Sub5Zero Fantasy Collection: Cadillac Sixteen

When it comes to ultra-luxury cars, the British appear to be the current world leaders. Although they are both presently owned by German automakers, the current offerings of Bentley and Rolls-Royce are nevertheless the products of time-honored English craftsmanship, chock full of painstakingly-assembled swathes of metal, rubber, wood, leather and wool. Sure, Mercedes-Benz’s 21st century revival of Maybach attempted to take a bite out of BMW and VW’s UK outposts, but considering Stuttgart’s decision earlier this year to (finally) pull the plug on the grandiose gambit, we’re going to go ahead and call it a failure.

Of course, the Brits didn’t always have the hyper-premium motorcar market to themselves. For most of the prior century leading up to WWII, the Germans, French, Italians, Americans and even the Swiss built cars that were as much works of art as they were machines. Cadillac – despite (or is that because of?) being under the General Motors umbrella – was no different, building huge automobiles, including a variety of V16-powered models. It was these paragons of opulence that Cadillac sought to pay tribute to when creating the concept car you see before you, the 2003 Sixteen concept.

Cadillac Sixteen rear 3/4 view

Although the super-long hood and short deck proportions certainly hearken back to the Depression Era leviathans, the lines and details are far, far removed from those of its ancestors which, rather than being fitted with bodies at the factory, would be sold as bare chassis, and the buyer would pick a coachbuilder like Fleetwood or LeBaron to construct and install a body. Instead, the Sixteen’s styling is a combination of the brand’s “Art & Science” styling language, with a large helping of the milestone 1967 Eldorado mixed in for good measure. Many of its styling cues (such as the big mesh grille and narrow headlights) soon found their way onto production Cadillacs like the third generation Escalade and second generation CTS.

But one thing that definitely hasn’t wound up in showrooms (and likely never will, thanks to government fuel economy regs) is what’s under this beautiful beast’s two-piece piano-hinged hood: The staggering V16 engine. Featuring two-valves-per-cylinder and displacing 13.6L(!), Cadillac claimed this monster produces 1,000hp…without forced induction. Great Henry Leland’s ghost that’s a lot of muscle.

Cadillac Sixteen engine

But lest you assume the engine only knows how to chug crude oil like a college student at a kegger, it does have a two-stage cylinder deactivation system: It operates as a four-cylinder under light loads and cruising, and as an eight-cylinder if you tip your foot into the throttle about halfway. Stand on it, and you unleash the full fury of all sixteen pistons as they stir the innards of the 4-speed automatic transmission, but drive it prudently and you will supposedly get fuel economy in the high-teens to low-twenties mpg range. Impressive, yes?

But the powertrain isn’t the only impressive feat. Open one of the four big, window-frame-free doors which, along with the absence of a B-pillar that connects to the roof, make the Sixteen a true four-door hardtop, and park your posterior on one of the Tuscany leather-drenched seats. The right rear seat reclines for an even more relaxed riding experience, while burled walnut trim and hand-woven silk (Freaking silk!) carpeting up the plushness quotient even further.

Cadillac Sixteen interior view

Move to the front seats and you find more of the same, with the addition of such nifty touches as an etched crystal Cadillac logo in the steering wheel hub, and a Bulgari analog clock in the dashboard. Oh, and that view over the gimongous hood.

The very moment Cadillac revealed the Sixteen at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show, a muffled thud could be heard around the world as the jaw of every automotive journalist hit the floor simultaneously. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it really was easily the star of the show. Thousands of people called upon Cadillac to put it (or something conceptually similar) into production, and at least one Middle Eastern sheik offered to buy the concept car. The story goes that Cadillac and GM management did in fact do a great deal of research into the possibility of doing a small production run, and purportedly got rather far into the process, but eventually determined that a business case couldn’t be made for it. Shortly after, though, preliminary work began on a “Sixteen Lite” of sorts, a not-quite-as-big rear-drive sedan which would feature either V8 or V12 power and go toe-to-toe with the S-Class, 7 Series et al. This program was also shelved, mostly as a result of GM’s bankruptcy and the retirement of the program’s head cheerleader, Bob Lutz.

Cadillac Sixteen side view

These days, though, it appears work on a proper Caddy flagship has resumed (The V6, front- or all-wheel-drive XTS, while a nice car, is hardly worthy of the title.): According to recent trademark applications, GM has applied for “Cadillac LTS.” Whether this is for a full-size sedan, another type of vehicle or some vehicle subsystem is anyone’s guess, but if the recent Ciel four-door convertible concept is any indication, Cadillac is intent on taking the whole “New Standard of the World” advertising tagline to heart.

And we are damn glad to see it. For basically all of the first two decades of our life, Cadillac was a prime example of how beancounters and self-proclaimed marketing gurus can run a nameplate into the ground. Flubs like the Cimarron, V8-6-4 engine, and downsized front-drive full-size cars soured luxury car buyers by the thousands, and only on the strength of hits like the CTS, CTS-V, Escalade and forthcoming ATS has the marque been able to get people to take it seriously again. And with longtime rivals Lincoln and Chrysler seemingly content to slum it with Acura in the “aspirational luxury” segment (basically the AA League of the high end car biz where front-drive platforms are the norm and the definition of full-size is the German’s mid-size), it’s up to Cadillac to fly the Stars and Stripes in battle against Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Lexus.

Cadillac Sixteen side vent and front wheel

We’d like to think the company wouldn’t be (apparently) gearing up to do so at the highest level if it hadn’t first created the Sixteen, a vehicle that’s as much an homage to the era of Jay Gatsby and unlimited possibilities as it is a rallying cry from GM’s best and brightest who want to show the world that they are, in fact, capable of playing-to-win against the world’s best on home turf. And that (plus the whole 1,000hp V16 thing) is why the Cadillac Sixteen is being added to our fantasy collection.

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