The V8 that started it all

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Cadillacs were big but they also had class and made a statement about their owners. The marque was also notable for a number of innovative engineering firsts

By Quinton Taylor with additional photography by Greg Elder


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Cadillac is one of the longest surviving marques in the General Motors (GM) portfolio. From its beginnings in 1902, Cadillac earned a reputation for better-than-average cars, providing performance and innovation, and for supplying the first V8 mass-production engine, which impressed everyone with its smoothness and power. It was also the start of a long association with the US Army, initially supplying staff cars. The Type 55 would become known as ‘The Great War Cadillac’. The first V8 was a notably smooth runner. Cadillac V8s became famous for this luxurious sensation in both civilian and military guises. The US Stuart and Chaffee tanks in World War II were also the first to see automatic transmissions, earning the nickname ‘Honey’ from GIs for their smoothness and reliability.

 Cadillac was formed from the remains of the Henry Ford Company in 1902, Ford having left following a disagreement with his investors. He went on to found the Ford Motor Company. In the process of winding up the former Henry Ford Company, William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen called in Henry Leland to assess the company’s assets for liquidation. Leland was already involved in the Leland and Faulconer Manufacturing Company. A clever engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur, he had come from Vermont to Detroit, Michigan, to get involved in the fledgling automobile industry. In 1901, he completed an engine design for Olds Motor Works, although it was not accepted due to retooling costs. Leland showed Murphy and Bowen the design he had completed for Olds and persuaded them to remain involved and start up a new company and, in August 1902, the Cadillac Automobile Company was formed. The new venture was named after Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the founder of Detroit. The new company adopted his family crest as the company’s badge.

Its first model, the Cadillac Model A, was finished in October that year. It closely resembled the Ford Model A of 1903, and was powered by a single-cylinder engine. It was exhibited at the New York show, picking up 2000 orders. Buyers noticed and appreciated that its workmanship and build precision placed the Cadillac above its contemporaries, which must have been gratifying for Leland, who had aimed from the outset to build Cadillacs that were better than the competition. Cadillac produced its first four-cylinder engine in 1905, and in 1908 it entered and won the prestigious Dewar Trophy competition in Europe for its outstanding parts interchangeability during the trials.


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Two, four, six, eight, and 12
Cadillac attracted the attention of GM, and in 1909 the latter purchased the former. Leland’s processes helped set up what would be the forerunner of mass-production processes for making automobiles, ensuring that Henry Ford didn’t have it all his own way. Its Model 30 of that year would boast in its advertising that, “1/1000th of an inch is the standard measurement”. It was also around this time that various automobile manufacturers began seriously considering which was better, four or six cylinders, or even straight-eight engines, given the various periodic vibration, weight, and horsepower issues. Solving these problems was something that Leland thought long and hard about, and he came up with an idea that he recorded in a number of notes made on a train journey home: “As I lay awake pondering these factors, the idea came to me that we were having good success with four cylinder motors; we would surely have equally good results with blocks of lighter four cylinders and pistons and put two of the blocks together at an angle and avoid that troublesome long crankshaft. The more I thought of this idea on that trip, the more convinced I became that it could be worked out.”

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. To design the new V8 engine, Leland brought in Scotsman D’Orsay McCall White, a former chief engineer with experience on V-engines at British aero and marine engine manufacturer Napier and earlier at the Daimler Car Company in England. The eventual design was a 90-degree V8 of 314 cubic inches (ci; 5100cc) which would first be used in the 1914 Model 51 Cadillac. This would become Cadillac’s standard engine right through to 1923 when it was further refined and finally replaced in 1936, a production run of 22 years. In the meantime, Leland had resigned from Cadillac in protest at GM president Billy Durant’s refusal to let Cadillac manufacture the new Liberty V12 aero engine for wartime use. Leland formed the Lincoln Motor Company for the purpose of building the Liberty V12 engine, which went on to be built by a number of other companies. In 1922, Lincoln became insolvent and the wheel turned full circle when Henry Ford bought the company and eventually removed Leland and his son, Wilfred. Leland’s legacy of the V8 engine for the US lived on, popularised still further when Ford produced its own version a few years later.


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The ultimate car engine
The Cadillac V8 engine of 1914 became a trendsetter for a number of the advanced features it introduced. When most car engines only had splash-feed oil systems, it featured a pressure oil system with gravity return to the camshafts. Cooling was by a closed pumped water system. Cadillac was also the first American manufacturer to adopt a thermostatically controlled closed cooling system. It was more efficient than the usual thermosiphon systems. There was twin breaker-point ignition and an electric starter, something that Leland had worked on with Charles Kettering at the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco). Coil ignition was installed on all Cadillac cars from 1910 and electric starters from 1912.

A single camshaft driven off the crankshaft by a silent chain operated two side-mounted valves per cylinder in the non-detachable L-head blocks. The camshaft followers on the rockers were roller type, something not seen until later in performance V8 engines. By the time the Type 55 came to the market, all controls such as throttle and gearshift had been moved inside the car. We should perhaps take a moment to acknowledge this engine in particular, as it endeared the V8 to the US, becoming such a rich vein in that nation’s motoring legacy, and which may now be passing as we transition to more environmentally friendly motive power.

Filling a 40-footer
Greg Elder’s involvement with motors includes working on Ian ‘Inky’ Tulloch’s multiple Australasian championship title–winning Freightliner racing truck and Canadian Jack Ondrack’s winning TVR V8 classic racing coupé. His memorable career in motor racing also includes quite a few stints behind the wheel on the racetrack, latterly driving a Honda Integra Type R. His restoration workshop at Riversdale in Southland contains a host of veterans and classics, including a rare 1920s English Star tourer, a 1930s Ford V8, and a Ford Escort Mark I. The latter pair are often campaigned by Greg at the Gore Vintage Car Club’s annual Josephville Hillclimb. Jack’s TVR will soon be back in Greg’s garage as he has taken over ownership of it. It will one day look pristine again after a mishap last year.

Greg has always wanted a veteran car. In 2003, his Canadian friend was in the process of shipping his late-model Dodge Ram 4x4 to New Zealand. The 20-foot-long container was found to be a little short, so a 40-foot container was summoned. Greg says that was the start of a long project.

“What extra would we put in it? Jokingly, I suggested to Jack that he find me a veteran car with V8 power … I am a bit of a petrolhead.”

Greg was surprised when Jack rang from Edmonton, Canada, to say that there was an ad in a small local newspaper for a 1917 Cadillac Tourer.


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“After many phone calls, I managed to purchase the car,” Greg says. “It had been partially restored, but it was very poorly done, which was obvious from the photos.”

Being right-hand drive was a plus, as most of these cars were built as left-hand drive. It also came with a few spares, which turned out to be for a 1915 model, including a spare differential, which unfortunately had the same lowest of the three available ratios.

Jack gathered up all the bits and loaded the car into the container with his Dodge for the trip to New Zealand. While all this was happening, Greg and wife Daphne were on holiday overseas when they received a phone call from the seller.

“They were offering to refund my money. They had had a considerably better offer from an American who did not want the car leaving Canada! Luckily, it was on its way to New Zealand.”

When the car arrived, Greg found that he had wrongly stated on the custom forms that the car was built in Canada. A bit of fast explaining ensued and several agonising moments passed — he didn’t want his car confiscated.


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“The car was sold new in Vancouver (Vancouver did not change to right-hand drive until 1922) and then moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island. It was used there until the late 1940s, when it was taken off the road. It had been passed down in the original family and been worked on in the 1960s by various people.”

Shirt tale
The car arrived in Riversdale in late 2003. It was in much worse repair than Greg had hoped.

“I managed to get the motor running, but it was very noisy and the multi-plate clutch was seized — so no test-drive,” he says.

It was decided to rebuild the body and mudguards first and the mechanicals last; Greg didn’t want to have a big car all in pieces and scattered around the workshop.

“Armed with a big seven-inch grinder, it was into the bodywork to remove the two inches or so of bog, along with silicone and parts of a shirt which had been used for filling!” he tells us. “The rear top of the body looked odd. Another one had been welded on but was two inches too low. So, to cut a long story short, many hours were spent on rebuilding panels, guards, and woodwork.”

The body was mounted onto a purpose-built frame for ease of work and for later painting and upholstery. His workshop’s four-poster hoist was also pressed into service. The body was placed upside down on it, which made repair and painting easier.

The three-speed gearbox was cleaned out and found to be in very good order. However, the tyre pump mounted in the gearbox was found to have thrown a connecting rod. A cover-plate was fitted. It may be repaired at sometime in the future.

The chassis and axles were then sandblasted. Some repairs were required on the chassis where it had sustained accident damage that had been poorly repaired. The body was prepped, along with the chassis and mudguards, axles, and other bits, with etch primer.


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Everything for the bloated plutocrat
“It was then several coats of two-pack high solids primer, block-sanded between coats,” says Greg. “Once I had rebuilt the axles, springs, and steering, I gave everything a coat of shiny black 2K paint. When it came to the steering column it was found to be broken. A new one was machined out of stainless-steel tube and the original ‘fat man’ steering wheel was fitted.”

The latter is a wheel which cleverly tilts downwards to ease entry for the more generously proportioned driver, which must have been a common enough trait among its customers for the factory to develop a specific solution. It’s quite a piece of polished alloy work, with controls for the accelerator and ignition system mounted on it. Getting it and other controls to work correctly was an exercise in patience.

“The car had no rods and linkages for foot and hand throttle plus spark, so I made up new ones with much trial and error,” Greg says. Next was the fabrication of a new alloy bonnet and the rebuild of the side panels. They were lengthened and repaired in Invercargill along with the fuel tank.

“By now four years had passed, so I was well beyond my original thought of having it finished in three years!” says Greg. “I had

contemplated painting the final coat myself but friend Howard Kingsford-Smith in Invercargill offered to do it, as I had supplied and built up an engine for his 1965 Ford Mustang. His workmanship is admired by many.”

While the car was in Invercargill, Paul and Steve at Southern Upholstery worked their magic with eight leather hides that Greg had bought with the car. The result is little short of stunning.

“We decided to go with the original-style diamond pleating and plain on the two dickey seats that fold out of the rear of the front seat and black carpet on the floor,” he says.

The chassis was assembled with its axles, wheels, springs, and steering on new 37x5 tyres.


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Noise abatement
It was time to tackle the V8. Turns out 100-plus-year-old Cadillac V8 motors are not something you can walk into your local GM dealer and get parts for. So, pre-warned with knowledge of dodgy work done elsewhere on the car and that the motor had been rebuilt in the 1960s and run once in a parade, Greg was prepared for the worst.

“I was surprised when I removed the sump to see new alloy pistons and a reground cam,” he recalls. “My joy was short-lived. I noticed on closer inspection a mark running down one of the cylinder walls. What a disaster. I now had to have the block sonic tested for thickness, and find someone who was able to blind-bore the non-detachable head blocks and press in sleeves. Luckily, Blacklows in Ashburton agreed to give it a go.”

While there, Greg had them size up the bearing and crankshaft. He then refaced the valves and cut new seats and lapped them in. Then it came to finding new pistons and here Greg’s pragmatism ensured continued progress.“I was lucky to find two sets of four-cylinder new-old-stock Repco Toyota Corona 79mm alloy pistons, along with rings to fit the new sleeves.

“They were made slightly undersize to allow for a re-bore in the future if ever needed. There was enough material in the rods’ little

end to ream them out for the oversize gudgeons. I was able to buy another set of 20-thou oversize pistons and rings for $80 for spares.”

Fortunately, the two big silent drive chains on the front of the engine were serviceable, while the camshaft looked like it had been reground and fitted with new camshaft rollers.

“This turned out to be a major mistake. I should have stripped the engine down to every last part,” Greg says.

Body off again
It was now late 2010, and the body was back on the chassis, mudguards mounted, new radiator fitted and ready to start. On starting, the engine was still quite noisy. After a short drive it was discovered the valves were not working on two cylinders.

“I lifted the body off, out with the engine and box, and stripped it right down this time,” says Greg, remembering. “We discovered the alloy plate in the middle of the engine-block valley that holds all the valve rocker arms had broken at one end and dropped. I found also that there was no nut holding the crank sprockets on — plus the new cam rollers had not been drilled in the centre, which explained why I was having trouble setting the tappets!”

Riversdale engineer Brian Mahon came to the rescue and performed “a work of art” as Greg explains: “Brian machined a new plate from 20mm alloy, made up new pedestals for the new rocker shafts and new hardened rollers and pins. I should explain that the engine has a forked con rod on one bank and runs a four-cylinder camshaft with two valves working on each lobe. I machined up brass spacing bushes to space the rollers correctly on the camshaft lobes and added new valve springs made in Auckland.”

After all this work, the engine was carefully put back together and lowered into the chassis along with all the other bits needing to be refitted. The windscreen channel was repaired, posts were straightened, and new glass was fitted. New rear brass hubcaps were cast and machined then nickel-plated, along with bonnet clips, headlight rims, windscreen fittings, dash light fittings, and gauges.

Johnson’s remedy
It was now late November 2011. Time was running out to get the car complied and test run before the Vero International Rally in Whanganui.

“While all the engine drama had been going on, I had been making up hood irons and folding arms for the hood from measurements taken off John Callesen’s similar-size 1918 Cadillac. This turned into a huge job with getting all five bows to fold down neatly plus be self-supporting when up.”

Greg painted the irons black and then coated the new Canadian ash bows, steam-bent by John with clear urethane. The car was sent back to Invercargill to have the hood material fitted, side curtains, tonneau, and covers made. By Christmas, Greg and Daphne were ready for the trip north.

“It went through the VTNZ testing station with no problems so I was very pleased,” Greg says. “On 6 January 2012, it completed its first event as a wedding car. With just a little over 40km on the Cadillac, it was into its covered trailer behind the Toyota Land Cruiser and away to Whanganui for the big event. We stopped off in Palmerston North to give it a shakedown run along with John’s two Cadillacs — a 1915 and a 1918 model — before the rally.”

A short drive revealed that the clutch was still playing up and not always releasing.

“I filled up the clutch with a container of Johnson’s baby powder as a last desperate measure and it worked perfectly!”

It was on to the rally and an enjoyable time exploring the gravel; dodging logging trucks up the Whanganui River Road; tackling steep hills, dust, and the first stone chips.

“The car has now completed many rallies over the past eight years with no problems — touch wood,” Greg says. “Back in its day, it was well advanced with a self-starter and generator combined, twin-point battery ignition, roller camshaft, tungsten valves, adjustable tappets, and rear passenger foot warmers. Fuel economy is not great yet, but the motor is freeing up, and I am now confident with some more tuning I will get near to 15 miles per gallon [15.7 litres per 100km].”


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Grand touring
We strike warm and sunny weather the day that Greg takes me for a country cruise. In true Cadillac fashion, this is a big car, and tall. You climb up onto a very comfortable front seat. The view is pretty commanding all round, as Greg had decided not to fit the side curtains — a big job. The car is due to take a young couple on a trip, and they will no doubt enjoy their time in this car.

The award-winning result at the end of a long and challenging restoration is a testament to Greg’s skills and those of his friends who helped complete a task that had defeated previous owners. It is an absolute pleasure to experience what engineers of the time had dubbed “the sweetest-running car in the world” and “the ultimate in motor car engines”. I also take the opportunity of riding in that magnificent diamond-pattern leather-upholstered rear armchair and stretch out, enjoying the ride, even with the two dickey seats folded out and a gentle breeze blowing through the canopy.

Greg sums up his feelings on the Cadillac: “Overall, for a 103-year-old car, I am very pleased with its performance and how quietly it motors. The car is happy to cruise at 45mph [72kph] plus on the flat quiet roads down here in Southland. One has to remember that with only rear-wheel brakes and weighing 2000kg, braking is a planned event! It’s the only one of this model in New Zealand. I know of two others, both left-hand drive. One is in Switzerland and the other in the US. No doubt there will be more around the world.” Perhaps, but not many.

It took nearly eight years to complete the car. Greg had many other projects on the go during that time, as well as motor racing, so it’s a significant achievement to reach the point where the Cadillac is, to all intents and purposes, finished. He and Daphne look forward to attending many more rallies in this car.

“It’s amazing how the urge to fill up a container led to fulfilling my dream of owning a large veteran car,” Greg says. “I would very much like to build up a spare motor, so if anyone knows of a 1917 V8 non-detachable-head engine for sale, please call me.”

So there you have it, the world’s first mass-production V8 engine in a substantial chassis, now restored to its former glory, sitting tall among the ranks of Cadillacs in New Zealand.


Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine.
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