Stutz Cars of the 1970s
In the mid-'70s, I had a job during Christmas break working in a coin shop. One of my employers, whose name was Don, was very much into leisure suits, fancy watches, and gold jewelry. One afternoon, Don casually mentioned that he's thinking of buying a car. "A Stutz. You probably never heard of 'em."
"A Stutz Bearcat? I know what that is. They're beautiful old cars."
"It's not an antique," he corrected. "These cars are brand new. They only make 25 or 50 a year. Here, let me show you."
He handed me a glossy full-color brochure depicting the vehicle in high-class settings: ambling down a pastoral back road, parked at a country club, in the driveway of a mansion. The male model in the photos was a youngish hipster in a leisure suit, sporting a fancy watch and a lot of gold--could've been Don's twin brother. (Whoever designed the brochure sure knew his target audience!) The "Stutz" in the pictures, though, was no Bearcat.
Bearcats were all business, no nonsense sports cars. This was the exact opposite: all nonsense, no business even pretending to be a sports car. It had typical mid-70s "personal luxury car" lines, accented with fake side-pipes and an extra helping of maximum-strength Elvis-grade kitsch. It looked like a mutant Oldsmobile Cutlass customized by Liberace.
I was stunned. How could the storied Stutz name have become attached to this ... this ... THING?
The story of the "revived" Stutz Motor Car Company of the 1970s is a story of a great designer and a good idea gone disco-era wrong.
The Esquire/Renwal revival cars
In 1963, Esquire magazine commissioned the talented stylist Virgil Exner (of "Forward Look" fame) to imagine what the 1966 models of some defunct luxury automobile makes would look like had the manufacturers been able to stay in business. This project resulted in "revival car" designs for a hypothetical '66 Stutz, Duesenberg, Packard, and Mercer which were published in the magazine's December issue. These designs were turned into 1:25 plastic models by Renwal, a firm perhaps best known for its "Visible Man" and "Visible V-8" kits. Mr. Exner produced additional 1:25 model kit designs for a '66 Bugatti, Pierce-Arrow, and Jordan Playboy.
If nothing else, these designs show just how good Virgil Exner was. Each captures the styling cues of its historic antecedent, yet also looks like a plausible 1966 production car. Viewed from forty-some years later, a couple of the designs are downright prophetic. Exner's "'66 Jordan" is very close to the first-generation Olds Toronado. His "'66 Packard" could pass for a mid-70s Ford or Mercury personal luxury car if you just gave it a little more chrome on the front end.
From styrene to sheetmetal
It didn't take long for someone to get the idea to build Exner's revival cars in 1:1 scale. An "Exner Bugatti" was built by Italian custom carbuilder Ghia on the chassis of the last Bugatti T-101. Exner's "Mercer" design was produced as a show car on a Shelby Cobra chassis by the American Copper Development Association, with copper trim in place of the usual chrome or stainless steel.
The revival cars also inspired a group of investors to start up a new Deusenberg car company in 1966. They proposed building a car to a design by Exner that borrowed styling elements from several of the revival cars. Deusenberg managed to produce one prototype vehicle--a 5,700-pound, 20-foot, suicide-doored luxobarge on a Chrysler Imperial chassis--but the firm ran out of venture capital before it could start full production. The lone '66 Duesey (pictured at right) was seized by unpaid creditors, but escaped the crusher and survives in a private collection.
If at first you don't succeed, ...
While Deusenberg Part Deux was a failure, the business model it was trying to follow wasn't such a bad idea: build a low-volume uniquely-styled quasi-custom car for upmarket buyers, using running gear from one of the Big Three. By going with an off-the-shelf chassis and drivetrain, you could save yourself the capital expense of all that engineering and foundry tooling. Your customers could be assured to find parts and servicing for their vehicles even if they're the only one in the neighborhood--or in the county--with one of your cars. It was too good an idea not to be tried again.
In 1968, investment banker James O'Donnell formed the "Stutz Motor Car Company of America" and engaged Virgil Exner to design the new Stutz motor car. One must give O'Donnell and Exner credit for succeeding where others failed: they managed to start a new company, design a car, put it into series production, and successfully sell it to an exclusive clientele.
The new company's "Blackhawk" coupe went on sale in 1972, for the then-princely sum of $23,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that's a 2008 sticker price of $118,631, plus tax, title, and dealer prep.) The vehicles were built on a Pontiac Grand Prix chassis by Ghia in Italy, and delivered to the customer by air freight. As high-end luxury cars, they were upholstered in hand-tailored leather--and we don't mean that cheapo "Corinthian" stuff, either! It goes without saying that you could have any color you wanted, inside or out.
It's all about the bling, baby!
The styling of the Blackhawk bears a strong family resemblance to the revival cars and the stillborn '66 Deusey. The front end looks a lot like the "Pierce-Arrow" kit, the non-functioning side pipes resemble those on the "Deusenberg" and "Bugatti," the roofline is lifted from the "Packard," the exposed spare tire on the decklid comes from Exner's 1963 "Stutz" design, and the swoopy trim line on the fenders and doors echoes the wheel-well accents of the Duesenberg prototype.
And there lies the source of the car's problems, aesthetically speaking.
In 1963, when the revival cars were first penned, Virgil Exner was trying, in part, to predict future styling trends. The problem was that he did too good a job of predicting. By the early 1970s, automotive styling had largely gone in the directions Exner had forseen, and Detroit had caught up to his 1963 vision. Except for a few "edgy" details--the free-standing headlights and turn signals on the bumper, the fake side pipes, the exposed spare tire--the Stutz Blackhawk looked less like a "car of the future" and more like a pastiche of 1970s personal luxury car styling:
- The long hood-short deck look was all the rage then.
- The "formal" roofline, with the wide "sail panel" pioneered by the early-60s Thunderbird, was also quite common.
- The Blackhawk's wavy side crease resembled the fender flares of the second-generation Monte Carlo.
- The Stutz's Edsel-esque faux-radiator grille looked like the protruding probiscus that was a styling cue on early-70s Pontiacs and on "Eagle Beak" T-Birds.
- The optional padded vinyl roof ... well, try to find a two-door "luxury" coupe from the 1970s that didn't have a vinyl roof as an option.
- Since early '70s "luxury" was also synonymous with bright chrome gewgaws, the Stutz was fully blinged-out. So was every other two-door personal luxury coupe on the road--though the Stutz was the only one with a chrome-plated fake exhaust pipe running the length of the rocker panels.
Driving Miss Stutzie
I have been unable to find a first-person account of what it's like to drive one of these machines, but I think I can make an educated guess. It was probably no fun at all.
1970s personal luxury cars were powered by inefficient V-8s emasculated by first-generation emissions control hardware. The suspensions were tuned for softness, not handling, and the power steering employed Detroit's most advanced sensory deprivation technology. In short, they had dreadful driving dynamics. What do you suppose happens if you take a car which already has dreadful driving dynamics and make it 25 percent heavier?
That's what Stutz did. The early-'70s Grand Prix, the Blackhawk's donor car, had a curb weight just under two tons. A finished Blackhawk tipped the scales at a staggering five thousand pounds.
I've been unable to find any information on what suspension mods, if any, that Ghia did in the process of converting a Pontiac to a Stutz. The springs had to be stiffened to take the extra weight, or it would bottom out too quickly--yet, the springs could not be stiffened too much or it would lose its soft ride. Nor could you add sway bars, or tweak the power steering to add a lot of road feel, without offending customer expectations.
All in all, it's probably not a car I'd want to take on speed runs through the twisties--not that it's all that capable of "speed runs" to begin with. One source quotes a 0-60 time of 12.5 seconds, which sounds like a best-case scenario.
As might be expected of such a heavy car in that era, the fuel economy was a dismal 8 MPG. Eight.
"... and your point is?"
None of the vehicle's many aesthetic and performance shortcomings seem to have mattered much. Demand for the new Blackhawk was so great, relative to the number that Ghia could turn out, that Stutz could nearly double the price, to a confiscatory $43,000, just a year after its introduction. (That's $208,800 in today's dollars, kids.)
The reason for this is that the '72 Stutz was very good at meeting its customers' primary objective. Nobody bought a Blackhawk for how it cornered or how it accelerated, and Stutz buyers were too wealthy to need to care much about that single-digit gas mileage. What Stutz buyers really wanted was to be noticed--and if there's one thing a Stutz Blackhawk is good for, it's attracting attention. Unless you go to a Stutz owners' meet, you can be certain that your Stutz will be the only one you see on the road. It will be the only one anyone around you sees, either. It will be noticed.
A significant fraction of the Blackhawk's total production run ended up in the hands of entertainers and celebrities--people who, not to put too fine a point on it, make their living by attracting attention to themselves. The first new Stutz Blackhawk was sold to one Elvis Aaron Presley, who eventually bought four more. The customer list also included Sammy Davis Jr., Willy Nelson, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Billy Joel, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Evel Knievel, Al Pacino, Frank Sinatra, and Wayne Newton. Quite a few were also sold to Middle Eastern royalty.
The Stutz Motor Car Company of America manufactured well over six hundred vehicles before production petered out in 1995. Most were Blackhawks, but it also built some four-door sedans, a run of "Bearcat" targa convertibles, seven Cadillac-based limousines, and two "Royale" super-stretch limos. The firm is still in existence, and seems to be planning a comeback.
One man's car disgust is another man's car lust
As you probably figured out a couple hundred words ago, I don't find the 1970s Stutz appealing. It's too big, too slow, too soft, too Seventies, and far too overstated for my tastes. That ridiculous fake side pipe annoys me. Car Disgust.
There are people out there who quite strongly disagree with me--the small but energetic community of revival-era Stutz owners. Virgil Exner, Jr., pictured at right, is one of them. They maintain a registry, catalog minute variations in trim and equipment, rescue knackered, neglected, and partially destroyed Stutz cars from the scrapyard and restore them to their original glory, and collect Stutz-related knick-knacks. Every so often, a group of them gets together for a meet and turns a humble parking lot into Bling City USA.
These people have Car Lust.
I can't get worked up about the object of their affections, but they seem to be having a good time, enjoying each other's company and the challenge of restoring and maintaining these unique artifacts. At the end of the day, isn't that what really matters?
All the illustrations came from The Internet Guide to Stutz Cars History and Models, which is as good a source as you will ever find for information on these unusual vehicles and their fans.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner