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Sweet 16

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In 1960, Don Wagers wooed his girlfriend, Shirley Maxwell, in his Cadillac V-16-powered 1929 Ford roadster. He cut 10 inches out of the frame and six inches out of the doors to accommodate the humongous, 185-bhp engine. Photos by author.

Editor’s note: This piece first appeared in the Kustomrama Newsletter, Number 120.

In the late 1950s, a kid in the tiny South Texas town of La Blanca built himself a hot rod with twice the usual number of cylinders—16 instead of eight. The engine in his 1929 Ford roadster had been donated by a wrecked 1935 Cadillac V-16 sedan.

The kid’s name was Fred Warner Wagers Jr., and he was 18 when I met him in August 1960. He had a girlfriend, Shirley Maxwell, and both attended Edinburg High School. Fred, who actually went by the name Don, called and asked if I’d like to do an article about his hot rod. I was freelancing at the time, and one of my markets was a New York hot-rod magazine called Speed Mechanics.

Wagers set the engine back in the frame for better weight distribution. You can gauge the engine’s length from the sump behind the muffler.

I was living in another tiny South Texas town, La Feria, and La Blanca was only a stone’s-throw away, so I said sure and hotfooted it down to meet Don, his girlfriend and his car. I was interested in Don’s V-16, because I’d owned a 1932 Cadillac V-16 myself as a teenager, so I wanted to see how Don had managed to cram such a large engine into so small a car. And this particular roadster was even smaller than a stock Model A, because Don had shortened the frame by eight inches and the body by six.

For street use, Wagers blanked off the center carbs on both newly fabricated intake manifolds. He added two Stromberg 97s for drag racing. The car could do 114 mph in quarter-mile.

I’d heard of other V-16-powered hot rods, but I’d never seen one. Don had done a nice job of making the engine fit. It tucked back through the cowl, so that the bellhousing stood about a foot behind the newly fabricated firewall. That put the gearshift pretty much dead center in the floor.

I think it’s appropriate here to talk a little about the first-generation Cadillac V-16. In May 1915, Packard introduced its flathead V-12, and at that time Packard set the standard for upmarket American cars. But, by the end of the 1920s, Cadillac decided to pull rank on Packard by developing the nation’s first production V-16. Cadillac launched the V-16 in 1930. Marmon followed in 1931 with its own V-16. Cadillac’s displaced 452 cid and was rated at 165 bhp (later 185), and Marmon’s 491-cid V-16 produced 200 bhp.

Chromed 1937 Ford truck grille housed a large, deep-core radiator.

The Cadillac V-16 used an aluminum block and pan, iron heads and overhead valves. The V-16 was essentially two straight eights on a common crankcase. Each bank had its own updraft carburetor, two ignition coils, twin points and condensers, and a huge common distributor. And the Cadillac V-16 became one of the first American engines—perhaps the first—to use hydraulic valve lifters.

Doors were welded shut and cockpit was snug, which suited Wagers fine.

Don told me he’d modified his Cad V-16 by expanding the bores 1/16-inch, giving him 471 cid. He also had the camshaft ground to “full race,” he said, plus porting and relieving the heads and fabricating new intake manifolds that mounted four to six Stromberg 97 carburetors. Don used four carbs on the street and six for drag racing. Exhaust manifolds were stock, with separate pipes leading into Ford F-8 truck mufflers. Finally, he said, he replaced the hydraulic lifters with solid, adjustable ones. The stock 1935 Cadillac V-16 delivered 185 bhp—one of the top ratings of that era—but Don figured his modded engine put out more like 250 bhp.

Instruments came from same 1935 Cadillac that donated the engine. Wagers removed the Model A fuel tank and put a larger one in the trunk.

To accommodate the engine, Don had chopped six inches (vertically) out of the roadster doors and welded them shut. He then set the body back on the shortened frame which, he admitted, made for a very tight cockpit. He replaced the Model A gauge cluster with the donor 1935 Cadillac’s instrument panel, substituting a tachometer in place of the speedometer. Transmission was a 1937 LaSalle three-speed, and the 4.11 rear axle came out of a 1940 Ford, as did the hydraulic brakes.

Exhaust tips run through rolled pan beneath trunk. Rear fenders began life as chromed sidemounts.

Suspension used stock Ford transverse springs along with a 1932 front axle dropped three inches but minus any shock absorbers. The rear axle did have tube shocks, angled inward at the top “for stability.” Steering was again 1940 Ford with a lengthened pitman arm for quicker response. Don painted the body white, and the frame and 15-inch wheels red. The chromed radiator grille came from a 1937 Ford pickup. Upholstery was Naugahyde, again red and white.

Front axle had a 3-inch drop and no shock absorbers. Rear tube shocks were angled inward 45 degrees at top.

Don Wagers liked to drag race and entered his roadster at events in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Uvalde, Texas. His best speed for the quarter-mile, he told me, was 114 mph, but somehow I neglected to get the time. I have no idea what eventually became of his 16-cylinder hot rod, nor was I able to locate Don Wagers when I Googled him recently. So all I have are these reminiscences plus the notes and pictures I took nearly 60 years ago.