1933 Cadillac V16 Town Cabriolet

“The Standard of the World” was not only Cadillac’s advertising slogan, but it was a doctrine for its engineers and designers to live by. During the 1930’s, the company went to great lengths to live up to that claim, building ever more exclusive and stylish models. Despite the economic hardships, the junior LaSalle brand and entry-level Cadillac V8 models were selling well, and some much-needed cash was swelling the coffers. Cadillac decided the time was right to add a bit of excitement to the “multi-cylinder” engine race that was going on between high-end manufacturers around the world. In 1930 they shocked the motoring world with the introduction of both a V12 and an unprecedented V16 engine displacing 452 cubic inches. This put Cadillac right into the thick of the battle with such prestigious manufacturers as Hispano-Suiza, Lagonda, Rolls-Royce and their chief rival, Packard. Both engines were designed simultaneously by Cadillac engineer Owen Nacker, and they shared the same basic layout as well as many common components. The V12’s output was a healthy 135 horsepower, while the V16 put out a full 175 horsepower – a headline grabbing figure for its day. In 1933, a V16 Imperial Cabriolet started at $6,250 and stretched to a whopping $8,000 for the top line All Weather Phaeton. The starting price was a full $3,000 more than a comparable V12 model, keeping in mind that a 1933 Chevrolet cost $445. Of course, an entire range of custom and semi-custom bodies were available from within GM and outside coachbuilders. The Cadillac LaSalle Club has put the number at approximately seventy different combinations of chassis and body options, which undoubtedly allowed a high degree of exclusivity, considering just 125 of a planned 400 examples were built. The V16 Cadillac remains to this day one of the most collectible, exclusive, and desirable of all American classics.

In early spring of 1933, a tremendous machine arrived at Don Lee Cadillac of Los Angeles. It was a V-16 seven-passenger town cabriolet, the very first of three made that year, and its build sheet notes that it was finished in all-over black – a line of “BLACK,” right down the left side of the page – except for the wire wheels and their disc covers. Imposing, elegant and visually striking, this 1933 Cadillac Model 452C V16 All Weather Phaeton represents the most expensive and exclusive Cadillac offered at the time. Only three cars were built in 1933 with this coachwork.

As is common with V-16s of this era, the second page of the build sheet has not survived, and so additional special requests for the car have been lost. Thus we may never know if the original owner, Joan Crawford, really did have all of the interior hardware plated in satin-finished pewter, so that a photographer could not catch her distorted reflection in celluloid. Nonetheless, it is the kind of legend the lady enjoyed spinning around herself.

The incredible Fleetwood coachwork exhibits the early beginnings of streamline design, thanks to its fully formed fenders, split and tapered radiator shell and Art-Deco inspired streaks and slashes. It is truly a work of art and absolutely breathtaking to behold. At the front end, a fabulous quad-bar front bumper features polished strips and the horns are magnificent Deco pieces with concentric chrome inserts in the trumpets. The 1933 Cadillac is instantly recognizable thanks to the body-color split grille, which on this example is graced with a gold-plated Cadillac emblem and goddess mascot. Dual sidemount spare wheels wear painted covers and the running boards are fitted with polished strips that accentuate the long, flowing lines, in true Art Deco fashion. In the rear is found a black painted trunk along with a chrome trunk rack, dual taillights, a repeating quad-bar bumper, and correct dual-exhausts. Black painted wheels wear full chrome wheel covers and white wall tires, the smooth covers further enhancing the streamline styling.

Opening the rear doors, you are treated to a complementary grey wool broadcloth interior that is accented with exquisite inlaid wood trim. The upholstery is in excellent order, just barely gaining a broken-in appearance. The chauffeur’s compartment is all business, however being a Cadillac, gorgeous detailing adorns the dash with its textured inlays, engine-turned escutcheons, and correct original instrumentation.

It is difficult to determine whether the famous owner or the engine is the star of this show. Opening the long bonnet reveals one of the most awe-inspiring engines of the era. The Cadillac V16 is a masterpiece of form following function. It is a piece of mechanical beauty. The narrow angle Vee is topped with black painted rocker covers accented with polished ribs. This truly is a showpiece from top to bottom.

After Crawford’s use of the car, it was purchased by John Quarty, an innovator in modern resort hotels, and continued its use chauffeuring celebrities, now at his San Marcos Resort near Chandler, Arizona. Finally retired, it made its way to Ohio, and there was acquired, via Tom Barrett, by the Hillcrest Motor Company in the early 1970s.

Located on Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood, the Hillcrest Motor Company was the successor to Don Lee, the famed dealership that had sold the car to Ms. Crawford. Recognizing the opportunity to buy back the most famous car they ever sold, the dealership took it, and their employees restored it to its original condition. Afterward it was placed in the small museum on the second floor of the Hillcrest Motor Company, and began its new life as a famous showpiece, featured in the September 1974 issue of Motor Trend, in Roy Schneider’s Sixteen-Cylinder Motorcars, and as the basis for several die-cast collector’s models, as well as in advertisements for The Broadway.

After the death of owner Willet H. Brown in 1993, the Hillcrest dealership was closed, and its company collection sold by Sotheby’s at the Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994. There the Crawford V-16 was acquired by Dr. Joseph Murphy of Pennsylvania. Dr. Murphy, in turn, sold the car to Otis Chandler, in whose famous Vintage Museum it was exhibited until 2003. This Hollywood legend has resided in just two collections since.

The car is accompanied by a comprehensive history file, including copies of various articles, a copy of the build sheet, and, importantly, copies of numerous pieces of correspondence with Hillcrest employees, in which they confirm Crawford’s ownership and detail the restoration completed by some of the men who worked on the V-16 for her in 1933.

Cadillac V-16s of 1933 are rare in any form, with fewer than 30 known to exist; only two are seven-passenger town cabriolets, and only one of those is the iconic ex-Joan Crawford/Hillcrest Motor Company/Otis Chandler car – an automobile with decades of Hollywood heritage, documented, recorded, and known to enthusiasts far and wide. Joan is famously quoted as saying: I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door. Well, this is a car that could make even the girl next door look like a movie star.

We think Joan would approve.


Offers welcome and Trades Considered



Stock number 7752

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