America's First Sportscar
The archetypal early American sportscar, or roadster as it was then known, was unquestionably the Stutz Bearcat. Harry C Stutz had worked for J N Willys at Marion, and for other motor car manufacturers, before leaving to produce combined gearbox/final drive transaxles, which were bought by several concerns. The progress from component manufacturer to automobile
manufacturer was set in motion in 1911 when Harry’s company built a successful Indianapolis race car as a publicity exercise. The success would gain investors, and so Harry set about the manufacture of his own “complete” passenger car. We will return to Indianapolis later in the article.
The Stutz Bearcat
But it was the “Bearcat” model that would gain the marque notoriety and fame. Originally announcedin 1914, the new car competed directly with the MercerRace-about. The Bearcat was a large two-seater with a long ungainly bonnet and, surprisingly, no weather protection for the occupants. The car was driven by a 60bhp four-cylinder Wisconsin engine up front; the Wisconsin produced massive torque and gave the car (for the time) very good performance. But the best part of the Bearcat was the styling, for it epitomized speed, and even in these early days of automobile
manufacture such styling would invariably make the car extremely desirable.
The cockpit of the Bearcat featured two bucket seats, while a cylindrical fuel tank was located at the rear of the seats. A well angled steering
column combined with completely exposed controls and levers, and from 1917 wonderful “Houk” wire wheels became standard (although the traditional wooden wheels could still be ordered). In view of Harry Stutz's expertise with rear-mounted gearboxes, it was not surprising that the Bearcats had this feature, which helped to balance the weight distribution, and improved the road-holding. Stutz himself profited mightily from Bearcat sales, then sold out his stake in the company in 1917.
With this money he started up another car company, HCS, but this was not successful. Although he remained connected with motor vehicles for many years afterwards, these were not cars, but mostly Stutz fire engines. He died in 1930. The firm's peak year came in 1919 when 8500 cars were built, and a year later C W Schwab (president of Bethlehem Steel) bought the business. The Stutz Motor Car Co. of America, building cars at Indianapolis, continued to prosper.
One of the first changes they carried out following the departure of Harry Stutz
was to revise the rear-mounted gearbox configuration, opting for a more conventional arrangement located close to the engine. Stutz's own design of engine - in four-cylinder or six-cylinder guises, had already been made available from 1918. The 'four' was a 360cu./5.9 litre side valve unit, good for 88bhp, while the 'six' had overhead valves, and a similar power output, but was much smaller that the 4 being only 268cu./4.4 litres.
By 1921 the Bearcat was brimming with technological improvements. Among its many features was electric starting, rear wheel brakes, a multi-plate clutch, a three speed transmission, shock absorbers and a spotlight mounted in the windscreen pillar. These later version had a more enclosed bodywork
than the originals, even with a vestigial hood. The final versions of the car were manufactured in the mid- 1920s – featured the more sporting six-cylinder engine, and were appropriately dubbed the “Speedway Six”, while the Bearcat itself was called the “Speedway Four”.
But it was during the early 1920’s that the fortunes of the company seemed to take a turn for the worse – almost overnight. By 1924 the company was losing over $500,000, a princely sum for the time. To rectify matters Schwab hired F E Morkovics (from Marmon) as President, while Charles Greuter was brought in to produce a new European-style sports-car, with $1 million being made available for tooling.
The new model “AA” or “Vertical Eight” appeared in 1926, and was fitted with a straight-eight cylinder 289cu./4.7 litre engine. Marketed as the Safety Stutz, it had advanced four wheel hydraulic brakes, and used wire-reinforced glass in the windscreen. A speedster version of 1927 was given the name Black Hawk, and while Stutz cars of this period performed well in American racing, one car would travel to Europe and finish second at Le Mans in 1929 - naturally behind the winning 4.5 litre Bentley.
The Bearcat name was retained for short wheelbase versions of subsequent luxury models, but all car production ended in 1935. Many years later, in 1970, a new Stutz company offered GM-based replicas from New York, these cars retaining the Bearcat or Black Hawk titles.
The Indianapolis 500
Lets return to the early part of last century. Before Harry Stutz
entered the Indy scene, the race had been a triumph for overseas car builders. Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500 in a Peugeot and Rene Thomas won the 1914 race in a Delage. It was bad for the American car makers, who had promoted the race as an exciting shop window for their own machinery, so in 1915 it was decided to drop the capacity limit from 7.3-litres to 4.9-litres. Harry went to a lot of trouble to build three cars for the 1915 Indianapolis 500, but they didn't win. He was out to beat the Europeans with a four-cylinder 16-valve engine that owed much to the top end design of the 1914 Mercedes and the bottom end of a 1913 Peugeot.
A Stutz started the race from pole position, but it was ironic that after 800 kilometres (500 miles) and five and a half hours, the result was Mercedes-Peugeot-Stutz. Harry Stutz
started work as soon as the new regulations were posted. He was an innovator but he was also smart enough to copy successful ideas where they would fit into his own overall design. Thus his new cars had the Stutz combined differential and gearbox as a refinement of the transaxle he had designed back in 1910. His 16-valve four-cylinder engine reflected Peugeot thinking in the spur drive from crankshaft to cam, and Mercedes ideas in the rocker mechanism and valves. Bore was 48 mm, stroke was 165 mm, and the capacity was 4887 cm3. It had a three ball bearing crankshaft and developed 97 kW (130 bhp) at 2800 rpm. Wheelbase was 2743 mm (108 inches) and the car weighed 997 kg (2200 lb).
A minimum average speed of 130 km/h (80 mph) for the two qualifying laps was more than 18 of the 40 entries could manage, and when qualifying started Dario Resta set the pace in his GP Peugeot at 158.53 km/h (98.5 mph). Then Ralph de Palma
went out in his new Mercedes, one of the cars that had swept the board in the 1914 French Grand Prix. It had been shipped just two weeks before the British blockaded all German ports. De Palma
ran his two laps off just 0.1 mph faster. The three Stutz cars had yet to run. Gil Anderson was the driver the fans were waiting for. A Norwegian by birth, he had raced a new Stutz four months earlier against the dying 7.3-litre formula cars in the Grand Prize at San Francisco and finished fourth. He had always driven Stutz cars and he was known as a charger.
But Harry Stutz
had other ideas. He told Anderson and Earl Cooper that he wanted them to qualify at 156 km/h (97 mph) and they dutifully made the field at 155.1 km/h and 155.6 km/h. The fans were puzzled. So, probably, were Anderson and Cooper who knew the cars would run faster than Harry's target pace. Then Howdy Wilcox came out in the third Stutz with instructions to go for the pole and take it at 159.3 (99 mph). His two-lap average was 159.11 km/h (98.9 mph) and the new Stutz was on pole for the 500! De Palma
had the option of a second run in the Mercedes but he decided to stick with his spot in the middle of the front row between Wilcox and Resta's Peugeot. Cooper and Anderson started on the second row beside a 1914 Sunbeam driven by Jean Porporato.
The race was scheduled to run on Saturday, May 29 but driving rain for two days kept the 33 starters from the Speedway until the Monday. Then a fine rain mist was blowing across the track but it was drying in the wind - and when the flag finally dropped Resta grabbed the lead. Wilcox had been given his '' hare" instructions from Stutz and going into the second lap he swept past the Peugeot. It lasted only two laps before a valve spring broke, the big Stutz laboring on with three cylinders and Wilcox dropped back. Anderson, then third behind the Peugeot, was then given the "go" sign and he swept into the lead setting a loping pace in front. With 80 kilometres (50 miles) gone, he had a 32 sec lead on Resta. De Palma
and Porporato were 2 sec down on Resta, with Wilcox (obviously not suffering too badly minus one pot) and Cooper in line astern.
Challenging the Europeans
were to bother Anderson at Indy and haunt the Stutz team for the rest of that season. After 75 miles, Anderson could see his front covers fraying and the canvas starting to show. Four laps more and he pitted for a one-minute tyre change that let Resta into the lead. Tyre failures were to cost Anderson eight pit stops, and Cooper four. They also cost Harry Stutz
the race. Resta had the race in his pocket but on the 137th lap with 260 kilometres to go, he blew a tyre and spun the Peugeot. He limped to the pits for new tyres all round and De Palma
took the lead in the Mercedes. Resta was second but the high speed spin had upset his steering
, and Harry Stutz
was out at the pit wall urging Anderson and Cooper to speed up and apply pressure to the leaders, and never mind the tyre
The Stutz pressure tactics came close to the big pay-off. Three laps from the finish the engine note of the Mercedes took on a dramatic change. A connecting rod had broken and as De Palma
rattled over those last laps, still leading, the flailing rod end punched two holes in the Mercedes crankcase. But De Palma
held on and won the 1915 500 in his stricken car, averaging 144.6 km/h (89.84 mph) and collecting $22,600. The Stutz team finished third (Anderson), fourth (Cooper) and seventh (Wilcox), their only consolation being that they were the first Americans home and the only Americans to challenge the continuing supremacy of the Europeans. Oddly, those efforts earn little more than passing reference in historian Griff Borgeson's book, "The Golden Age of the American Racing Car".
Indianapolis marked the first appearance of the three-car Stutz team (although Anderson had raced the prototype in San Francisco earlier) and during the remainder of the season they ran the board tracks and dusty road courses across the States. Tyre problems robbed them of wins on the two-mile Chicago Maytown board track, but fortunes picked up when Anderson and Cooper scored a pair of one-two victories in two 30-mile races on the Elgin (Illinois) road course. Resta wasn't at Elgin with his Peugeot but on the Fort Snelling concrete speedway he turned up with Bob Burman in a sister car. Both French cars went out with engine failure leaving Anderson and Cooper to stage a side-by-side grandstand finish after 500 miles of racing.
The Astor Cup
The 350-mile Astor Cup on the banked board track at Sheepshead Bay (NY) resulted in another Stutz one-two victory. Cooper's car had swallowed a valve after 46 miles and De Palma (in a fourth Stutz built during the season) was sidelined with a seized piston at half distance. Len Southward proudly places the stovepipe-sized exhaust
manifold over the ports of the four cylinder, 4.9-litre 16-valve Indy Stutz engine, watched by writer Eoin Young. A miniature of the metre-high NZ Motor Cup, won by Bob Wilson in 1927 stands on top of the engine. Harry Stutz
had proved his point. His cars were winners, even if they hadn't managed to win the big one and he withdrew from racing to concentrate on filling orders for production cars.
Stutz Number 7
The four works cars were sold to Earl Cooper, the works driver, as a job lot for $5000 and he raced each of them for a year before selling them for $5000. Each. After the 1915 season the Stutz name was really only carried by the car that Cooper happened to be racing at the time, according to research by noted American auto historian Charles Lytle. As the cars were sold, they appeared under different names with different owners until the formula changed in 1920 and the capacity limit dropped to 183 cu in. (three-litres). Best-known of these Stutz privateers was Cliff Durant, who bought the ex-Anderson car which had won one of the Elgin road races and the Astor Cup at Sheepshead Bay. For some reason this car was known as Number 7 although according to Lytle the car didn't carry that number when it raced in America. It was to race as Number 7 when it reached New Zealand, carrying on a tradition whose origins are clouded.
Durant entered the Stutz for the 1919 500 as a Durant Special and Eddie Hearne drove it to second place behind Howdy Wilcox in a Peugeot. The fact that a four-year-old car could finish the classic 500-mile race in second place was a legacy of the war, but the decision to drop the Indy limit to three-litres came because Carl Fisher, the track owner, feared that lap speeds were rising too high. Crowd control was difficult and the cars waited 15 minutes at the start, during which time Craig ruined the clutch on the Stutz and the race went to the Mercer
driven by Howard Nattrass (who had won the inaugural New Zealand Motor Cup race in 1921 in a Cadillac).
Also see: The History of Stutz (USA Edition)