From Indy to Le Mans

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Every month MOTOR SPORT receives a series of enquiries from owners about the history of their particular car. Some are unexceptional vehicles, some are important; but on occasions something very special turns up. It happened this summer; the car is the only remaining example of three supercharged Stutzes which competed at Le Mans in 1929, and it is the very car road-tested in this magazine 57 years ago.

This unique survivor of one of the few pre-war transatlantic challengers to pose a serious threat to the Europeans, and specifically the Bentleys, is a car with an exciting and verifiable competition history: built especially for Le Mans in 1929, it was driven there by Richard Watney and George Eyston, running as high as fourth though it eventually failed to finish, and later that year it was driven in the TT by Watney, only to catch fire and retire.

In between it was offered for sale by Warwick Wright, the London Stutz agent, and was road-tested by MOTOR SPORT in January 1930. It was discovered derelict but virtually complete in the mid-Seventies, still bearing the number-plate UV 1906 with which it was depicted in this magazine before the war, and it appears now in the same form as it was then, having had minimal alterations in the meantime.

That this car is one of the three 1929 LM cars seems clear from a number of features. Stutz had entered a lone Black Hawk in the 1928 race, where it had impressed by finishing second, and the company was convinced that it could beat the Bentleys next time with the benefit of some modifications. Accordingly, three special supercharged short-chassis cars were built.

Most noticeable is that the ’29 cars have right-hand drive, the normal American position having been found a drawback on a clockwise circuit, and between the front dumb-irons sits a Roots-type supercharger. Then, the cars were prepared and the bodies built by Weymann in France on short-wheelbase chassis shipped from Indianapolis. Instead of the standard bolt-on wheels, knock-offs were used, and the spinners on UV 1906 show the French words droit and gauche. In addition, the car has double brake-lines, asbestos-wrapped fuel pipes, tags for the plombeur to seal oil and fuel fillers, and neat air-scoops under the chassis to cool the rear shock-absorbers.

Following the Stutz racing trade-mark of a pointed tail, a huge triangular fuel tank was installed, and an extra oil tank fitted to the scuttle under the bonnet. Both of these items were still on the car when it surfaced some fifteen years ago. The engine number is from the correct range for a mid-1929 unit. The position of the feed-pipe from the blower shows that it is not the Brisson/Chiron car which caught fire, restarted, and then went out with clutch failure, since that had the pipe under rather than over the chassis rail as on this car.

Finally, the presence of the hood indicates that this is the TT car as no hood was fitted to the Le Mans cars, but one was added to UV 1906 for the Irish race.

Like so many historic cars, the Stutz is at the centre of some romantic stories. It is unclear what happened to the car after it caught fire during the TT, but the stories say that it was being driven during the War by a young pilot, who spent a night at the White Hart Hotel in Saffron Walden with a young lady. Perhaps unable to pay the bill, or perhaps intending to return, he left the car there; he was shot down and killed soon afterwards.

True or not, the car was certainly put up for sale by the hotel in 1946, amongst a selection of agricultural machinery, and was bought by a local farmer. He kept the car for more than twenty years, never running it on the road, but merely around his land. Gradually it degenerated, until Paul Grist, restorer and vintage racer, was told of what merely seemed to be an old American car falling apart.

Seeing the supercharger excited his interest and when he opened the bonnet and saw the scuttle-mounted oil tank he realised what the car must be, and his idea was confirmed by lying in the muck under the car from where he could see the huge pointed fuel tank. After some negotiation, he purchased the car, and set about his immense task. The Stutz was remarkably complete; the fabric body had been replaced by aluminium and the fuel filler moved, but the ash frame was there, with Weymann’s tack-holes visible, and even the charring in the tail from the TT fire. A Bedford lorry gearbox had been fitted, but that was the only major mechanical departure from its one-time glory.

With some of the restoration done, Grist, feeling that such an important car really belonged to the USA, then offered the car to both Briggs Cunningham and Bill Harrah, and it was soon installed in the Harrah workshops. Although Harrah died during the restoration, the work went on under the new owners of the collection, Holiday Inns, and the car was one of the 100 selected to remain as a “core collection” when that organisation liquidated the majority of the 600 or so cars. However, even those were finally sold in 1986 to a General William Lyon, and it was from him that the current owner bought it.

The car now lives in Pennsylvania, and during my visit them to drive the car I was shown a copy of the restoration manual prepared by the Harrah research department, and an impressively thick volume it was. The history in detail was followed by a (remarkably small) list of missing parts and wrong parts, pages of specifications for spark-plugs and axle oil taken from contemporary Stutz manuals, instructions to platers, paintshop and fabricators, trim details with fabric and seal samples, and tyre sizes, all illustrated with close-ups of original photographs and works drawings, plus a final sheet for the paintshop showing the large figure “6” to be painted on the radiator stone-guard just as it had been at Le Mans in 1929.

As the stature of the Le Mans endurance event grew, and the Bentleys made their mark with victories in 1924 and 1927, Stutz was one of many firms to conceive a desire to reap the benefits. American cars had been rare entrants at the Vingt-Quatre Heures, so when a solitary Stutz driven by Brisson and Bloch finished second in 1928, narrowly failing to deprive the British marque of its third victory, the Stutz engineers set to work to build a sure winner for the following year.

The single-cam two-valves-per-cylinder “Vertical Eight” was enlarged to 5278cc, the wheelbase of the all-semi-elliptic chassis was reduced to 1271/2in, a four-speed gearbox installed, and the underslung worm final drive raised to 3.8:1.

According to Johnny Green, the Bentley historian, the superchargers were not part of the original plan, but were added when the company heard of the forthcoming Speed Six model which their Bentley rivals would field for the 1929 race. This would account for the slightly clumsy external feed-pipe from the front-mounted blower back to the big Zenith carburettor on the side of the huge straight eight block. In the event, of course, it was the Speed Six of Sir Henry Birkin and Woolf Barnato which triumphed, followed by three 41/2s. The sole remaining Stutz, that of Bouriat and Philippe de Rothschild, was fifth.

Little testing was done on the supercharging system, and the drivers were doubtful of its value; indeed it is not definite that all the cars raced with the blower fitted. Two of the cars retained the humped blower cover, but the Motor report implies that the Watney/Eyston car was unblown for the race, and contemporary pictures seem to confirm this. Either way, the blower was used in the TT.

Many of the modifications to the three cars have already been outlined, but the details are interesting: the Roots-type blower is driven from the nose of the crankshaft through a bronze-faced clutch which can be engaged when required by a small lever on the steering column. Running at only 4-6 lbs boost, the power soars from 113 to 155 bhp, enough to propel the Stutz to the magic 100 mph. A flap valve below the carb allows it to breathe when the blower is not turning, and there is a crude blow-off valve to cope with backfires. The carb float chamber is pressurised while on boost , and a little lever was provided to release this pressure afterwards.

Extra oil was carried in the scuttle tank, and the driver could release as many pints as he wanted directly into the sump with a knob on the dash. Both manual air-pressure and electric fuel feeds were fitted, shock absorbers were doubled up, an unusual type of windscreen frame was fitted with both upright and horizontal support arms, and an auxiliary instrument panel was added. This carries boost and fuel pressure gauges, and a large dial tachometer to supplement the elaborate standard Stutz instrument Panel with its dainty little drum-type readings.

That auxiliary panel is one of the few new or replacement parts which had to be added during the restoration; others were radiator and fuel caps, tail lamp, the cast step plates, the bumpers, and of course the gearbox, which came from the Harrah stores. In 1928 the Stutz had made do with three speeds, which handicapped it. For the following year, therefore, an extra gear cluster was added on the back of the box, resulting in an odd shift pattern with first and reverse seemingly transposed: the former is top left by itself, the latter ahead of second. And it is necessary to lift a collar to engage first, but not for reversing!

Although this is a car of real significance in American motoring history, its owner believes that cars are only made to be driven. Accordingly, after I had inspected every corner of it, we climbed on board and pressed the starter button. Bursting into life is an old description, but that is just what the Stutz does; and its rapid off-beat idle sounds for all the world like a competition car of today. Together with the man who keeps it running sweetly, restorer David L George, we surged onto the main road.

Naturally, we were bound for a motoring event, a local car show, and the big Stutz slotted effortlessly into the traffic. The sohc twin plug engine peaks at some 3800 rpm, so 50-60 mph means a loafing couple of thousand revs in top, and the pulling power of the long-stroke (85.7 x 114.3mm) design is tremendous. Left in top gear, merely squeezing the central throttle pedal puts on another 10, 20, 30 mph and another few decibels to the urgent exhaust rumble, while after a careful double-declutch into third, the gleaming black bonnet shudders, and the car swishes ahead even faster.

The clutch picks up smoothly enough, but there is only one chance with the crash ‘box and it is easy to be fooled by the speed with which the tach needle rises, because it falls much more slowly. Gentle changes with two fingertips against the tall plated lever are the way to do it.

There is a splendid view from behind the big wheel with its ignition, throttle, and lights levers; at this height one is eye to eye with the drivers of enormous pick-up trucks, though with the low hood erected, anything above the horizontal is invisible. Over the surprisingly rough Pennsylvania road surfaces the 20in wheels are little affected, and the steering answers promptly after an initial heave. We bound up a long hill, mostly in top, recalling what my predecessor described as “a sensation as near to flying as may be obtained without actually leaving Mother Earth”, and turn in to the grounds of Immaculata College, where the show is being held.

As soon as we stop, a crowd materialises, drawn away from the lines of more recent machinery by the rakish profile of this thundering car. We have been asked to judge the Classic class, and park the Stutz to one side, but soon the organisers are asking for it to be moved centre-stage and included in the judging. We oblige, and dutifully resign our Judges’ tags. The Stutz wins the Classic division by popular vote. It is a car with a powerful presence even when silent.

We set off again, looking for the right sort of road to try the blower on. It is not designed so be left in all the time; it was probably intended to be engaged once the car was into top on the Mulsanne straight, because it does not like a closed throttle. Apart from the risk of forcing fuel backwards through the system, the extra oil which is bled into the blower jets out through the blow-off valve, coating the inside of the bonnet.

On a straightish stretch we finally check the fuel pressure, retard the ignition, and pull the small chrome lever. A harder note issues from the engine, though no whine is audible, the boost gauge jumps, and the tach and speedo spin in unison. It is not a kick in the back, buts firm shove, and it seems to be undiminished as the speed rises, until suddenly a corner looms, the lever is pushed back, and with a snort the carb reverts to breathing normally.

One of the praiseworthy features noted in MOTOR SPORT’s original test was the braking; it is still excellent. Brawny 16in drums do the work, aided by a vacuum servo which has a rotary sensitivity control on the dash; “dry” gives maximum assistance, with a “wet” position for the opposite. How I wish far such a device on some of today’s cars.

We explore winding tree-lined side roads with the tyres chirping and the engine bellowing in third and top; sedate drivers of big station wagons scatter as the Stutz flashes past neat little homesteads. It feels alarmingly fast while I am at the wheel, though I know it actually handles and stops with aplomb, but when its owner takes over and gets the bit between his teeth, the slender pointed tail begins to slide back and forth between the hedges in exhilarating imitation of its racing past. It leaps stiffly over crests, responding urgently as if the pit-signals are telling us that we are gaining on the Bentley ahead . . .

But the excitement cannot last; we return to more crowded roads, and finally I take the wheel again to conduct our rumbling mount back into town. On the freeway, 60-70 mph is comfortable, except that I realise with a start what my concentration on winding the wheel has made me miss so far — there are no mirrors at all. By now the gearchange is less of a challenge — I have disproved the then Editor’s comment that “it is nearly impossible to make any noise when changing” — and even in rush-hour traffic the only complaint the Stutz suffers is a little hesitancy from some oiling of the plugs, brought on no doubt by using the blower earlier.

A final back-street blast brings the Stutz to its garage; the ignition is cut and the fuel-filler opened to release the excess pressure which seems to have been behind the recurrent fires these cars suffered. The plugs will need cleaning, and the oil from the blower mopped up, but it will not be long before that smooth engine is again fired up for another fast journey.

What struck MOTOR SPORT’s reviewer in 1930 was how close the Stutz seemed in character to a European sportscar; today it would be hard to guess the country of origin from its lines alone. Intended to steal Bentley’s thunder, the Le Mans Stutz instead finished an also-ran, overshadowed by a British 1-2-3-4. There were Stutz entries at Le Mans for the following three years, but no successes. Nothing further was heard of the intended run of 25 supercharged Black Hawks to be sold only to experienced customers.

Yet that history detracts nothing from this important survivor; it was and is a superb example of a very fast sportscar, handsome and very driveable, and with an enviable past, and it was a rare thrill to experience 57 years later the same sensations as the Editor of a young and struggling journal named MOTOR SPORT. GC