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The Glove Box: Stutz Bearcat

The Glove Box: Stutz Bearcat

The Roaring Twenties. What made them so loud and raucous? Was it the cars? For the fortunate types, about whom we famously read in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, having a car was a way to show off your personality. Many people had huge luxury cars that would scarcely fit in a lane today, painted in bright color schemes and ornamented, edifice-like, with chrome or brass. Such behemoths have been mainstays of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance since the 1950s. But if you wanted a sports car, something powerful and fun to drive, like a Porsche or a Corvette, there was really only one choice.

Welcome back to The Glove Box. I’ve had enough for the moment of the weird little cars I want in my own garage—it’s time to return to the United States! I’ve chosen another age of prosperity to highlight a superb little sportster: the Stutz Bearcat, which was produced from 1912 until 1924 or so and cemented the legacy of the Stutz name in American motoring culture.

1911 Bearcat. Photo from Henry L. on Flickr

The turn of the 20th century and the 1910s—the Brass Era—were a fascinating time for the embryonic American auto industry. Like so many tech startups in Silicon Valley, countless auto manufacturers were springing up every year around the Midwest, and most disappeared within a decade or so, though some lasted until the Depression. Cars were the hot new thing, and still very much a luxury at the time (like many of the services provided by South of Market startups), but fads always die down.

If you hear the name of an American auto marque you haven’t heard before, chances are it came and went before the Depression. Stutz is obscure enough to most, but have you ever heard of Crane-Simplex, Marmon, Crow-Elkhart, or Duryea? There were frequent name duplicates, too, as so many eager folks wanted their own car designs on the market, trademark laws were nebulous at best, and telecommunication was extremely primitive.

To give a sense of the industrial opportunity out there in the Brass Era, consider Harry Clayton Stutz. Dissatisfied with his inherited Amish expectation to farm for the duration of his life, he migrated to Dayton, Ohio in 1900. He cycled through numerous manufacturing jobs and landed in Indianapolis by 1903, where he began his journey up the ladder of car building. Soon enough, thanks to his personal drive to succeed, he was designing and engineering cars for other companies.

But Harry Stutz needed more than to have another company pay him for a decent design. His true passion was to create his own car. So, in 1911, using all original components except for the Wisconsin engine, he did so. The main innovation here was the transaxle, a transmission placed so that it forms an integral part of the rear axle. Most rear-wheel-drive cars—including the majority of sports cars—today use such a design, largely for near-perfect weight distribution front to back, allowing for balanced handling.

Within a year or so, Stutz’ car, named Empire at first, became the Ideal and then the Stutz. But more importantly, it placed 11th out of 22 finishers in the 1911 Indianapolis 500, the inaugural running of that famous oval race. Back then, even finishing was an accomplishment—nearly half of the 40 entrants dropped out. Even with hardly any testing beforehand, though, the Ideal/Stutz required no mechanical assistance other than tire repair during the race. Stutz continued to succeed in subsequent years at the 500.

The 1915 Stutz team at Indy. Left to right: Howdy Wilcox (finished 7th), Earl Cooper (4th), and Gil Andersen (3rd). Photo from Caradisiac Forum-Auto.

After the exciting result in 1911, Stutz took to rightfully but proudly calling his piece of machinery “The Car that Made Good in a Day.” The Stutz lineup that debuted soon after the successful race was solid, but the Bearcat, the heavy-duty convertible new for 1912, was something different. Its 72-mile-per-hour top speed would have been quite impressive and well above average a century ago. Drivers needed an extra degree of skill and zeal to drive a Bearcat, but they were rewarded with raw driving enjoyment. (There was of course a dollop of sexism in the whole purpose and execution of the car as well, but I’m afraid that was the norm in the 1910s and ‘20s.)

Does that sporting premise sound familiar? Because to me, it seems like the whole rationale behind buying a Mazda Miata over something more practical, like a nicely equipped VW Golf. Or, say, a Corvette instead of a luxury sedan. People like those who bought Bearcats are today’s “weekend warriors,” who work during the week and take their daily driver to the track on Sundays; or at least they are the kind of folk who take Grizzly Peak and Skyline home rather than using the freeway. My people, in other words.

In 1917, Stutz’ own new engine design unleashed the Bearcat with its 80 horsepower. While half what a new Honda Civic makes now, 80 was a real handful in 1917, requiring a firm grip on the steering wheel and constant attention for quick driving. By 1919, though, Stutz had had enough of corporate interests imposing on his quality engineering, so he left the company, striking out on his own once again.

Like BMW in the 21st century, Stutz cars became more plush and less about the speed and handling. Even the Bearcat, though still propelled by its rowdy 80 horsepower, assimilated to the rest of the more sedate Stutz fleet until 1924, when Bethlehem Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab (not that one) and his business partners deemed it too uncivilized. While Stutz the man had done his job and made his way out, Stutz the company lacked direction under Schwab. Not until the arrival of Frederick E Moscovics and his master plan for a new 92-horsepower eight-cylinder car did the marque regain its prestige.

While powerful, Stutz eight-cylinder cars like the Lancefield had lost that raw sports-car feeling. Photo from Ultimate Car Page

Stutz, the company and the person both, died quietly with the onset of the Depression, having both served their purpose in life: to create exciting cars with quality engineering and minimal fluff. Despite its brief rebirth on the larger eight-cylinder platform in the early 1930s, the Bearcat’s day had really passed before the middle of the 1920s, yet it is still the best-known Stutz model. In fact, even midway through writing this article, I struggle to think of the name of any other one.

So, shall we talk about Stutz’ rebirth? Sometimes, folks want the looks of a touring car from the 1920s or ‘30s, but without the hassle of owning an old car. Instead, they might buy a neoclassic, something like a Zimmer or Clénet. Brooks Stevens’ 1965 Excalibur, the first of the breed, was a thorough rendition of a 1920s Mercedes SSK built on a Corvette chassis. It inspired other designers to evoke that era of cars, not necessarily specific models, on existing chassis. The neoclassic makers of the present day, including Zimmer and Mitsuoka, have gotten a bit lazier, often keeping obviously modern portions of the base cars’ exteriors intact.

While Brooks Stevens worked on his SSK, American designer Virgil Exner had his own ideas for revivals of old American marques. He had designed modern takes on famous names such as Pierce-Arrow, Mercer, Deusenberg, and Stutz that he envisioned as ultra-luxury cars, designed in America but built in Italy.

He tried first to persuade James O’Donnell, an investor in love with beautiful cars, to help make the Deusenberg design a reality, but the project suffered from poor planning. O’Donnell, however, was interested and contacted Exner, willing to try again with a modified proposal. From this second try came the modern Stutz, a modern Italian-built luxury car for the rich and famous that recalled the heyday of glitz and glamor in America.

A Blackhawk in one of the less offensive color schemes. Photo from gaycarboys.com

From 1971 to 1988, the new Stutz produced the Blackhawk and similar vehicles on various American mainstream luxury chassis. High-falutin’ names like D’Italia and Diplomatica christened convertibles, coupes, and sedans. While Stutz cars remained exclusive, rarely produced in numbers greater than 50 in a single year, the main rationale for buying one quickly became less the aesthetic and more the pure status.

Besides the usual Hollywood actors and rich physicians, sultans and princes in the Middle East often bought Stutz cars. To satisfy their tastes, Stutz made a few small production runs of armored Chevrolet Suburban conversions with luxury touches, occasionally featuring a machine-gun mount. Such behemoths were called Defender and Gazelle, while the Bear and Royal Guard were gussied-up Suburban convertibles, mainly aimed at that lucrative Middle East royalty market.

It is worth reading up on the reborn Stutz, if only to ogle the gilded excess. However, just as I believe BMW’s soul lies in small, sporty runabouts like the 2002, I see the Bearcat as the defining Stutz model. Exner’s reborn version, in my opinion, failed to rekindle the flame of the legendary brand that pioneered the sports car.

So you want to buy a Bearcat? Good luck. As with many century-old cars, most examples are either concours-quality—ridiculously expensive—or dilapidated—cheap to buy, but extremely costly to revive. You will also need to do some upper-body workouts to drive one. That said, I fully admire the (often rich) enthusiasts who keep Bearcats and their ilk running. These cars remind us how far we’ve come, but also show us that the template for pure driving enjoyment was already in place before World War I.

I went to these sites to learn about the history of Stutz, a brand that even I admittedly don’t know too well. Neoclassics are an interesting subgenre of car culture worth investigating, whether to deride or to admire. Exner’s Stutz has a whole site dedicated to it, including at least one page written by the investor O’Donnell himself.

That’s all for this week. I hope you learned something, because I certainly did. What form of automotive obscurity will I have in The Glove Box next week? Let’s just say we’ll be going abroad again, to a country we haven’t explored yet. Thanks for reading.

 

(Cover photo: a “barn find” 1921 Bearcat, the epitome of patina, briefly owned by TV star Wayne Carini. Here is the auction page. Photo from Motor1 via Bonhams.)