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Marmon V-16

Marmon V-16

By Jack Nerad

Marmon V-16 Now I ask you this. Let's say you're the scion of a prosperous family that has made its fortune building flour milling machinery; do you decide your life's work is to build bigger, better flour millers? Or would you rather turn your talents to a more exciting kind of machinery, say the kind that has four wheels touching the ground and another you can wrap your two hands around?

Well, the way we look at it, Howard Marmon made the right decision. Oh, it might have cost his family its flour-milling business. It might even have cost his family its fortune. But Howard Marmon got the chance to build great cars, and because of that the Marmon name still has certain panache, at least in the right circles, to this day. How many flour-milling families can you say that about?

The story of the Marmon V-16, Howard Marmon's combination brainchild and swansong, dates back to 1851. That's when the Nordyke and Marmon Machine Company was formed in Richmond, Indiana. Soon the company moved to Indianapolis, where it built a long-standing reputation as a top engineering and fabricating company, specializing in the manufacture of the aforementioned flour mill apparatus.

By all accounts, the flour mill business was good. No one in the 19th Century Midwest had heard of Dr. Atkins (indeed, not even his mother had heard of him then) so people ate bread, and bread required flour, and flour required flour milling machinery, so the Marmons got rich.

Born into that wealth, Howard Marmon did what a lot of rich kids after him would do. He decided to go to college at the University of California in Berkeley. Since his cocoanut apparently didn't fall too far from the palm, he studied mechanical engineering, and he seemed to be good at it. He was named the chief engineer of the Nordyke and Marmon Machine Company in 1902 at the modest age of just 23. Of course, a cynic might suggest that he got the job because his name was Marmon, just like the company, and his older brother, Walter, also a mechanical engineer, ran the business. But we certainly wouldn't suggest that, because Howard Marmon was quite an engineer.

As exciting as the flour milling machinery business might have seemed to an outsider, it held little appeal for Howard. He was interested in the new wonder of the age, the horseless carriage, and as early as 1898 he was already fooling around with a rudimentary motorcar, powered by, of all things, a V-twin engine.

Like most automotive pioneers, Marmon was persistent, and he tinkered and tinkered with the V-twin concept until, in 1902, he built an air-cooled version that had such niceties as pressure lubrication (this when most other engine designers just used the "splash theory" to get oil where it needed to go) and overhead valves.

Working overtime to fuel his love of cars while still serving a key function with the flourmill machinery biz, Howard doubled his pleasure in 1903 with a car powered by an air-cooled V-4. With this unnamed car as its initial product, Marmon went from tinkerer to automobile manufacturer the following year, when he decided his vehicle was good enough to be sold to the public. Six customers agreed with him and bought the first annual production run of Marmons. The following year sales went absolutely crazy and Marmon sold 25. This prompted Howard Marmon to experiment more than ever, and he began to investigate the dubious virtues of V-6s and even took a stab at a V-8.

Even as the Chicago Cubs captured what would be, to this date, their most recent World Series title in 1908, Marmon finally began to throw off the bonds of wild experimentation and adopt conventional water-cooled, inline designs. Of these, the most fabled is the Model 32, introduced in 1909. In racing trim, the Model 32 was known as the Wasp, because it was often painted yellow and featured a long, cigar-like tail, an early attempt at "streamlining."

Any schoolboy who ever followed racing should be able to tell the tale of the Marmon Wasp and the Indianapolis 500. Most racing drivers in those days were accompanied by a "riding mechanic," who did the dirty work like changing tires, pumping oil, and keeping a weather eye on competitors. For the initial Indianapolis 500-mile race, contested in 1911, driver Ray Harroun decided to eschew the mechanic and, instead, fitted his Marmon Wasp with a rear-view mirror. The innovation worked, and Harroun walked away with the first Indy 500 victory and, in the process, put a sheen on the budding Marmon automotive company.

Ever the engineer, Howard Marmon designed a variant of the Model 32 powered by an overhead-valve in-line six. Called the Model 34, the car at first glance seemed conventional until one learned that the body, hood, radiator core, and even the engine were fashioned of aluminum. Although the car was huge (a wheelbase of 135 inches), it was relatively light (3,300 pounds), and Howard Marmon thought it was a good idea to send it across the United States in an attempt to beat the record Cannonball Baker had established in a Cadillac. And beat it the Marmon did, by 41 hours.

But in many ways the American motor industry was passing Marmon by. Ransom Olds, David Dunbar Buick, and a guy by the name of Henry Ford had brought cars within the reach of middle-class working folks. Marmon's cars were aimed at the rarified atmosphere of the wealthy, and that was a very competitive market.

By the mid-Twenties, it seemed like Marmon was going nowhere. Annual sales were stuck at about 2,500 units, and the successors to the Model 34 were getting little interest from buyers. It looked as if Marmon might vanish as a car-maker when George Williams, who had previously served on the supplier side of the industry as president of the Wire Wheel Corporation of America, decided to cast his lot (and some serious investment dollars) with the Marmon brand.

Initially things were good, as a better economic times led to a near doubling of sales by 1926. That same year, the Marmon family finally disposed of the flour milling machinery portion of the business in an attempt to raise capital to rejuvenate the automobile side of the enterprise.

Williams was convinced, like so many before him, that lower-priced cars were the key to success, and so the reorganized Marmon Motor Car Company introduced the Little Eight in 1927, and while its success was spotty, it did spawn the 1929 Roosevelt model (named after Teddy, not FDR) that was the first straight-eight-powered car to sell for less than $1,000. In those last years of the Roaring Twenties, the parlay of reasonable price, straight eight engine, and Marmon heritage proved a success. Sales topped 22,000 in 1929.

Of course, you know where this is going next. Just as Marmon was feeling its oats -- and just as Howard Marmon was set to ride back to the head of the American luxury field with his ambitious V-16 -- the stock market crashed.

Even as auto sales in 1930 plummeted throughout the industry, Howard Marmon continued to ready his grandest auto creation of all. Cadillac stole part of Marmon's thunder by introducing a V-16 of its own in 1930, but Marmon's twin-eight was grander, more powerful, and more innovative than the Cadillac tour de force.

Unlike many automotive engines of the era, the Marmon V-16 wasn't just big; it was also an engineering marvel. Fashioned of aluminum, the massive engine displaced 491 cubic inches (about 8 liters), and it had overhead valves in heads that produced a remarkably high (for the era) compression ratio of 6:1. The cylinder banks were set at the narrow angle of 45 degrees, which gave the engine a magnificent look under the long Marmon hood. For longevity, it used steel cylinder sleeves, but the block, heads, oil pan, and valve covers were all aluminum. This resulted in an engine that weighed only (?) 930 pounds, or about as much as a complete, running Ford Model T.

Offering 200 horsepower and immense gobs of low-end torque, the Marmon V-16 wowed them at the Society of Automotive Engineers, and Howard Marmon won the organization's annual design award.

As good as the Marmon V-16 was, though, and as gorgeous was its custom bodywork, the market for the $5,000 super-luxury cars had simply dried up. It wasn't as if there weren't still millionaires around, because there were, but with thousands of Americans haunting soup kitchens, those who had the money wanted to be far less ostentatious about spending it.

Fewer than 400 of the grand and glorious machines were built before the Marmon Motor Car Company went into receivership in the bowels of the Depression. From the wreckage of that company arose another highly skilled engineering company that exists to the day. Marmon-Herrington doesn't make flour-milling machinery, but it is an esteemed builder of four-wheel-drive trucks.
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