Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Stutz cars recall the grand old days

Four valves per cylinder and overhead camshafts are now commonplace, but they are far from new.

Four valves per cylinder and overhead camshafts are now commonplace, but they are far from new. In 1912, the Peugeot Grand Prix racing car appeared with that soon-to-be classic layout, a four-cylinder, four-valve engine featuring twin overhead camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers and a crossflow cylinder head. It is credited to Ernest Henry, a brilliant Swiss engineer, and although four-valve heads pretty well remained the preserve of the racing fraternity, they occasionally turned up on road cars.

One of these was the Stutz DV32, which appeared in 1931. Stutz cars dated from early in the 20th century, when Harry C. Stutz owned and operated the Stutz Auto Parts Co. in Indianapolis. It manufactured a combination rear-axle and transmission, what we now call a transaxle. To prove the robustness of his product, Stutz built a car fitted with the transaxles and courageously entered it in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race in 1911. To his delight, it finished 11th. Riding the wave of good publicity, Stutz organized the Ideal Motor Car Co., which he changed to the Stutz Motor Car Co. in 1913. He chose a slogan inspired by the Indy showing: "The Car That Made Good In A Day." The Stutz Bearcat, one of the most romantic and swashbuckling models ever, appeared in 1912.

The Bearcat was a rugged, no-nonsense machine comprised of little more than an engine, hood, clamshell fenders, two bucket seats, a real trunk and a big barrel of a fuel tank, all mounted on a sturdy, truck-like frame. The Bearcat and its arch rival and equally spartan Mercer Race-about epitomized the American sports car of the era.

Harry Stutz sold control of his company in 1919, and it struggled through boardroom and showroom ups and downs. After some stock-market manipulations, it came under the control of Bethlehem Steel magnate Charles Schwab in 1922.

To again try generating some racing publicity, Stutz introduced a car designed for competition, the 1926 Stutz Vertical Eight. It would not be a disappointment. The Vertical Eight had a single overhead camshaft, 92 horsepower, inline eight-cylinder engine and won, among others, a 24-hour race at Indianapolis.

A Vertical Eight Stutz Black Hawk became the 1927 American Automobile Association stock-car champion, as well as being America's fastest car. And in 1928, a Stutz finished second in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, with Chryslers third and fourth. It was the best time for America on that famous circuit until Ford's four wins in the 1960s.

Like other prestige car makers, Stutz suffered badly in the Great Depression of the 1930s. In spite of the hard times, Stutz competitors Cadillac and Marmon forged ahead with V-16s, and Lincoln, Auburn, Pierce-Arrow and Packard with V-12s. Although its cars were in the same price class, and Schwab had deep pockets, Stutz couldn't afford to design and tool up for a big multi-cylinder engine.

The alternative was to add some panache and performance to what they had by upgrading the Vertical Eight and the Black Hawk. This was done by following Duesenberg's lead and fitting the eight with double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The resulting Stutz DV32 (double valves, 32 in total) also included a model that revived the legendary Bearcat name. It was introduced at the New York auto show and was in production by the summer of 1931. There was also a single-overhead-cam two-valve eight called the SV-16.

Stutz sent teams of new DV-32 engined cars, led by the Bearcat, to many racing venues around the country to demonstrate their speed and style. With 156 horsepower, essentially the Le Mans racing engine, they were certainly fast. The Bearcat was guaranteed capable of reaching more than 160 km/h.

In addition to its magnificent powerplant, the DV-32 had hydraulic brakes with vacuum assist adjustable by a control on the instrument panel. It also had a central one-shot lubrication system and hydraulic shock absorbers. A worm-gear differential, a feature introduced on the 1926 Safety Stutz, allowed low and rakish body lines.

In spite of the DV-32's speed and style and the magic of the Bearcat name, the Depression was just too much for Stutz. Production, which had stood at 2,600 cars in 1928 and 2,320 in '29, slid precipitously after that.

In the 1930s, a total of only 1,500 cars would be built, and by 1935 the inevitable announcement came: "It is not part of the present program to continue manufacture and sale of the Stutz car." The company continued operating for a few years, building a light delivery vehicle called the Pak-Age-Car in which the driver stood up. It was a rather ignominious way for another grand old American automotive name to fade from the scene. The Depression's impact had prevented the fabulous Stutz DV-32 from having the opportunity to ever realize its full potential.

[email protected]