain and the tappets are of zero-lash hydraulic type, but adjustable.

On the outside of each of the narrow-angle cylinder blocks is a Cadillac carburetter feeding the ports through manifolds hotspotted from the exhaust tracts which are also on the outside of the blocks. Each carburetter has an accelerator pump with a well the size of a minicar’s brake cylinder and a single jet with Spring-operated clack valves to control air flow over it. The sump, which contains perhaps 3 gallons of oil, has a float level indicator on the near-side, labelled “FULL, FILL, MT,” the last-named being Detroit shorthand for empty!

Cooling is assisted by a 6-blade belt-driven fan before a typically Cadillac radiator having thermostatically-controlled shutters and a detachable stoneguard. The coolant flow goes via a pump on the off-side, driven by a long shaft extending from the dynamo, into the blocks, a plated connecting pipe passing across behind the blocks, up to the heads, and to the header tank through vertical off-take pipes, one per head, at the front. The radiator cap is sealed and the overflow pipe leads into a big chassis-mounted reservoir—which seems to pre-date the Renault R4’s sealed water system by quite a few years!

There are three more unusual features of this imposing but neat and dignified power unit, for which the makers claimed 185 b.h.p. at 3,400 r.p.m. on a 4.9-to-1 cr. The crankcase has a breather system whereby air is drawn, thermostatically controlled, through plated pipes extending towards the radiator, into the valve chests and out through vertical plated down-pipes.

There are two Autovacs, one for each carburetter, these and the brake servo being assisted by a permanent vacuum provided by a tiny single-cylinder valveless compressor driven from the rear of the camshaft. The other remarkable thing is that the twin ignition coils—I know you won’t believe me, but it’s true!—are buried in the radiator header tank, in order to maintain them at a steady temperature and ensure a stable spark. The ignition system is Delco, using two contact-breakers but a single distributor with double-track cap swept by a double-ended rotor.

Lubrication is of full-flow type, with a big filter very accessibly mounted centrally on the bulkhead.

This fascinating engine is installed in a conventional but highgrade chassis, which weighs in the near neighbourhood of 3 tons. It is sprung on metal-gaitered ½-elliptic springs and retarded by four-wheel-brakes, with Perrot operation at the front. The brake drums fill the wheels. The split-rim wheels are each retained by ten studs to a separate flange outboard of the brake drum. The hypoid-bevel back axle has half-shafts that would do justice to a de luxe 10-ton lorry. . . .

The steering is l.h.d. and the near-side front spring incorporates the anti-shimmy spring-loaded trunnion between dumb-iron and spring; on r.h.d. cars this was on the off-side. The tyres are 7.50 x 19 Goodyears; the spare wheels used to have locks but these have not survived the passing years. One would expect such a fine 7½-litre chassis to carry ungainly coachwork but this particular V16 Cadillac is graced by a compact and very American 2-door 4-seater Fleetwood “Madam X” body with protruding, carpeted boot. It is thought, though we forgot to measure, that the wheelbase is shorter than the customary 12 ft. 4 in.—perhaps 11 ft. 10 in.

Over lunch the white elephant’s keeper told me of the great task of restoration. Of how he has spent 250 hours on the engine alone, the pistons of which had first to be unseized and new Hepolite rings fitted. Of how the wooden body framework was found to be intact when the steel panels had been removed and how these were treated in the finest traditions of coachpainting, with a total of some 30 coats, before being re-fitted, so that they have a proud lustre and are of the correct hue and lining. Of how ¼ in.-thick Bedford cloth upholstery was used for the seats and cavalry-twill for the new roof lining. And of how experts were mystified for a long time by the ignition, lack of sparks being traced to the distributor cap and I.t. bushes having actually changed their composition while the car was standing idle, so that they had become conductive to current. If anyone has a spare V16 distributor cap. . . . The repaint alone took 18 months; it was done in Eastbourne. Parker’s garage at Vines Cross helped with other problems.

After lunch we emerged into the pale October sunshine to trot sedately round the lanes in this unique Cadillac. I was interested to find chrome window frames, a stainless-steel instrument panel carrying neat petrol, oil and temperature gauges and an ammeter, all with round dials, and a 120-m.p.h. A.C. speedometer—alas, a gaping hole shows theft of the clock. This metal panel is flanked by engine-turned panelling; above, the dash has inlaid wood panels with a tiny Cadillac badge between them.

The expected long central gear-lever is locked in neutral with the ignition key. It controls a 3-speed gearbox in which double synchromesh of baulk-ring type is supplemented by oil damping of the selector plates, to make crunching out of the question— Jaguar please copy! Top gear is 3.9 to 1. There is an antiglare glass panel above the screen and the interior anti-dazzle vizors are set curiously far back along the roof. At one time the screen could be wound up a few inches by a handle near the roof, when air was caught by the scuttle frame and circulated within the car, but, alas, anno domini has put paid to the zinc gearing.

The running-board valances have lockable, double-skinned tool-boxes on the near-side, the matching covers on the opposite side normally concealing a 6-volt battery. Unfortunately a little battery was temporarily residing on the running-board, and I had to enter through the driver’s door, which lacks a handle.

The big wheel, controlling light, low-geared steering, has four slender spokes and throttle and lamp controls in its hub. Down on the bulkhead there is some impressive brake servo plumbing. The driver’s seat is separate from the passenger’s and of different construction. The huge Tiltray Guide headlamps set off the imposing lines of the car; a nice touch is courtesy lamps to illuminate the running-boards.

To date this Cadillac has run 56,000 miles but it was too stiff after its overhaul to be extended, which was disappointing. But we trundled with extreme effortlessness at 40 m.p.h., starting in middle speed, which suffices for hairpins, oil pressure at 30 lb./sq. in., temperature rising to 180° F. as a little water slopped out of the radiator, where the cap is missing. Fuel consumption is around 8 m.p.g., the tank holding 25 gallons. Extreme silence and flexibility is the beauty of this monster from Detroit; save for a taut hum when on 2nd gear, engine, transmission and back axle are well-nigh inaudible.

It is interesting that the roof fabric and tyres are original, although four of the Goodyears have been retreaded. This unique example of American luxury car isn’t quite complete but perhaps someone knows where the missing parts can be found ?.—W. B.

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