One of the earliest and most intriguing applications of the V8 engine configuration in this country dates to 1906 and the experiments of Glenn Hammond Curtis. An avid fan of both aviation and motorcycle design Curtis began developing a series of lightweight engines for aeronautical application during this period, many of which were tested in motorcycles of his design.
In late January 1908 at Ormond Beach (now Daytona) in Florida, he tested the world’s first V8 powered motorcycle. In light of tire technology of the time the land speed record of 137 miles per hour established on that run is truly miraculous.
Even though there had been numerous companies, both European and American, that had enjoyed limited success with V8 engines before 1914 it was the Cadillac version introduced in September of that year which was to launch an epoch. Essentially this engine was a highly refined version of the engine introduced by DeDion in 1910.
In spite of a healthy price tag, $1,975.00 to $3,600.00, the durability of the new engines resulted in sales of just over 20,000 units the following year. Cadillac was well on the way to living up to its slogan of being the “Standard of the World.”
The success of the Cadillac V8 prompted numerous companies, both large and small, as well as countless automotive innovators to begin advancement programs. However, it was Henry Leland who made the greatest contribution in the development of these engines and it was to be the crowning achievement in an illustrious career.
Leland began his career under the tutelage of Samuel Colt, firearms manufacturer and pioneer of precision engineering. By the turn of the century he had developed an patented an electric hair clipper for barbers, launched a firm for the manufacturer of crankshaft grinders and another for precision gear making in addition to the manufacturer of steam engines and gasoline powered marine engines.
In June 1901, Leland made his debut in the automotive industry with a contract from Olds Motor Works to produce engines. The engine he designed was revolutionary in numerous aspects and developed 23 percent more horsepower with no significant gain in weight over what Olds was currently using. However, because of a fire that nearly destroyed the company Olds rejected the engine.
It was a small loss for Leland as this engine and his reputation for precision engineering provided his company with more work than could be handled. In addition, in the spring of 1902, a new opportunity presented itself, one that would forever change the face of the American auto industry.
On November 30, 1901, a group of influential Detroit businessman and financiers had formed the Henry Ford Company around the innovation and genius of Henry Ford in the hopes of turning a handsome profit. By mid March of the following year, it was becoming increasingly apparent that experimentation, not production, was Ford’s focus.
In desperation, they turned to Henry Leland in the hopes that he could turn the experimentation of Ford into something they could sell. Ford perceived the hiring of Leland as consulting engineer an affront and as a result demanded the company using his name be disbanded and that he be paid immediately $900.00 for his share of the company. Never missing a beat Leland presented the engine he had designed for Olds and the company was renamed Cadillac in honor of the French explorer who had discovered the sight for present day Detroit.
By 1916, Cadillac had become part of the huge Durant combine known as General Motors. This and increasing disagreements with that companies founder led Leland to leave the company for a new endeavor, the development and construction of aircraft engines.
At seventy-four years of age Leland established this new company and named it for the first president for whom he had voted – Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, the Armistice was signed before he could fully gear up for the projected military contracts that were to be the foundation of the new enterprise.
Leland was an innovator and as he had a well-equipped, modern factory and a work force of some 6,000 employees, he changed directions and launched into automobile production. Few things can speak more eloquently about his reputation than the fact that the initial offering of capital stock, $6.5 million dollars, was subscribed within three hours of its initial offering!
The introductory 1921 Lincoln was to be the crown jewel in Leland’s crown. Its precision engineered, sixty-degree V8 engine with full pressure lubrication ensured the car was good for an honest seventy miles per hour.
Nevertheless, dated styling, a late introduction as the result of his penchant for perfection and late supplier deliveries as well as a nationwide recession resulted in dismal sales. As a result, the board of directors in early 1922 panicked and put the company into receivership.
The buyer was Henry Ford and the new president was Edsel Ford. The Leland’s, father and son, were to stay on with the company but as should have been expected there were far to many differences and after but four months they walked from the company