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Stutz Bearcat

Bearcats One of my earliest objects of Car Lust was the co-star of one of my favorite TV shows.

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!

The who?

Bearcats_overhead_shot

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.

Vickers_maxim_accessory_group 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.

Boyles_bearcat

(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

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Nice post. FYI, the term "underslung" when referring to suspension design refers to a chassis layout with the springs and axle set atop the frame rails. Google "American Underslung" for more. The Stutz, however, used a more conventional chassis layout with the springs under the frame rails.

You might have been confused by Stutz's later use of an underslung worm-gear rear axle, starting in about 1926, which the company heavily advertised and used to good effect by building sleeker and lower bodies.

One other point of clarification - you mention the multi-valve four-cylinder. Stutz had a great reputation as a multi-valve engine builder, but the earliest engines (which actually weren't built by Stutz until 1917) used a T-head configuration, with intake valves on one side and exhaust valves on the other. T-heads breathed poorly, so most T-head manufacturers used multi-valve designs to get any performance or efficiency out of them.

dan

Am I alone in clicking through every one of the freelance troubleshooter links above to see which shows Cookie was talking about? I was a bit stunned to find that MacGyver wasn't included, though - to me he's the ultimate freelance trouble-shooter.

Congrats on hitting the oldest car ever covered - the Bearcat is a gorgeous, gorgeous car.

"Where is Gomez?"

I especially like the 1970s versions of 1910s clothes, combined with 1970s haircuts.

I left MacGyver off the list partly for reasons of space, and partly because he was a steady employee of the Phoenix Foundation, and so really not technically "freelance." (Yeah, that's nitpicking, but I'm a professionally trained nitpicker (lawyer) and I can't help myself.)

I'm sure with the state-of-the-art 1914 suspension and such, the car FELT fast. I bet 60 MPH raised the hair on the back of your neck.

I was one of the 2 dozen fans! When I was a little kid a legendary car from the beginning of the century was beyond cool. If it happened to look like the bearcat - and have a name like "Bearcat" then it would potentially inspire so much child-car-lust that my head would explode. There was cool written all over this thing.

What an amazing list of TV shows. The "equalizer" and "have gun will travel" what great shows!

For the cross-section of car lust and itinerant free-lance troubleshooter, how could you leave out NIck Mancuso in Stingray? Mysterious former spook/soldier with no name travels country in black Stingray helping out the desperate and asking only for an unknown-favor-to-be-paid-later in return. I loved that show during its brief '80s run.

I love that you used the phrase rip snorting adventure in a post about Bearcats! What a great look back on such a unique automobile.

I remember this show! The show is usually the first thing that springs to mins when one mentions the Stutz Bobcat car.

One maybe-useful MacGuyverism that they used in one episode- their radiator had been shot-up and the car konked out somewhere in the middle of the desert. They patched the radiator somehow (I forget how) but were left with the quandry of where to find water to refill it in the middle of a desert. Solution- slice open a cactus and drain the internal sap/fuids/whatever.

Just crazy enough to work... maybe.

Hi, I'm the aforementioned John who owns the restored Bearcat replica. I appreciate your (or anyones!) interest in the show.
As a kid, I can't describe how much I wanted that car. It was the coolest thing ever.
A couple of small points..the series turned out to be better than I expected it to be. Not bad for an adventure show of the period.
Sure the plots were a bit contrived, but Rod Taylor's acting made up for a lot. A bit of huimor, great location filming (well, most of the time) neat props...WWI tanks and planes, and a neat car, What else could a car mad kid ask for?
Also, the replicas were made by GEORGE Barris...not Chuck. He's the game show guy.
I love owning the car. It's fun to drive and I've gotten to meet barris and correspoind with Taylor and Dennis Cole.
Some childhood wishes do come true.

John: So glad you came by and left a comment! I appreciate the kind words about the article, and it's nice to know that the Bearcat is alive and well and in good hands.

Just a quick clearification to my post above...I should have typed:
"...after watching DVDs of the series, it was better than I was expecting, 30+ years after first seeing it..."
It holds up really well, especially the acting and production values. Where else can you see a semi-high speed chase between a Bearcat and Buick touring car on a twisty, dusty road?
Too bad they don't make more "adventure" shows like it anymore.

I am trying to find a picture of the 1911 Indy 500 stutz that made Harry so happy he made a Phrase :The car that made a good day". However I am not able to do so. Why are there no photos of the car available?

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