Marmon - Masters of the Straight Eight Engine

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 1902 - 1933

Howard Marmon

AMERICA fell in love with the automobile long before the Model T Ford, but the roads were often only suitable for horses and specialised versions of the mechanically- propelled vehicles that were soon to replace them. Rutted tracks, muddy in winter, called for large-diameter road wheels to give high ground clearance and, because the drivers were far more adept at controlling horse-flesh than machinery, the transmission had to be fool-proof.

It was against this background that Howard Marmon made his first tentative ventures into the realms of the automobile. However tentative, they were marked with sound appreciation of engineering niceties. Marmon's parent company was founded in 1851 manufacturing flour grinding mill equipment, and branching out into other machinery through the late 19th century. Small limited production of experimental automobiles began in 1902.

Nordyke and Marmon

The first Marmon was made in Indianapolis by Nordyke and Marmon in 1902, using an epicyclical two-speed transmission (as the Model T Ford used all its life), to obviate any alarms that the clashing of sliding pinions might bring to inexperienced operators. A special arrangement of the front springing, and sub-frames for the mounting of both engine and gearbox on the chassis frame, made for durability over bad going and these Marmons continued in production right up to 1908, by which time the automobile had emerged from the empirical stage into something quite sophisticated.

The Marmon Sixty

This development was recognised at the Marmon plant, and in 1907 they broke away from utility conveyances with a high-performance eight-cylinder model of 60 hp, also with a vee cylinder formation. It had a sliding-pinion gearbox, owners of such exciting cars being expected to have a decent driving ability, and by 1908 Marmon had generally adopted this form of transmission and were offering water cooling as well as natural cooling by air stream.

It was also notable that the cylinder heads of their engines were detachable, Ford having popularised this in 1907, to facilitate the then-essential bouts of frequent and inevitable valve re-grinding and decarbonising. Whether or not the great Marmon Sixty was a sales-success, the company was determined to build the more interesting kind of motor-car. Vee engines were abandoned in favour of conventional in-line T -head fours from 1909, these being known as the 40/45 and 50/60 hp models.

Ray Harroun wins the first Indianapolis 500 in the Marmon Wasp

This branching out into the high-class fast-car market was marked by Marmon's appearance in competition events. The make was prominent in this field, with a great many victories up to 1912, and its lasting fame was assured when Ray Harroun won the first of the now world-famous Indianapolis 500 Mile Races in 1911, with a rakish single-seater Marmon known as 'The Wasp', which can still be seen in the racing car museum at the Speedway. This was a specially constructed six-cylinder racer and as it was capable of carrying only the driver, it pioneered the rear-view mirror.

1915 5.2 liter Marmon 32
1915 5.2 liter Marmon 32.

1919 Marmon six-cylinder 74 bhp
1919 Marmon six-cylinder 74 bhp. it used aluminum for the cylinder block, body, hood and radiator shell.

1921 Marmon 34 and 1926 Marmon 75
Left is the 1921 Marmon 34, and on the right the 1926 Marmon 75.

1928 Marmon Straight-Eight Coupe
1928 Marmon Straight-Eight Coupe.
From participation in racing stemmed the 48 hp, 9.3-liter, production-model Marmon that was listed on the outbreak of war in Europe. The post-war pattern of Marmon output was laid down in 1916, just about then America became conscious that the rest of the civilised world was at war, in the guise of an advanced 5½-liter six-cylinder with aluminum cylinder block and overhead valves, designated the Marmon 34.

Lightweight construction was its outstanding feature and it was retained in the catalogue right up to 1927, acquiring modernisations on the way. It was a handsome car, with wire wheels and Deleo coil ignition after the Armistice and it was available with optional front-wheel-brakes very early in the race to provide more powerful, skid-free retardation.

The Marmon Straight-Eight

Then the obsession with the straight-eight engine engulfed Marmon, which from 1926 had been made by the re-styled company, the Marmon Motor Car Co of Indianapolis. Such engines were proclaimed as providing very smooth torque and great flexibility of running.

But they brought some shocking technical problems of crankshaft balance and mixture distribution with them. Marmon weathered all this pretty well. After toying with an OHV eight of just over 3-liters capacity in 1927, to back up the well-established, but costly, 74 bhp six, they went over entirely to the straight-eight system, commencing with the model 68 which had modest side-by-side valves.

The Straight-Eight Roosevelt

Much more successful was the inexpensive eight-cylinder Roosevelt of 1929. Although they had turned to the less-exotic cars, the Marmon directors had the sense to keep their brand-name in the public eye by running some Marmons in the 500 Mile Race, even if these 1928 racers owed more to Miller than Marmon and, indeed, were front wheel-drive-machines. From that time onwards the Marmon was a champion of the inline, eight-cylinder engine.

The Roosevelt was re-named the 'R' by 1930, perhaps in anticipation of political landslides, and it was supported by three more such cars, in the form of the side-valve model 69 and the fine 4.9-liter and 5.2-liter overhead-valve four-speed eights.

The Marmon offered comfort, spaciousness and easy-running from the large straight-eight engine, and became popular in Australia, the UK and some parts of South America. The Marmon 79 with saloon body was almost as big as a Rolls-Royce, but was considerably cheaper and with the fast, quiet, smooth-running straight-eight, it was bound to be successful.

This model 79 was capable of 75 mph and when running at 40 to 50 mph the long stroke 80.96 x 120.65 mm 4965 cc engine was inaudible. The four-speed gearbox enabled the car, in spite of a 10½ foot wheelbase and a weight of 36½ cwt, to accelerate from 10 to 30 mph in 4.6 seconds.

Top gear was 4.71 to 1, and if the driver preferred to stay in this he could still go from 10 to the legal town-pace of 30 mph in 7.4 seconds. It was this kind of effortless performance which made the Marmon so popular.

Engine Complexity in time for the Depression

If they had kept to the policy of manufacturing successful straight-eights, Marmon might have lasted to the present-day. As it was, they became obsessed with the multi-cylinder configuration in its most expensive and complex form, bringing out the 9.1-liter vee-sixteen-cylinder, light-alloy, model 16 for 1933. Developing an alleged 200 bhp, it was a magnificent machine. But it was too pricey to survive in the Depression years.

But by 1933 Cadillac had already introduced their V16, designed by ex-Marmon engineer, Owen Nacker. Peerless, too, was developing a V16 with help from an ex-Marmon engineer, James Bohannon.

The Marmon Sixteen was produced for just three years, with 400 examples made. The engine displaced 491 in? (8.0 L) and produced 200 hp (149 kW). A 3-speed gearbox was regarded as adequate, but it did not appeal, as had the 3.4-liter model, and the effective 5.1-liter model 8/88. With their sights on a V12, which might have bridged the gap between their well-established eights and the big sixteen-cylinder Marmon had to admit commercial defeat. By 1933 Marmon were on the ropes, and decided to discontinue automobile manufacture, instead manufacturing car parts and trucks.

Also see: Marmon Car Reviews

Marmon Dealer Workshop circa 1929
A publicity shot from 1929, showing a Marmon dealer workshop with various models on display.
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