The Story of Stutz
Rebirth of a Classic Car
by James D. O'Donnell
"The Stutz Bearcat roadster was preeminently the sports car of the Jazz Age, " writes John B. Rae in his book The American Automobile. Car buffs called the Bearcat the classic sportscar of the era. According to Ralph Stein, "the Stutz Bearcat, like Paul Bunyan or the Twentieth Century Limited, is part of the American Folklore, " (The Great Cars).
In 1914, the Stutz Bearcat was entered in the famous INDY 500 race in Indianapolis. The car was unknown but surprisingly finished the grueling race and came in fourth. The Stutz Bearcat was thereafter known as the "car that made good in a day." The INDY 500 was, and still is, the most renowned event in car racing and is still held each Memorial Day. Winning or even placing at the INDY 500 is comparable to the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. In no time at all the Stutz Bearcat became the darling of Hollywood, New York City and Newport R.I. - any place where conspicuous consumption existed.
In Hollywood, Gary Cooper could be seen speeding around town in his Bearcat. In New York, the Great Gatsby himself, F. Scott Fitzgerald was frequently reported to be speeding back and forth from the city to the Hamptons in Long Island with his wild and fun loving wife Zelda at his side. Nationally famous society/gossip columnist Walter Winchell parked his Stutz Bearcat prominently outside the Plaza Hotel in New York or in front of the famous theatrical hangout, Lindys' restaurant. Winchell was frequently reported hobnobbing at Lindys with Damon Runyon, and other public figures of the era.
For more than twenty years the Bearcat flourished only to be put out of business by the Great Depression of the Nineteen Thirties as were cars like the Duesenberg, Mormon and Pierce Arrow. In all likelihood, the sudden demise of the luxury car industry added considerably to the romance of the car as it has existed in history and memory.
This background in part explains the fascination and love of this particular car that inspired my role in the reincarnation of the Stutz automobiles. The Stutz Company had been dormant for thirty years when Virgil Exner came to the O'Donnel Organization in 1968. Mr. Exner, a veteran designer, came to Wall Street to ask for financial and management help in manufacturing a neo-classic car using American engineering combined with the superior artistry of Italian coach builders. At the time I had a staff of thirty people operating my own private bank and a stock and bond company with an investment banking department which underwrote new stock issues and raised venture capital.
Mr. Exner's original goal was to obtain financing for a new Duesenberg. He was part of a group which included Fred Duesenberg, nephew of the original carmaker, and they had a beautiful prototype which was awaiting the capital for production. Unfortunately, the project was not well planned and in serious debt. So after thorough investigation, including a fact finding trip to Italy and their non existant "factory", I declined to raise the capital.
However, the fascination with the classic car had taken hold of my imagination. So only a few months later I contacted Mr. Exner again and we agreed to explore the manufacture of a different car. The Stutz experience took me from design concept through to production and through each step along the way. We agreed that he would be responsible for the designs and I would provide the financing and management.
In preparation for this new venture I commissioned a market study of the luxury car market. Some of the conclusions of that study reinforced my determination to build a line of custom cars. With classic lines. For example it was determined that the only cars available in the $ 20,000.00 price range in this country were foreign made and service and repair were a real problem. In recent years, the introduction of the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental Mark III had sold two times their projected sales. Designers who did customizing were doing very good business at prices thousands above the $ 20,000.00 price tag.
In August 1968, I visited Mr. Exner in Birmingham, Michigan where he had a studio. He had many dream cars but one was outstanding. It resembled a batmobile but was not threatening looking. Mr. Exner pointed out that the front of the car had a phallic look which created unconscious excitement. Whatever the reason, it looked like a winner.
Not being a professional car maker, I asked Mr. Exner if we could get another opinion on our design from an expert in the field... Mr. Exner had expressed the belief that we should go with General Motors and their long hooded front for the chassis. The Pontiac Grand Prix was his choice.
At that time, John Z. DeLorean headed the Pontiac Division at General Motors and he agreed to meet with us and give us his opinion on our project. Mr. DeLorean was a very tall and handsome man with a sense of humor and no nonsense approach - I liked him. After a few hours of discussion he concluded that our project was feasible, our choice of the car was correct, and if we wanted to go ahead with the Pontiac Grand Prix he would give us all the cooperation we needed.
Naturally, I was delighted with his decision but I couldn't resist asking, very flippantly, "If this car is so good why don't you make it?" Just as flippantly he replied, "O'Donnell while you make the prototype of this car I will make one million Pontiacs." He went on to point out that the firm pointed lines of our design could only be made by hand. Manufacturing dies tend to flatten the look after a few thousand cars were made. How prophetic he was!
Now the real work began. We had to decide how much money would be needed to go into production, and how to get it. Where would we make the prototype now that we had the design? Where in Italy could we make the cars? What government regulations would we have to comply with and what price range should we target? It was necessary to make sufficient profit to assure continued production. Who would sell the cars when we got that far? These were but a few of the problems that had to be solved before we even made the prototype.
At this point in our planning we also needed a name. As a young boy I had a Greek friend called Chips whose father was the Banana King of Pennsylvania. Chips' father owned a black and yellow Stutz Bearcat. When Chips was 16 he would borrow the Stutz to drive around town to show off. Once in awhile he would take me for a ride. I never forgot how special I felt riding in that beautiful automobile.
The original Stutz Motor Company had by this time, been dormant for thirty years and the name had become public domain. We were able to use it, but not without problems. It took ten years and a lot of legal battles and fees, but we won each one. Most of the adversaries were looking for nuisance settlements. Fortunately, none of these battles cost us one moment of production time because we were on good safe legal ground.
Armed with nothing but an artist's rendering, a name, and an idea, the "opportunity to invest" had to be sold. With an initial capitalization of $ 100,000.00 we eventually raised $ 1,200,000.00. This was the bare minimum needed for a project of the proportions we were considering. Based on the prudent business man's rule and the fair man's rule - that the greater risk, the greater award- the Stutz company was structured as follows.
First the founders would get one third of the company for the minimum cash but maximum donation of time and skill to the corporation, without pay. Each founder received his allotment according to his promised participation and talents. Second, private investors would buy one third of the company at a price at a substantial discount from the price of the stock to be offered to the public at a future date. From the drawings and the dream - the reincarnated Stutz company would go on to manufacture over 600 handmade luxury automobiles.
After raising the capital, the next step was the making of the prototype. A 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix was delivered to a sophisticated, high tech model making shop in Detroit, Michigan. There, Mr. Exner fashioned a clay model of the new Stutz according to the vital measurement of the Grand Prix. It was absolutely crucial that the new Stutz body fit every centimeter of the Grand Prix. When finished, the clay model had the exact look of the car to be made.
While the prototype was under development, I made many trips to Italy looking for a manufacturing site and small parts suppliers. The manufacturing site chosen was in Cavallermaggiore, Italy, about an hour from Milan, outside of Turin. Facilities and skilled workmen were available and it was a desirable site from the cost of living and transportation considerations. It was here that we made the prototype from the clay model and set up for subsequent production.
Cavallermaggiore was chosen for aesthetic reasons, too. The town dates back to the Middle Ages and has a metaphoric suggestion of classical antiquity which provided the proper setting for the recreation of a classic car. The town of 10,000 is protected on three sides by the sea and on the north by the awe inspiring Alps which gave the area a walled in feeling. There is a classical link for the workers too. The artistry and metal working skills of the craftsmen of Cavallermaggiore can be traced back to their Etruscan forefathers who, by tradition, fashioned the steel armor worn by Italy's most noble soldiers.
If it is not clear at this point, let me reiterate that Stutz did not make any engine parts, radios, air conditioners, electric systems, etc. Stutz made only the handmade coach and the truly exquisite interiors. Just dealing with the production of coach and interior proved to be enough of a challenge.
When Mr. Exner was satisfied with the final clay model, "skins" or plastic forms were made over the clay model. The process of making the skins destroyed the clay model, so it no longer exists. In the Italian factory, the skins were used to make a wooden mannequin over which steel body parts would be hammered into the body. The body parts would be placed in a large fixture where a Grand Prix chassis awaited the welding process. The mannequin was finally completed in July 1969. The prototype cost $300,000.00 in 1969 dollars and would cost an estimated two million in our current economy.
Since the new Stutz Motor Car Company of America did not make any part of the automobile except the handmade coach and the hand-crafted, excuisite interiors, suppliers had to be located and contracts negotiated to obtain more than thirty items to complete the production. The concept of the handmade coach on the General Motors chassis gave the consumer the better of both worlds. Parts and service on General Motors cars are available all over the world. Stutz body parts can be handmade in a good body shop anywhere.
But not all decisions made about design and configuration were based on practicality. There are pure luxury touches too. For example the metal fittings inside the car such as steering rim, cigarette lighter, window controls etc. were plated with 14K gold. These special touches even extended to the engine oil dip stick. AND with each new Stutz, the buyers received two gold plated ignition keys.
The first model was completed in December 1969. A two door hardtop, the model was called the Stutz Blackhawk. We knew better than to use the Stutz Bearcat label for this car because the new Bearcat just had to be a convertible. At the time, the U.S. government has outlawed the sale of convertibles in the United States. The design modification that were necessary to comply with these new safety regulations kept the Stutz from realizing its full sales potential for a status car.
The Stutz Blackhawk prototype was flown to New York City and made its debut at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on January 20, 1970. The car was beautiful and made a hit with the American and international press. The Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times, other newspapers, three New York television stations, magazines and the foreign and domestic radio stations covered the event.
I believe that the Hogg report was right and it was the opportune time for a new luxury car in America, especially a handmade one. Although not approaching the dizzy devil-may-care atmoshere of the Roaring Twenties, America was heading into a new era of affluence and the love affair with the automobile was as strong as ever. Thousands and thousands of luxury automobiles were sold each year but the market for a custom made, handmade car in the United States was largely untapped. In their search for something new, something different, and something that represented the stamp of luxury and status, many of American's trend setters took to the new Stutz with enthusiasm.
To promote and sell our new Stutz, personal appearences were necessary. I appeared on many television show, both national and local. The national shows included To Tell The Truth, What's My Line, and The Merv Griffin Show. Public Relations was handled by a professional firm who booked the many auto shows we attended in the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East.
The very first car sold by the new Stutz company was bought by Elvis Presley. He was fine young man, very thoughtful and polite. He was to buy three more of the cars later. Two of them are in the museum at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1987, I helped restore those particular cars for the museum.
The Stutz again became the darling of the Hollywood crown: Dean Martin, Dick Martin, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Debbie Reynolds were among the entertainment group of buyers. Sportsman, too, had a yen for a Stutz. Boxing champions Mohammad Ali, George Forman, Larry Holmes and baseball Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Willie Mayes were counted among Stutz owners. Once again a Stutz could be seen parked in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York as well as other fashionable "watering holes." The American love of power and speed on four wheels lived on.
The Congress of the United States proclaimed a Stutz Day on July 24, 1974. All day long Senators, Congressman and staffers came by to see the new American beauty on display on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The event was written into the Congressional Record.
From 1968 through 1988, I crossed the Atlantic over 60 times supervising the Stutz factory operations and sales. During taht time I sold cars in England, France, Germany, and Mount Carlo, as well as the United States. The new Stutz' included coupes, convertibles, four door sedans, bullet proof limousines and 46 special four door convertible military sedans for the Royal Guard of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and King Hassan of Marocco. Stutz owners also included the Shah of Iran, and the Emir Alsabah of Kuwait.
The last innovation we developed before I left an active role in the company has the potential for revolutionizing the automobile industry. That is the carbon fibre car. Stutz manufactured the carbon fibre Stutz Bearcat II Convertible body from a revolutionary Diamond Fiber Comp material. Diamond Fiber Comp is lighter than aluminium, stiffer than titanium and three times stronger than steel. Stutz offers an inprecedented lifetime warranty on the body against dents, dings and rust.
The interior of the Diamond Fiber Comp convertible is hand-crafted of rich Italian leather and includes a matching set of fitted, personalized luggage in the special storage area behind the driver and passenger seats. The interior is trimmed with hand-rubbed Milanese burled walnut and the moldings, instruments, switches and interior alone involves over 1,500 man hours per vehicle. Before I left, I personally sold two of these cars to the Sultan of Brunei, reportedly the richest man in the word.
My twenty years of active participation in the new Stutz Motor Car Company of America were exciting, frustrating at times but rewarding in many ways. I met the most influential people of our times and learned a great deal from my many experiences. For a young lad from Pennsylvania, life turned out to be much more than he had ever dreamed.
In 1988 I retired as President and CEO of Stutz, remaining as a major stock holder. At the present time I am looking forward to new manufacturing opportunities and challenges.
James D. O'Donnell wrote this story in 1991 for his professor at Eckerd College, where he graduated at the age of 78!