Fine Lines: The Stutz Bearcat - East Valley Tribune: Business

Fine Lines: The Stutz Bearcat

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Posted: Sunday, December 21, 2008 4:25 pm | Updated: 10:32 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It had 60 horsepower and cost the average worker the equivalent of three years salary. Sleek and fast, the Stutz Bearcat was the forerunner to the

modern-day sports car.

What makes a sports car memorable?

Most would agree that a powerful engine, superb road manners and a sensuous design are the key ingredients. Early in the last century, that’s exactly what the Stutz Bearcat delivered, proving that, as with death, taxes and the Colonel’s secret recipe, some things never change.

In 1911, when Harry C. Stutz founded the Ideal Motor Car Company (changing it to the Stutz Motor Car Company two years later), paved roads existed only in large cities. In those days, most people wouldn’t dream of driving a car over great distances. After all, gasoline was not exactly plentiful in rural areas, and most inter-city roads weren’t much more than wagon ruts. Long-distance transportation was virtually the exclusive domain of the railroads.

The advent of Henry Ford’s affordable Model T in 1908 paved the way — literally — for the expansion of the inter-city highway system as an increasing number of newly minted motorists were now able to experience the joys of the open road.

But for Stutz, and the literally hundreds of other cottage industry car companies that existed back then, the focus remained on building automobiles geared for people of wealth. Far from being mass-produced, each car was constructed slowly and laboriously by hand, using opulent fittings of leather, brass, chrome and handrubbed veneers. These were cars that trumpeted their owner’s high-societal standing.

Then, as now, the one sure way for an automobile manufacturer to showcase the durability and performance of their vehicles was to compete in the numerous races that were beginning to crop up all over North America and Europe.

Three years after its founding in Indianapolis, Ind., Stutz produced the Bearcat, the first “performance” car in its lineup. The Bearcat was a serious competition-oriented racer, and, as such, was sold with only the bare essentials. There was room for only one driver and one passenger (usually a riding mechanic), both of whom sat perched atop the Bearcat’s massive frame. The only protective safety device consisted of an unusual monocle-type windshield mounted on the steering column just ahead of the massive wooden wheel. This device served to keep small rocks and bugs from smacking into the face of the otherwise unprotected driver. The passenger-seat occupant was on his own.

The barrel-type gas tank was mounted directly behind the seats, just ahead of the trunk. And the trunk was exactly that: an actual steamer trunk located between the rear fenders.

Mechanically, the Stutz Bearcat’s vital statistics are as impressive today as they must have been back in 1914. The right-hand-drive car was powered by a large 6.4-liter (390 cubic-inch) Thead four-cylinder Wisconsin engine that featured two spark plugs per cylinder. Rated at just 60 horsepower, the Bearcat could produce zero-to-60-mph times of slightly less than a half-a-minute. But even in stock form, the car was capable of speeds in excess of 80 mph for those foolhardy souls willing to risk a blowout or some other catastrophe at those unheard-of velocities (seat belts and safety helmets hadn’t been invented yet). A three-speed non-synchronized manual transmission mounted in the rear axle deployed power from this oversized engine. Stopping was executed by rear-mounted drum brakes that worked in tandem with a hand brake that also worked via the rear wheels.

At a time when the ground clearance on most cars was measured in feet, the Bearcat appeared particularly low-slung. Part of this illusion was due to the lowered position of the car’s massive front headlamps and wide running boards. Still, the 35-inch spoke wheels meant that curbs, or even some tree stumps for that matter, posed little threat to damaging the Bearcat’s undercarriage.

In 1915, some Bearcats were fitted with a 6.2-liter six-cylinder engine, or four-cylinder racing engines equipped with such modern-day features as four valves per cylinder and a single overhead camshaft.

The Bearcat enjoyed considerable success on the race tracks of America as well as Europe. By far the most heroic feat in a Stutz Bearcat took place in 1915 when it was driven to New York City from San Diego in 11 days and seven hours. That year also saw a Bearcat compete on a wooden board track at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., where it won a 350-mile event at an average speed of about 103 mph.

The Stutz company maintained a close involvement in racing over the years, but after a land-speed-record attempt in a specially modified Stutz Black Hawk at Daytona Beach in 1928 led to the death of the driver, the company began to withdraw from competition.

As a specialty car builder, the Stutz nameplate outlived most of its competitors,. The company built an assortment of luxury hardtops, roadsters and sedans until operations ceased in 1936.

Today, all surviving cars bearing the Stutz logo are highly prized. But it is the remarkable, ahead-of-its-time Bearcat that is most remembered for its style and speed. At the 1914 list price of $2,000, the car cost the equivalent about three years salary for the average worker. But this pioneering machine came to define the true meaning of a sports car so very long ago. And it was worth every penny.

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