Sporting cover-up

Before WW1 they were not called sports cars, but in Europe the Prince Henry Vauxhalls and Austro-Daimlers, the London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royces, the Shelsley Crossley and the Alfonso Hispano-Suiza, as fast tourers, occupied that role.

America had such cars to appeal to the young bloods, too, but there were obvious differences. Whereas our fast cars invariably had full touring equipment – proper bodies, with windscreens and hoods – in America the sporting desires were met with much starker products, looking much more like the early racing cars. The sun shone no more invitingly than in Europe; rain also fell in the USA as it did here, so why this difference in the faster cars?

Was it because Americans were more flamboyant? Did they only drive in fine weather, or were their young a tougher breed?

The most famous of these cars was the Stutz 4E Bearcat Speedster which was a product of Harry Clayton Stutz’s Company at Indianapolis. It had a 390cu in, four-cylinder T-head bi-block engine with the unusual feature of dual ignition with a sparking plug over the 2½in inlet and exhaust valves, instead of the usual single plug in the centre, which left room for a three-branch water pipe from the radiator to fit between them. There was a belt-driven fan. The Schebler carburettor fed into an elaborate two-branch inlet manifold on the offside, and there was three-way high-pressure lubrication. This engine produced 60bhp at 1500rpm, giving a top speed of about 70mph. A multi-disc clutch took the drive to a gearbox in the back axle. There were decent-sized brake drums on the rear, and the wheels were shod with 34×4½in tyres.

The aforesaid unusual body-less style was used with just two seats on the floor and no side panels. The long hand-brake lever and gear lever with gate change were outside the top off-side chassis side member, but as the floor was high up running boards were fitted along the lower edges of these.

So if one looked at the Bearcat from the side one saw the exposed well-raked polished steering column and the seats. A further aspect of nil weather protection was the fact that the contour of the dash coincided with that of the rear of the bonnet with no windscreen, so that the Stutz’s occupants sitting well above were subjected to the full force of wind and weather. A big bolster-type petrol tank was close up behind the seats and further back was a rack for two spare wheels. The rear extensions of the chassis side members were of that slender tubular type hooked over to take the spring shackles, which has always seemed to me to be a rather frail method; but it was used by Mercedes (and therefore on Chitty-Bang-Bang etc).

In contrast the equivalent European cars had proper two- or four-seater coachwork, screens and hoods, as did our sportscars of the 1920s, from the Austin 7s to the 30/98 Vauxhalls, the Bentleys and Mercedes Benz, etc. But in spite of or because of the stark layout, among the USA’s sporting fraternity the Stutz Bearcat was popular, helped by the successes of the Stutz OHC racing cars of those days. The Black Hawk Stutzes were a challenge to the Bentleys in the 1928 Le Mans 24 Hours (one finished second, 70.58 miles behind the winning Bentley, and only 0.328mph slower).

The Bearcat’s only serious competitor was the Mercer 35 Raceabout designed by Finley Robertson-Porter at Trenton, New Jersey. It had a 5-litre T-head Continental engine developing 56bhp at 1700rpm, giving a guaranteed 70mph.