|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
When the checkered flag dropped at the end of the Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1911 it was a Marmon that took the prize. One by one the other cars followed, and in eleventh place came a brand new machine. Just built, barely tested, it ran its first race without a pit stop except for fuel and tires. On the sidelines the designer of this rugged racer smiled with pleasure. He had not expected to win the race; he only wanted to prove the dependability of his car. He proved it, and the public bought the various road versions of the racer so eagerly that production could barely keep up with the demand.
Harry C. Stutz was the designer, one of the greatest American automotive engineers, who also had a flair for names and slogans. He capitalized on the performance of, his car by inventing a slogan: "The Car That Made Good in. a Day." It was true and also unique. No other new car before or since had ever entranced the public after one race. For the young designer it was a brilliant step forward.
Like Ford, Stutz was a farm boy with a mechanical flair, but he went Ford one better by building his first car when he was only twentyone. Like so many other backyard inventors, Stutz started with an old buggy which he equipped with a homemade engine and chain drive. This first Stutz also demonstrated his flair for imaginative names. He called it Old Hickory. That was in 1897, but the youthful car builder did not follow up his success immediately. He decided to learn everything about automobiles and methodically went from job to job with various firms. He worked for a tire corporation, a carburetor company, and transmission firm. By 1905 Stutz was ready to produce another car. It was a neat, ground hugging roadster with a wildly improbable title: American Underslung. The chassis hung below the axles, giving the car amazing stability and allowing a perfectly straight drive shaft to the rear axle. This was designing of a high order and many years were to pass before other engineers began to develop similar systems.
The success of the American Underslung led to a job as chief engineer with the Marion Motor Car Company, but Stutz stayed there only until 1910. He now felt that his education was complete and he was ready to produce a car in quantity under his own name. He did. This was "The Car That Made Good in a Day."
Following the 1911 Indianapolis test a six-cylinder Stutz appeared on the market in two versions, again demonstrating the Stutz gift for names. Customers could purchase the family size Straight-Line Torpedo or the Torpedo Roadster. They had a reputation for dependability at punishing speeds and by 1913 the Stutz cars were the American roadrace champions. But in 1914, Harry C. Stutz dreamed up a name for another new car that has become part of the folklore of the twentieth century: Bearcat.
To own this most classic of all American sports cars was the dream of every young blood in America. It was fast, quick handling, and above all, eyecatching. A college student with a Bearcat never wanted for dates, and the football stadium parking lots always featured a generous sprinkling of the brightly colored roadsters. The Bearcat became an adjunct to the roaring days of hip flasks and raccoon coats; a symbol of the high living "Jazz Age."
But what the thrill-seeking youngsters did not always realize was that the car they loved had more than just looks and speed. Contained under the long curving hood and in the underslung chassis were the finest mechanical components of the time. The Bearcat was one of the most soundly designed cars ever to be sold to the public at any time, and while the college students were dashing noisily along moonlit country roads, expert drivers were piling up an enviable record on the race tracks.
As a sports-racing machine the Bearcat has a history of wins that dwarfs many other cars of the same period. It was fast, but the main reason was the dependability of the working parts. Available to the customer was either a four- or six-cylinder engine with aluminum crankshaft and pistons. Dual ignition was standard, the brakes were exceptionally large, and the rugged frame could stand tremendous punishment. The Bearcat was truly a tough car.
In 1919, during the heyday of the Bearcat, Harry C. Stutz left his company to produce a lower priced car. Though well engineered, the magic touch was gone and Stutz had also run through his fund of names. The car was called the HCS, and the firm lasted less than ten years. But the original Stutz Motor Car Company went on. New management continued the Bearcat until 1924 and introduced a line of luxurious passenger limousines. A series of creative engineers maintained the tradition of fine design and the Stutz car returned to competition. A new model, the Black Hawk, was the terror of the tracks and in 1928 a single Stutz entry at Le Mans ran a brilliant race.
When the 24-hour contest started three big green Bentleys with screaming superchargers dominated this most famous of road races. They took the lead in one-two-three order; but Brisson, driving the Stutz, gradually began to cut down the lead. The telegraph wires grew hot with the news when the American car finally passed all three of England's best. Brisson held the Stutz out in front until an hour and a half before the end of the race. Then his gearbox gave way and a Bentley flashed ahead. The crippled Stutz managed to keep going and finished in second place, the only time in the history of Le Mans that an American car came that close to winning. In 1930 another Stutz set a record at Indianapolis by running the entire 500-mile race with only one pit stop!
Although the Stutz was perhaps the most exciting car produced in America, sales dropped during the depression. The Stutz Motor Car Company tried to shore up the failing firm by resurrecting the famous Bearcat in' 1931. The new model was a beautifully engineered sports car guaranteed to do 100 mph in the stock version. It sold poorly. There was no market and no consumer money for a hand-tooled car. Mass production methods were producing cars for far less than a Stutz cost and the American public was being weaned away from individuality in automobiles. The great disease of uniformity and gadgetry was setting in and purchasers wanted cars that looked like all other cars.
Perhaps the passing of the Bearcat was a symbol of the return to sedateness after the roaring twenties. The Bearcat was a hell-raising car and the thirties found a sober public. By 1935 the Stutz Motor Car Company ended its career, and "The Car That Made Good in a Day" is now a memory.
But it is more than just a memory. The Bearcat symbolized a kind of motoring that has only recently returned to America. The MG, the Jaguar, and other sports cars have restored the joy of driving a respon sive, precision-built machine that turns an ordinary road trip into an exciting adventure. Perhaps some day an American manufacturer will forget about chrome-plated styling and push-button gadgetry, and produce a true American successor to the immortal Bearcat.