Bill Vance: Potent V-8s revolutionized postwar cars

For the North American auto industry, 1949 was an important year. After the Second World War’s 31Ú2-year production hiatus followed by three years of offering mostly warmed-over pre-war models, the “Big Three” (GM, Ford and Chrysler) were anxious to show their new offerings.

Studebaker’s sensational “coming-or-going” 1947 models and Hudson’s “Step Down” design in 1948 were quicker off the mark, but Nash’s new “Airflyte” model would also be introduced in 1949.

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GM’s Cadillac, the American luxury leader, beat the 1949 watershed by a year with some new postwar 1948 models, and Oldsmobile brought its new cars out halfway through 1948.

The 1948 Cadillac introduced a new raised taillight styling feature soon dubbed the tailfin. It was inspired by the twin tail boom stabilizers of Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter plane that GM’s styling chief Harley Earl saw flying out of Selfridge Air National Guard base near Detroit. Fins launched a styling craze that saw them sweep the industry, rise to absurd heights in the 1950s and die out in the 1960s.

But the most significant 1949 news was under the hood: Cadillac’s and Oldsmobile’s short-stroke, high-compression, overhead-valve V-8s. Lighter, smaller and more powerful than the engines they replaced, they would dominate the North American industry for the next quarter-century.

Henry Ford had brought V-8 power to the popular-priced field in 1932, and it quickly became a Ford trademark. And while Cadillac and others had used V-type engines for many years, it was those 1949 V-8s that set the modern trend.

Cadillac had an outstanding tradition of advanced engineering dating back to 1908, when its interchangeable parts won the Royal Automobile Club’s coveted Dewar Trophy. It won it again in 1912 for Kettering’s pioneering electric starter.

Late in 1914, Cadillac moved straight from an inline four-cylinder engine to a V-8, and during the 1930s offered V-8s, V-12s and the world’s first V-16.

Oldsmobile’s 1949 V-8 was similar in design to Cadillac’s, although smaller. Cadillac’s V-8 was oversquare (larger bore than stroke) with bore and stroke of 96.8 x 92.1 mm yielding 5.4 litres (331 cu. in.). It developed 160 horsepower.

It was the highest horsepower available in American cars and gave sparkling performance. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated tested a Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Buick and called the Cadillac “unquestionably America’s finest automobile to date.”

Tom reported that the Caddy sprinted from zero to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 12.1 seconds, a very good time for that era, and estimated top speed at more than 105 mph (168 km/h).

In styling, Cadillac’s 1949 models, along with Oldsmobile and Buick, also pioneered what would become a popular model for many years, the hardtop convertible. To make a hardtop car look like a convertible a two-door coupe was given pillarless design and two-tone paint job that suggested a fabric top that would retract.

Cadillac offered the feature in the series 62 Coupe de Ville, Buick in the Roadmaster Riviera (the first Buick Riviera), and Oldsmobile in the Holiday Coupe.

But in spite of tailfins and advent of the hardtop convertible, Cadillac’s engine was really the big 1949 news. It was light yet powerful, weighing 85 kg less than the 5.6-litre (345 cu. in.) 150-horsepower, side-valve V-8 it replaced.

Cadillac horsepower remained at 160 for three years. Then in 1951, Chrysler brought out its famous “Firepower” hemispherical combustion chamber V-8, dubbed the Hemi. It developed 180 horsepower out of the same 5.4-litre displacement as Cadillac.

Not about to let this challenge pass, Cadillac engineers developed a new four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts and bigger valves giving 190 horsepower for 1952. Chrysler countered with 195 in 1954 and the horsepower race was on. Its genesis was that 1949 Cadillac V-8.

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