There's a recurring character in American television which might be called "the free-lance troubleshooter." He (it's usually, but not always, a "he") may be a private detective, gunslinger, nomadic gambler, international man of mystery, reformed cat-burglar, itinerant martial arts instructor, laid-off secret agent, fugitive soldier of fortune, genetically-enhanced escapee from a mad scientist's lab, amnesia victim, or just some guy in a Corvette with lots of gas money. We follow this character (or group of characters) week after week as he solves people's problems with a combination of thrilling chase sequences, dramatic confrontations, clever
improvised weapons, witty repartee, gunfire, fisticuffs, and/or large
explosions. He may do it for the money, or out of generosity, or because he's chasing a long-term story arc, or just because he has nothing better to do.
My all-time favorite show of this type featured two stalwart men of action and their hot sports car, roaming the back roads of the great American West in search of problems to solve and things to blow up. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire ... the Bearcats!
Bearcats! was an action-adventure series set in the year 1914. Wisecracking ladies man Hank Brackett (Rod Taylor) and his young partner Johnny Reach (Dennis Cole) made their living solving problems no one else could solve. Their fee was a blank check, because if you could put a dollar figure on your troubles you didn't need their help badly enough. They took on the usual assortment of Wild West bad guys--train robbers, renegade Indians, cattle rustlers, card sharks, and miscellaneous bandits--as well as uniquely twentieth-century threats such as Mexican revolutionaries, feuding oil companies, and Imperial German agents provocateur.
This being the twentieth century, Hank and Johnny didn't ride horses. No, these modern men of action drove to work in what was then the world's hottest sports car: a 1914 Stutz Bearcat.
The Bearcat was the production version of Harry C. Stutz' original 1911 Indianapolis 500 race car. It had a 6.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine (bigger than many of today's big-block V-8s) with four valves per cylinder (one of the first multi-valve engines) and aluminum pistons. This engine fed power to a rear-mounted transaxle (the first of its kind), which gave the car a nearly even front-rear weight distribution. Its "underslung" suspension lowered the center of gravity, which further improved handling.
The big-block four-banger produced a blazing 50 horsepower and propelled the Bearcat to a top speed of 80 MPH. The 0-60 dash took just under half a minute. Yes, today there are golf carts that can probably smoke a Bearcat on the drag strip, but in 1914 this was high performance. Just as important for Car Lust purposes, the Bearcat looked cooler than its contemporaries--it was low, purposeful, just big enough for two passengers; luxuriously appointed, yet all business. If you're going to drive a car from that era, this is the one you want to be driving. It tells the world that you might be wealthy, but you're not soft.
The Bearcat quickly became synonymous with upscale high performance. The original version was produced through 1917, and successive generations of the design carried on the Bearcat name until Stutz went out of business in 1935.
While the Bearcat was a success in its day, Bearcats! was not. It premiered in the fall of 1971, running opposite The Flip Wilson Show. Flip Wilson was at the peak of his popularity and his comic skills in 1971. Even with their Stutz Bearcat tricked out with an aftermarket .303 Vickers Maxim machine gun, Hank and Johnny were no match for the entertainment horsepower of "Geraldine" and "Reverend Leroy from the Church of What's Happening Now!" Having flopped against Flip in the ratings, Bearcats! was canceled after thirteen episodes, leaving its fans (all two or three dozen of us!) with nothing but our 1:25 model kits, our happy memories, and occasional late-night reruns of the two-hour pilot movie Powderkeg.
Truth be told, Bearcats! wasn't as good as I remembered it to be. What looked to a 10-year-old boy like grand rip-snorting adventure with a cool car was really just a formula Western with cheap production values, contrived plots, and anachronistic music cues.
The Bearcats! Bearcat is still cool, however, even to jaded adult eyes. The production company used a genuine 1914 Stutz in the filming of Powderkeg. For series production, the real Stutz was too fragile and too valuable to risk, so custom car builder
Chuck George Barris was commissioned to build two replicas. The replicas were line-by-line copies of the original body and frame, with powertrains from a Ford pickup truck. Barris built a third for his own use, and displayed it at car shows.
John Boyle, who was a young Bearcats! fan in 1971, credits the show with sparking a lifelong love of antique cars. After a nearly 30-year search, he tracked down one of the Barris replicas, bought it, and lovingly restored it. It's pictured below, looking ready as ever to chase horse thieves, rescue women and children from marauding bandits, keep the Kaiser's dastardly minions the hell out of Texas, and make a grab for Flip Wilson's audience.
(UPDATE: John Boyle writes about his Bearcat replica here.)
The box art for the Bearcat model kit came from the Thrilling Detective website's Bearcats! page, which also tells the story of John Boyle's Bearcat replica. The other photos came from the Bearcats! page at The Complete Rod Taylor Site. (You can go there and download an MP3 of the stirring theme music.) I'll leave you with a YouTube clip of the first nine or ten minutes of episode three, "Dos Gringos." It gives you a good feel for what the show was like, and the title sequence shows the Bearcat off nicely.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner