Forged in the bellowing exhaust, brick dust, speed and danger-filled cauldron of the 1911 Indianapolis 500-mile race, the Stutz Bearcat sped on to become an American legend; it name is still revered a century later as the car that put the “roar” into the Roaring Twenties.
Built in just half a dozen weeks by a tinkerer turned car maker, the first Stutz effort didn’t score a fairy-tale win at the Brickyard, but avoided 500 miles of on-track carnage and engine-stressing mechanical malevolence to finish a strong 11th after averaging 68 mph and become “the car that made good in a day.”
In the years that followed, factory-backed Bearcat racers – known as the White Squadron – won dozens of races and, with Erwin “Cannonball” Baker at the wheel, set a new California-to-New York record of 11 days, seven hours and 15 minutes.
The cars went on to became the fast wheels of choice for striped-blazer and straw-boater attired, hip-flask packing, college boys and their flapper girlfriends as they explored new freedoms epitomized by jazz, art deco, surrealism and bath-tub gin in the 1920s (the latter two possibly connected). Meanwhile, their parents were spending their stock-market-generated wealth on more staid Stutz Town Cars.
The early Bearcats were as brutally powerful and fast as they were brutally crude in their handling and stopping ability and brutally expensive, starting at $2,000 and climbing to double that by the early 1920s, by which time they did at least boast real, if rather Spartan, bodywork.
The Stutz story began with Ohio-born Harry Stutz, who grew up fixing farm machinery, trained as a machinist and worked for sewing machine and cash register manufacturing companies, while designing engines on the side and building his first car in 1897.
He then set up shop to manufacture his engines, built himself another car, and in 1905 designed a complete vehicle for American Motor Car Co.
Stutz went to work for the Marion car company as its chief engineer and designer and, by 1909, was creating successful street cars and racers before moving on to manufacture a transaxle he had designed. Early in 1911, he realized his dream of building a sports car, the first of which ran at Indy that year in the first Indianapolis 500 race
Stutz then set up Ideal Motors to build and market the car, which originally was known as the Bear Cat. He changed the company name to Stutz Motor Car Co. a year later, by which time the car was known as the Bearcat and would be produced until 1922.
But in 1919, Stutz lost control of his company to some Wall Street fast movers. He went on to create a short-lived car company, build fire engines and become involved in aviation, creating the unique horizontally opposed Stutz-Belanca engine, which died with him in 1930.
Stutz Motors went bust, was born again, building “safety cars” with “Noback” hill-holder systems and glamorous machines such as the Black Hawk and DV32 Super Bearcat. The cars also added to their racing reputation, finishing second to a Bentley in the 1928 Le Mans 24-hour race (after losing top gear) and fifth the next year, but still failed to survive the depression.
The doors closed in 1935 and all that remained was myth and legend, which, of course, made the 35,000 produced much sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.
In the latter category, arch-evil-rich-guy Mr. Burns of Simpson’s fame owned a Bearcat, as did Sam Drucker, proprietor of the Hooterville general store in the 1960s sit-coms Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and the stars of the 1970s TV series Bearcats. Speed Paxton drove one in an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale and Mr. Magoo has been seen at the wheel of one, as well as more recently larger than life adventure tale hero Dirk Pitt.
Author Clive Cussler, Dirk Pitt’s creator, counts himself among the Stutz faithful, owning not only a 1913 Bearcat 4B, but a 1928 V-8 Town Car, a 1931 DV32 Boat Tail Speedster and a 1932 Town Car.
Cussler recently rolled 56 cars from his museum collection in front of the lenses of photographer Ronnie Bramhall and the result is a just-published coffee table book called Built for Adventure – The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons) that captures the magnificence and magic of the automobile’s early years in North America.
Clive and Dirk’s 1913 red-and-black Bearcat B4 is powered by a 389-cubic-inch Wisconsin T-head four-cylinder engine that chuffs out 50 hp at 1,500 rpm and can get it up to a scary-fast 70 mph (112 km/h) – brakes are fitted on the rear wheels only. It powers the rear-wheels through Stutz’s patented three-speed rear-mounted transaxle. The heavy steel chassis has a 120-inch wheelbase and runs on 4.5-by-34-inch wire-spoked wheels.
There’s no “bodywork” to speak of, just a boxy hood – like a doghouse for a Saint Bernard, says Cussler – over the engine, flaring fenders and a pair of bucket seats with a barrel-shaped fuel tank behind. Some came with a round “monocle”-style windshield on the driver’s side.
The Stutz name was revived in the early 1970s and 600 or so lavish and expensive cars built based on General Motors running gear and Ghia-built bodies up to 1995 – Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Evel Knievel were among early buyers.
The 1913 Bearcat is a favourite of Cussler’s, who says when he passes late-model cars on the highway, with its thundering exhaust and unobstructed wind rushing against his face, he can’t help shouting, “Look, Ma. Top of the world.”
Back in 1911
The year produces a diverse crop of future entertainers, Jean Harlow, a 1930s motion picture sex symbol known as the Blonde Bombshell, L. Ron Hubbard, sci-fi writer and founder of Scientology, and playwright Tennessee Williams.
Travellers owe a debt of gratitude to Willis Farnsworth of Petaluma, Calif., who invents the coin-operated locker to keep their stuff safe while they’re waiting for the next bus, train or airplane.
American archeologist Hiram Bingham kick-starts the Peruvian tourism industry with the discovery of the 15th-century Machu Picchu ruins of an Inca emperor’s mountain retreat, which become famous as The Lost City of the Incas.
The Bearcat’s exhaust wasn’t the only thing that went bang, bang, bang in 1911 and became an American icon – so did the model M1911 semi-automatic .45 calibre pistol, which became standard military issue from that year until 1985 (2.7 million were produced).