Curbside Classic: 1931 Marmon Sixteen – Death With Dignity

(first posted 10/2/2012)     What do you get when you take a small auto manufacturer already in debt, add one of the greatest engineers of his generation, fold in one of the giants of industrial design, and then finish things off with a Great Depression?  You get the great Marmon Sixteen.  There were under 400 examples to start with, and many fewer now, but we found one–perhaps not at the curbside, but instead in the wild and on the road.  Read past the break and you’ll be richly rewarded.

This does not happen very often: When I see an old car on the road I can usually identify it, provided I get a good enough look.  While these jobs from the early 1930s can be more of a challenge, usually a glimpse of the radiator and hood ornament will provide me with a positive ID.  As I caught up to this one, though, I was stumped.  I was on a highway entrance ramp when I spotted it just ahead.  I briefly pulled up alongside, and Mrs. JPC got off a single, very nice profile shot from the trusty JPC BlackberryCam as the car took the first exit.

But what was it?  I saw the front end and the hood ornament.  It was not a winged bird or a guy chasing a donut, so Packard was out.  Neither was there a flying lady (Cadillac).  There went the easy ones.  There was no leaping greyhound (Lincoln) or archer aiming his bow (Pierce).  It looked like a sort of nondescript single wing, but I just could not place it.   I knew it was a big, expensive old car, but beyond that I was stumped.  We were on our way someplace and had missed the exit that the big black car took, so there would be no following it.  The next day, a hunch (and the internet) led me to a conclusion:  What we have here, dear readers, is the fabulous Marmon Sixteen.

At the beginning of the 2oth century, the Nordyke & Marmon Company was a long-established, Indianapolis-based manufacturer of milling machinery.   One of the founder’s sons, Howard C. Marmon, studied engineering at the University of California.  A brilliant engineer with perfectionist tendencies, he would rise to the rank of Lt. Colonel by the end of World War I, by which time he had already designed some of the world’s best automobiles. Interestingly, Howard’s brother, Walter, was an MIT classmate of Alfred Sloan, who would go on to build General Motors into the colossus it became.  There is an in-depth piece on Howard Marmon here, and it’s worth a read.

From the beginning, Howard Marmon insisted on the most advanced engineering available. He was thoroughly disappointed in the quality and durability of the first automobile he purchased.  So, he built his own in 1901.  That car made extensive use of aluminum and was powered by an air-cooled V-twin engine with overhead valves and full-pressure lubrication. (In contrast, some mainstream American cars (hellooo, Chevrolet?) didn’t offer pressure lubrication until well after World War II.)   After he built a few for friends, he began actual production of autos in 1905.  The firm’s best-known early car was the Marmon Wasp; driven by Ray Harroun, it won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 race in 1911.  Marmon automobiles were always among the most advanced available.

The automobile company was spun off in the 1920s, and would thenceforth be known as the Marmon Automobile Co.  For a time, the Marmon company sold a line of lower-priced cars, including the Roosevelt, the first eight-cylinder car priced under $1,000.   But this sort of engineering compromise was not part of Howard Marmon’s nature, and he backed out of active participation in the company for a few years. He did not idle away the hiatus; in 1927, he began designing the vehicle that is the reason why Marmon is remembered to this day as the builder of one of the finest cars ever made: the great Sixteen.

The 1950s gave us the horsepower race, but the 1920s was the era of the cylinder race.  By the mid-20s, eight-cylinder engines had become quite common in upper-priced cars.  A V-12 became the price of entry into the prestige market, with Packard, Lincoln and others producing wonderful 12-cylinder engines.  Still, only two companies ever gave us a V-16: Cadillac (backed by the full financial might of General Motors), and (drum roll, please) Marmon.

The Marmon Sixteen was an engineering marvel.  It was billed as “The World’s Most Advanced Motorcar”, and those words were more than mere hyperbole.  In 1930, the Society of Automotive Engineers honored the car’s architect, Howard Marmon, with its annual award for the year’s outstanding automotive engineering achievement.  Indeed, the Marmon Sixteen was unlike anything else being built.  Its engine block was of all-aluminum construction, albeit with steel sleeves lining the cylinders. The 45- degree, even-firing V-16 displaced 491 cu in (just over 8 liters), and was rated at 200 horsepower.  In comparison, the Cadillac V-16 was a cast-iron unit displacing 452 cubic inches (7.4 liters), rated at 175 horsepower.  The Marmon engine used a 6:1 compression ratio, the highest in the industry.  The engine’s torque output was never published, but it has been estimated in the range of 400 ft. lbs.

The Sixteen was also noteworthy for the extensive use of aluminum throughout the chassis and even in the bodies, giving it a power-to-weight ratio second only to the great Duesenberg.  Although the twin-cam Dusey had a higher top speed, the Marmon would win any drag race, yet was half the cost (under $5,500) of a Duesenberg chassis.  It is reputed that each individual Marmon Sixteen came with a certificate attesting that it had been driven 210 miles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway–traveling those last ten miles at wide-open throttle, at no less than 105 mph.

Marmon Sixteen on display at the Indiana State Museum.

Also noteworthy was the car’s styling. It was the work of Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the fathers of American industrial design and a preeminent designer of the Art Deco period.   This was the first automotive design job done by the Teague firm.  Teage was not much of a car buff and delegated the actual design work to his son, Walter Dorwin Teague, Jr., then a nineteen year old first-year drafting student at MIT.   Teague Jr. (no relation to Richard Teague of later Packard and AMC design fame) would, himself, go on to a distinguished career in industrial design.  I will leave it to our commentators with backgrounds in industrial design to provide more details, but overall the Sixteen was an extremely modern and fresh design in the classic era.  So much so, that its look was not universally popular in its day.  Its bold and simple, yet powerful, lines represented some very advanced automotive design at the dawn of the 1930s.

This Victoria Coupe, with coachwork by LeBaron, was one of eight “standard”  body styles. There appear to have been two or three full-custom cars as well.  One source claims there are 68 surviving Sixteens, including nine surviving Victoria Coupes.  The Victoria is an interesting body style, being the forerunner of the modern coupe: a five-window, two-door car that seats four or five, with a trunk or deck extending to the rear of the car from beyond the roof line.

Unfortunately, the Sixteen was doomed.  The car made its initial bow in 1931, just as a serious depression was becoming The Great Depression. With the economy in the tank, the market for a $5,000, 16-cylinder car was simply not big enough.  To make matters worse, Cadillac’s V-16, introduced a year earlier, had undoubtedly siphoned quite a few sales from an already depleted buyer pool.  It’s probably no coincidence that the Cadillac V-16 was designed by Owen Nacker, an engineer who had formerly worked for Marmon.

In total, Marmon made about 390 of the great Sixteens between 1931 and 1933.  Sadly, as production slowed to a trickle, the great company quietly slid into receivership and all auto production ceased.  We are all too familiar with stories of dying auto companies that slowly shrivel as they try, in vain, to disguise a product well past its sell-by date.  Marmon is that rare tale of a company that goes out in a magnificent blaze of engineering glory.

Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Horton

Given its rarity, I’d have suspected this car to be well-documented online; actually, no.  Apparently, there’s an Indianapolis area collector reputed to own three Marmon Sixteens, and another is listed as on exhibit at the Indiana State Museum.  However, no picture of this solid black Victoria turns up on a Google search.  Perhaps we will someday learn more about this particular elegant, black Victoria.

Two different styles of hubcaps are each a compelling example of art deco styling.

I will admit that I caught this one on the fly, and did not find it sitting outside a post office or grocery store.  Under normal circumstances, this would be an Outtake, or one part of a periodic piece about things seen through the JPC Windshield.  But really, what are the odds of finding another Marmon Sixteen next month in a McDonalds parking lot–or anywhere else, for that matter?  Perhaps this is even better than the normal CCs that sit still long enough for several photos to be taken.  Today, we get to experience the Marmon Sixteen as it was meant to be experienced: At speed, on the open road.  And although our speed was about 50 mph that day, there is a certificate somewhere proving that the driver of this Marmon still had a lot of space between the floor and the accelerator pedal.