For more than 20 years during the early 20th century, Stutz was a builder of some the finest automobiles in the world. Like so many other of the great marques - Mercer, Marmon, Pierce-Arrow - Stutz was felled by the Great Depression. But Stutz alone experienced resurrrection. After more than three decades of slumber, the venerable name was again spelled out in chrome. For its second coming, however, Stutz automobiles were decidedly less distinguished.
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. On the sceen and in in real life, Reid was identified with fast cars. You could call him the Steve McQueen of his day. In addition to satisfying his need for speed Toodles Walden wants to win the hand of a beautiful girl… who just happens to be the daughter of his employer, a wealthy car company tycoon. In the film’s climax Toodles is roaring down a country lane in what looks to the modern viewer like a jalopy, a very fast one. The scene has 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. At the finish line, a troffy and the hand of the tycoon’s fatching daughter in marraige. 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 motorcar 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 Underslung. Unlike its contemporaries, the Underslung’s axles were mounted above the frame, allowing a much lower center of gravity.
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 driveline 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. 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. Stutz Bearcats were entered in 30 races in 1912. Twenty-five time times they finished 1st.
The Bearcat’s notoriety on the race track bred success in the marketplace. The Stutz became highly sought after by the sporting set. By 1916, Harry Stutz was attempting to capitalize on his car’s prowess by taking the company public. As it turns out, he was a much better engineer than 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, 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 and 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 an 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.
By 1928, the competition had caught up and sales of the AA began to wane. Moskovics countered by returning to racing in a big way. The endeavor had mixed results. That year a team of three race-prepared Stutz Blackhawks challenged at LeMans. One of them placed 2nd behind one of the mighty 4 ½ liter Bentleys. It was the best showing for an American car at Circuit de la Sarthe until the Ford GT40 placed 1-2-3 in 1966. Unfortunately, a crash at Daytona, an embarrassing engine failure in a prize race with Hispano-Suiza, and several other other high profile promotions, ended in failure, seriously damaging Stutz’s reputation. By 1929, the company was losing $2.5 million and Moskovics was out of a job.
Then came the Great Depression. Sales continued to plunge while losses accelerated. The response of Stutz’s new management was to continue to focus on performance and style and let the Stutz cachet speak for itself. The performance side of this equation was a new Greuter-designed eight-cylinder engine called the DV-32. Duesenberg had recently seized the role of top dog in the performance car market. So like Duesenberg, the DV-32 used a 4-valve per cylinder DOHC design that put out 161hp. That was about 100hp less than the supercharged Duesy, but it was still quite a bit more than just about anything else on the road. For style, Stutz called on coach builders like Rollston for gorgeous bodies like the show-stopping Victoria.
The efforts weren’t enough. Competitors like Cadillac and Packard were introducing twelve and even sixteen cylinder engines. While they couldn’t match the lighter Stutz’s performance, the allure of more cylinders claimed much of what little was left of the prestige car market. Stutz had no funds to develop new engines. One final gasp was a stunning interpretation of the original legend, an aluminum bodied DV-32 on a shortened wheelbase called the Super Bearcat, in this writer’s opinion, the most beautiful car of the 1930s not made in France.
Stutz sold just 310 cars in 1932 and a mere 80 in 1933. Only 6 were sold in 1934 before the storied marque slipped beneath the waves of the Depression.
Part II: The Second Coming
Stutz wasn’t the only prestigious marque brought down by the Depression. Mercer, Marmon, Pierce Arrow, Auburn and Duesenberg all built their last car during the 1930s. The great Stutz name rested in peace for three decades. Then in late-1963, more than a generation after these great classics roamed the American road, noted automotive writer Diana Bartley approached Esquire Magazine with an idea. Wouldn’t it be cool to see what those cars might look like if they were made today? Bartley then enlisted famed stylist, Virgil Exner, to render four modern interpretations of the most storied marques of the past. Exner had recently been fired as chief of design at Chrysler Corporation for the poor showing of his of the early 60s cars. Many claim he was scapegoated for the incompetence of senior management. Either way, Ex was anxious to redeem himself, and also the neo-classical themes he had always held dear. He made 4 pencil drawings for the Esquire piece. They were visions of what a 1964 Packard, Mercer, Duesenberg and Stutz might look like. They became known as the Revival Cars.
Nothing much came of the first two, but Fred Duesenberg along with a group of other investors were inspired. They enticed Exner into joining them in an effort to revitalize the Duesenberg name. Ex probably didn’t require a hard sell, this being one of the cars of the Classic Era he admired and drew upon for inspiration throughout his career. The Duesenberg revival was very close to getting the green light when a key backer suddenly pulled out. The project was aborted. After working hundreds of hours on the designs. Ex must have been devastated.
But not for long. One of the original Duesenberg investors, financier and fancier of fine cars, James McDonnell, was undaunted. He was still convinced that there was a profitable market for a low-volume, ultra-luxury car that could be built using an existing mass production chassis and drivetrain. While the rights to the Duesenberg name had been retained by Fred Duesenberg, that of Stutz was considered part of the public domain.
Exner jumped at the chance to pen a modern Stutz Blackhawk. It would use the stillborn Duesenberg’s formal sedan roofline and backlight, as well as its upright grill, combined with the sleek 2-door body of the 1964 Stutz rendering. All they needed now was a suitable platform on which to build it.
At about the same time, John Z. DeLorean, the dynamic new general manager at Pontiac, was preparing to introduce the first ever midsized personal luxury car. Exner had seen early photos of this upcoming 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix and was intrigued. The proportions were very much in harmony with his classical baroque themes. The proposal Exner and O’Donnell would show to DeLorean were of an elegant hardtop coupe that was as garish as those Olympic Chariots of the early 1930s Exner so adored. Never shy for publicity, DeLorean must have thought this outrageously opulent Stutz might lend the Grand Prix some bit of cachet. He agreed to supply Stutz with cars. T