A dozen cylinders are unnecessary for a road-going car, but cars have them anyway. ‘Why stop there?’ thought some designers, and went ahead to develop sixteen-cylinder engines for their cars. Cadillac was one of the first manufacturers to install a sixteen-cylinder engine in a road car. They had a high rev-limit for their time (3,400 rpm was a lot for the 1930s) and developed reasonable amounts of power, with almost no vibrations or harshness. The Marmon 16-cylinder engine was considered the best of the lot, and several of the engineers that worked on the development of that engine went on to work on other sixteen-cylinder engines.
Experiments on the race track
Some manufacturers experimented with the format in racing: remember the Gulf-liveried Porsche that Steve McQueen drove in the movie Le Mans? That was the Porsche 917, and Porsche tried installing a 16-cylinder engine into it. This engine
wasn’t a V, but a flat-sixteen (the cylinder banks were 180 degrees apart) that lay behind the driver, adhering to Porsche’s traditional layout. It displaced 7.2 litres and developed 880bhp at 8,300 rpm.
As it turns out, the car never made it past the testing stage. A single prototype remains, and will be put on display at the upcoming Porsche museum in Stuttgart, Germany. One extremely interesting racing application of a sixteen-cylinder engine was in the BRM post-World War II racecar. It displaced all of 1.5 litres (ike the four-cylinder Honda City) and officially generated 550 bhp with the help of a supercharger. The City manages a naturally aspirated 116 bhp. Most drivers used to retire with burns because of the way the engine was placed in the car.
And those made for pleasure
Cadillac had displayed a concept car called the Sixteen in 2003. It was an ultra-luxury car much on the lines of the Maybach, but with a typical American twist to it. As its name suggests, the engine had sixteen cylinders that displaced 13.6 litres. It made 1000 bhp and 1000 lb-ft of torque, which is about 1,354 Nm. It also had an equivalent of Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management system which we’ll see on the Accord V6 when it is launched here.
This system would let the Sixteen run on four cylinders alone under light driving, and could be switched to eight, twelve and the full sixteen when required. This gave it impressive fuel efficiency for its displacement, power and weight. It doesn’t seem likely that the Sixteen will make it to production in the near future, but another sixteen-cylinder car did: the Bugatti Veyron.
Briefly, the Veyron has a four-wheel drive because if power went to only two wheels, you’d end up going from point A to B in your personal fog — one made of tyre smoke. You’d also need a new set of tyres at point B, and that’d strain your wallet even if you were a billionaire, which you’d have to be to afford the fuel bills. Four turbochargers force-feed the 8-litre engine to generate 1,001 bhp. Since it’s a VW product, that’s 1001bhp in the hottest place on earth. Say, Death Valley. Anywhere cooler and you’ll get more power out of that engine. It generates so much heat that it needs 10 radiators to cool things from gearbox oil to intake air — and so much heat is lost to the surrounding air. What that means is that the amount of usable power the engine produces is 1001 bhp. Engineers that worked on the car estimate that it’s actually producing nearer to 3,000 bhp!