Big Bill Knudsen's Cadillac V16

While in California recently, I had the chance to view a special 1938 Cadillac V16 (Fleetwood style No. 9002). This special order car - one of the newly designed 16 cylinder engines introduced in 1938 - on an extended wheel base was for company President, William S. Knudsen. They produced a second custom order car for Alfred P. Sloan, Chairman of Board.

William S. Knudsen (1879-1948) was born in Denmark and came to the United States at the age of 21. When the company he was working for was acquired by Ford Motor Company in 1911, he found himself in the automobile business.  Knudsen was a skilled manager and recognized as an expert in mass production when he left Ford and joined General Motors. Big Bill, as he was called, became president of the Chevrolet Division in 1924. In 1940, Knudsen would be called upon by President Roosevelt to serve as Chairman of the new Wartime Office of Production Management. William S. Knudsen is the father of Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen; an automotive legend in his own right, who is sometimes misrepresented as the owner of this car.

Cadillac had originally introduce their landmark V16 engine in 1930 - starting the cylinder war among luxury auto manufacturers. In 1938, Cadillac would introduce a newly designed 16 cylinder power-plant with a 135 degree V, flathead design fitted with twin carburetors. Cadillac would produce 315 16 cylinder cars (of all body styles) in 1938. Production dropped to 139 V16's the next year, just 61 cars were product in its final year, 1940.

It's fascinating to see the 1938 Life magazine article with Knudsen stating that it's difficult to sell new cars with the glut of used cars on the market at the time - remember the United States was still coming out of the great depression and had not yet entered the second World War. It is unimaginable how General Motors could justify designing a new 16 cylinder engine and producing these cars in such small numbers, given the market conditions.

This car is said to have been "discovered" in the 1980s by Roy Warshasky and restored by Fran Roxas.

1938 Cadillac V16 built for William S. Knudsen

The unique styling of the Knudsen car (photo credit: conceptcarz.com)

photo credit: Life, January 10, 1938

William S. Knudsen (photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

2 comments:

  1. This Knudsen Cadillac sat in my father's (Rev. Charles Arnott's) garage in Huntington, NY from 1954 to the late 70's. We moved it up to Spencer, NY when my father retired up there. My brother Charles finished it off enough to get it running and traded it away in a car swap. My father originally bought the car used in Port Washington, NY (in a boat yard) to use as a parts car for his other 1939 Caddilac V16 9023 but after investigating the car could not part it. He made the decision to try and restore both. Unfortunately being a Minister with four boys the money was never availble to finish either one. My brothers donated the 1939 V16 to McPherson College which has a restoration program. It was good to see the 1938 Special finally finished and one day I hope to see the 1939 restored. I have a lot of memories growing up with these two V16s.

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  2. Roger - Thank you for following the blog and for your wonderful remembrances of this car. This kind of insight really brings the history of these special cars alive. I've forwarded your comments on the current owner.

    Thanks again, Steve

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