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Gigantic 3393 Cubic Inch 800 Horse Power V-16 Duesenberg Engine

This giant aircraft engine was the result of a developmental contract awarded to the Duesenberg Brothers in 1918 by the US government to build the largest and most powerful aero engine possible. The pair had previously created a V-12 engine along with a four-cylinder walking beam airplane engine quite similar to the earlier Duesenberg 16-valve auto racing motor.

The new V-16 engine was an original and lightweight design incorporating both new ideas and other practices that had worked well for the brother’s previously. Another bright design practice adopted was the use of forged steel cylinder barrels and built up forged sections of the cylinder head all welded together; this practice was used earlier by Mercedes and possibly others in racing and road car engines.

  • Cross-sectional drawing of the engine – the rocker arms were named “walking beams.”

The design featured one large intake valve at the top of the combustion chamber and two exhaust valves below it situated in a vertical combustion chamber, actuated by the “walking beam” system. It utilized an air starter, two separate ignition systems by using a magneto and a battery-powered distributor and four Miller updraft carburetors.

The 3393 c.i. (55.6 litre) engine with a six-inch bore and a 7.5-inch stroke was tested extensively at 1800 r.p.m. both on the test platform in the top photo and later in an elaborate dynamometer set up (below) spinning three 300 h.p. Sprague electric dynamos.

A total of four engines were constructed for testing, however, at the time no airplane existed that was large enough to accommodate this huge motor. One has survived at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. The lead photo is a part of the Fred Roe Collection, courtesy of Racemaker Press. The other photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection.

  • The V-16 engine and one of the three electric dynamos powering the dynamometer behind it.

  • Left-to-right, King-Bugatti U-16 engine, Duesenberg V-16 and four-cylinder “walking-beam” motors, and a second King-Bugatti at the New York Aero show.   

  • The second part of this story will cover this experimental U-16 King-Bugatti aircraft engine.


31 responses to “Gigantic 3393 Cubic Inch 800 Horse Power V-16 Duesenberg Engine

  1. If you search Cold Start Old Race Engine Cars on YouTube you will see a great 10 minute video of old race cars starting up and belching smoke and flames.

  2. Almost twice the displacement of the Fiat S76.

    Hear one starting, revving and running on YT.

    See three entries in The Old Motor archives.

    And check out the 825 CI Pierce-Arrow Six.

  3. Okay, so this looks like a 3-valve setup with two sets of spark plugs running off two systems, I would imagine to achieve full burn or maybe to introduce a bit of ignition lag in one of the systems. However, it looks like two spark plugs on the side, with only one connected. Wonder if this was a way to keep the engine running without having to change a plug by just switching from one to the other. Also, I really can’t determine where the plug on the side enters the combustion chamber and why. Like the vaunted BRM V-16 racer, this must have been a real bear to keep in tune.

    • Mad Dog,

      The plugs are all at the top of the cylinders. What you see on side at the access plugs for the valves is the air start system. There is a distributor for the air at the front of the engine to supply compressed air at would normally be the power stroke. Only one bank has the air start setup.

      • I guess it would be at the rear of the engine since the prop is in the front.

        You can see a little compressor at the air start distributor for re-charging the air tank.

      • Thanks Neil, makes sense. So, where does the air come from, an external source? And yeah, it is at the back of the engine. Folks here talk about the engine being too big, but at the later stages of WWI there were a number of moves to giant aircraft and this made even bigger aircraft possible. The wingspan of the Riesenflugzeuge even surpassed all German bombers in WWII.

        • Also there were the giant Russian Sikorsky biplanes the Grande & the Ilya Murometz, the Handley – Page bombers from England, and maybe one or two experiments in the U. S.
          The secure mounting of an engine as large & powerful as the Duesenberg must have been a bit of a challenge in winged aircraft with wood airframes, although Fokker was using welded steel tubing by about 1916. Good for dirigibles & blimps though – and boats!

  4. Got curious about this monster and found some great pics on the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum site. So, my above impression was a bit off. The distributor at the back of the engine is for some kind of liquid, maybe for fuel, but hard to figure out. What look like spark plugs on the other orifice are not present in the Smithsonian pics, but you can see that each cylinder has two plugs, one on each side of the combustion chamber, each driven by a different ignition system, perhaps for reliability sake. Hard to see in the drawing, but the exhaust valves/ports seem to be staggered vertically. Gets interestinger and interestinger (SIC).

  5. Just a note on the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. If you are ever in northwest Indiana, make a point to check out this museum. You will not be disappointed.

  6. Another Ballantine Blast Mr. Greenlees
    But what was a “welded up” cylinder head?
    A bunch of machined sections that are then welded together and you have a head?
    The cylinder and head were welded to each other?
    Also the both engines are gorgeous.

  7. Only the government would build an aircraft engine too big for use in any actual aircraft. My sense of curiosity is glad they did, but still….

  8. Hi Folks – I believe the 16 cylinder engine might have been intended for a lighter-than-air-craft rather than a large airplane, hence it’s enormous size. Also, the story goes that when the Duesenbergs tested the engine with a large wooden “propeller”, it exploded throwing the prop through the ceiling and nearly killing all the people in close proximity to the test. Another interesting point: the priniciple of two exhaust valves and one intake valve was carried on in the the hugely successful Duesenberg 183 cubic inch racing engines from 1920 to 1923.

    • Two exhaust and one inlet was used on / in the. Fiat S 76 in 1910.
      Bentley was using 16 valves in four cylinders starting in 1919.
      Peugeot (iirc) was using four valves per pot in 1912.
      The Sunbeam Sikh had five (six in an early version?) per.
      And there was a big American luxury car that had four valve T-head cylinders.
      Uniflow two strokes (mostly Diesels) had as many as four exhaust valves per cylinder.
      The combustion chamber in the big Duesenberg looks like it might have leaned heavily on the cooling system.

  9. To reinforce how massive this engine is, it’s roughly the same weight as a fully loaded Sopwith Camel. For the time, it has a good power-to-weight ratio for an airship engine; the contemporary Sunbeam Sikh (England) was about 40% heavier and had the same rated horsepower.

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