The Stutz Bearcat name had an aura of magic, conjuring up as it did images of raccoon coats, brisk fall afternoons and handsome young blades whisking their beautiful dates to the football game. In a later era one could imagine another car bearing an animal name, the Jaguar XK120, filling the same role.
Harry C. Stutz was an accidental automobile manufacturer. His real intention was to become an automotive component supplier and in 1910 established the Stutz Auto Parts Co. in Indianapolis to produce a combination transmission-differential he had developed.
To prove his new product’s robustness Stutz built a car fitted with his new transaxle. He made his shakedown test a severe one: he entered his car in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race in 1911. To Stutz’s delight driver Gil Anderson finished 11th averaging 110 km/h (68.25 mph), outstanding performance for a new, untried car.
Prompted by the good publicity Stutz changed his plan and established Ideal Motor Car Co. to manufacture, “The car that made good in a day.” In 1913 he renamed his business the Stutz Motor Car Co.
The best known of all Stutzes, the Bearcat, was introduced in 1912 to do battle with its fiercest competitor and arch rival the Mercer Raceabout.
The Bearcat had a huge four-cylinder T-head (inlet valves in one side of the cylinder block and exhausts in the other) 50 horsepower, 6.3 litre (389 cu. in.) Wisconsin engine.
Those early Bearcats were starkness personified – just fenders, a “doghouse” hood, two seats, a barrel-like fuel tank, a real trunk and a couple of spare tires. The driver had a monocle windshield but the passenger made do with goggles or no protection at all.
Despite its minimal bodywork the Bearcat weighed a hefty 4,500 lb (2,041 kg). Its wheelbase was 120 in. (3,048 mm) and its giant 4.50 by 34 inch tires gave it a stance 48 in. (1,219 mm) high at the hood.
Performance figures for cars of this vintage are rare but in this case we have some. Mechanix Illustrated’s intrepid car tester Tom McCahill drove a mint condition 1914 Stutz Bearcat in September, 1951. He reported a top speed of almost 80 mph (130 km/h) and zero to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 29.2 seconds. He also noted that Bearcats required rugged drivers. “They would go wherever you headed them, and keep going, but you still needed lots of arm moxie to turn them. And plenty of beef to throw out the clutch and push down the brake. You couldn’t ride those old-time clutches, Buster. It takes a good 75 to 100 pounds of pressure to throw them out.” And the two-wheel mechanical brakes said the understated Mr. McCahill took “. . . enough pressure to squash a rock.”
Harry Stutz continued entering competitions with the Indianapolis 500 being a sentimental favourite in which Stutzes finished third in 1913 and 1915. The “White Squadron” racing team of white-clad drivers in white Stutzes, became the scourge of America’s racing circuits during the 19-teens.
Stutz’s exploits weren’t confined to the track. When a 1916 Bearcat owner brought his car to his New York dealer complaining that the Mercers were trouncing him, the Stutz public relations department smelled an opportunity. They fitted the car’s engine to another Stutz which was then driven coast-to-coast by long distance driver Erwin George Baker who flogged it across the continent in 11 days, 7-1/2 hours. Baker established a new transcontinental speed record for Stutz and a new nickname for himself, “Cannonball Baker.” He liked it so much he copyrighted it. He became the premier cross-country record driver, eventually setting 143 long distance marks.
Founder Harry Stutz lost control of the company through stock manipulations and departed in 1919. The Bearcat continued but sales declined and by 1924 the Bearcat name was discontinued, although it would return later.
Stutz continued building some high-performance cars, including the Black Hawk speedster which was the American Automobile Association racing champion in 1927. In 1928 a Black Hawk finished second in the LeMans, France, 24-Hour race, the best American car showing until Ford’s GT40 won it in 1966.
In the early 1930s Stutz was unable to afford a huge multi-cylinder engine like the Cadillac, Packard and Marmon V-12s and Cadillac V-16. Instead, it fitted double overhead camshafts and four-valve cylinders to its vertical eight to create the fabulous 156 horsepower, 32-valve Stutz DV-32.
The DV-32 was guaranteed to exceed 100 mph (161 km/h). A shorter version, the Super Bearcat with a 116 in. (2,946 mm) wheelbase rather than the standard Bearcat’s 134.5 in. (3416 mm) was even faster.
The Great Depression finished Stutz as it did so many others. Production ceased in 1934 but the Stutz Bearcat is remembered as the supreme embodiment of an earlier swashbuckling era.