Stutz Part I: The Legend
Hollywood’s first great car movie was Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Roaring Road. The hero in this 1919 silent classic is a dashing young race driver named Walt “Toodles” Walden, played by noted Car Guy actor Wallace Reid. Think of him as the Steve McQueen of his day. In addition to his need for speed, character Toodles is determined to win the hand of a beautiful girl… who just happens to be the daughter of his employer, a wealthy car company tycoon. The film’s climax has Toodles roaring down a country lane in what looks to the modern viewer like an old jalopy… a very fast one. Toodles is racing a train to a crossroad, the last hurdle on his quest to set the speed record from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and winning the hand of the tycoon’s daughter in the process. Even today one is gripped by the speed of that car. The roar would be deafening…if there were sound. What is that 100-year old car, we wonder, and how does it not shake apart on that gravel country highway? The car is a Stutz, one of the great names of the automobile’s early years.
Harry Clayton Stutz was born in 1878, an Ohio farm boy who took a shine to mechanics. As soon as his chance came, he moved to Dayton where he took various jobs working on machines and learning his craft. By the age of 22, he had built a fairly sophisticated 1-cylinder car that would open doors for him in the budding automobile industry. He moved to Indianapolis, a city that at the time was rivaling Detroit as America’s auto-making capitol. He held a number of positions over the next seven years, including chassis designer at the American Motor Company of Indianapolis, makers of the groundbreaking American Underslung. Unlike its contemporaries, the Underslung’s axles were mounted above the frame, allowing a much lower center of gravity for better handling.
He later moved on to be chief engineer at Marion Motor Company, a financially challenged maker of excellent cars. In 1910 Harry Stutz left Marion to found the Stutz Auto Parts Company in order to build a patented rear-mounted transaxle he had designed. By the following year Harry had mated this durable and compact 3-speed gearbox with a powerful Wisconsin T-head 4-cylinder engine, and installed them in a lightweight, low slung chassis. The result was a potent racing car which he entered the inaugural 1911 running of the Indianapolis 500.
Piloted by Cal Anderson, the #3 Stutz car finished 11th. That doesn’t sound so hot, except that nearly half of the 40 cars entered didn’t finish at all. The Stutz also was the only competitor that was not purpose-built for the race. Indeed, Harry was taking orders for his upcoming 1912 Stutz Series A, for which his racing car was the prototype. The Series A consisted of the Bulldog Tourer, the Inside-Drive Coupe, and the Bearcat Speedster, which, other than some cosmetic changes for production, was identical to the car that crossed the finish line at Indy the year before. It is the Bearcat for which Stutz will forever be remembered with a smile.
Has there ever been a cooler, more visceral name for a car than Bearcat? It conjures up a wild cat mauling the throat of a bear. The imagery is appropriate. The Stutz that competed at the Indy 500 had a 6.3-liter engine. Big by today’s standards, but every other car in the race had engines displacing from 7.1 to 9.7-liters. Doing the job with agility over brute power, the Stutz truly was a cat hunting bear. A Stutz was entered into 30 races in 1912. Twenty-five time times they finished 1st.
The Bearcat’s notoriety on the race track bred success in the marketplace. Stutz became a highly sought after car by the sporting set. By 1916, Harry Stutz was attempting to capitalize on his car’s notoriety by taking the company public. As it turns out, he was a much better engineer than a financier. He lost control of the company to a stock manipulator named Alan A. Ryan. Harry Stutz stayed on as president under Ryan for a few more years before departing to once again be his own boss. But not before he introduced in 1917, the beautifully updated Model R. Unique for its day, the Model R’s engine had 4 valves per cylinder, and was Stutz’s first power plant to be designed and built in-house.
Harry C. Stutz’s new company, H.C.S. Cars, was incorporated in 1920. It built much the same sort of car as his old company, expensive machines that leaned to the sporting side. An H.C.S. special even won at Indy in 1923. In 1924 H.C.S. shifted its attention to building taxis and fire trucks, which proved ill-advised. H.C.S. went bankrupt in 1927. Harry succumbed to a burst appendix in 1930.
Harry Stutz had been a perfectionist. As such, Stutz Motors always stood behind the performance of its cars. In early 1919, a disgruntled owner brought his Bearcat back to the distributor, complaining that the car was “gutless” and this caused him to be bested on the streets of New York by a rival in a Mercer Raceabout. The Stutz publicity department seized on the opportunity. It handed the offending Bearcat over to renowned long-distance racer/promoter, Cannonball Baker. Baker then roared off on an 11 day, 7 ½ hour quest to successfully set a new trans-continental speed record. The real life behind The Roaring Road.
Stutz sold its 10,000th car in 1919. That same year, in a karmic twist, the stock manipulator Alan Ryan, himself lost control of Stutz. Capitalist Charles Schwab, who’s day job was president of Bethlehem Steel, was now in charge of the famed sport car maker. Stutz was a nice plaything for Mr. Schwab, but he knew very little about performance cars. It wasn’t long before the company lost its engineering edge. Sales dwindled.
By 1925, Schwab had recognized the problem. He hired a gunslinger of a new chief executive named Fred Moskovics to revitalize the storied marque. Moskovics immediately shut down production of the Series R and hired Swiss engineer, Charles Greuter, to design a completely new line of car. Called the Series AA, it was powered by a sophisticated new overhead cam, dual-ignition “Vertical-Eight” engine.
Sadly, the Bearcat name was given the axe. Moskovics had decided to turn away from the hairy-chested minimalist racers on which Stutz had made its name. He focused instead on elegant grand tourers like the smooth and powerful successor to the Bearcat, the Blackhawk Speedster. With its thrusting hood, side mounted spare, and rakish boat-tailed rear, the Blackhawk was easily the most beautiful car on the road, and with Greuter’s powerful Vertical-Eight it was also one of the fastest. Stutz sold 5,000 cars in 1926, its best year ever.