In looking at Henry Ford’s forays into the airplane and aviation industries we’ve touched on the story of William Bushnell Stout. Stout was the man behind Ford’s successful endeavor into aviation with the Ford Trimotor. Car enthusiasts, though, might be more familiar with the small run of Stout Scarab automobiles, said to be the “first minivans”. Stout introduced a few other other automotive firsts like air suspension and the use of composite bodies. How much of an innovator Stout was, as opposed to someone who saw value in the ideas of others and brought them to fruition, is open to debate. He was certainly respected by the engineering community, serving as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers. It’s undeniable, though, that Stout saw the promise, later fulfilled, of commercial passenger aviation, and while many of the Scarabs’ more prominent features can be called dead-ends, quite a few of the things that Stout built into his cars are probably present on the car or truck you drive.
William Bushnell Stout was born in 1880 in Quincy, Illinois, though by the time he was in high school his family was living in Minnesota as he graduated from St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts High School in 1898. He attended Hamline University and the University of Minnesota but never graduated, due to developing a problem with his eyesight that apparently improved over time. Adding aeronautics to his mechanical interest, after marriage and a move back to Illinois he founded the Model Aero Club of Illinois, experimenting with model airplanes. He must have resolved the issue with his vision because in 1907 he became Chief Engineer of the Schurmeir Motor Truck Company of Chicago.
As with a number of automotive and aviation engineers Stout also tried his hand with writing about his passions and in 1912 he was named automobile and aviation editor for the Chicago Tribune. That year also saw Stout founding Aerial Age, the first aviation magazine to be published in America. He was also a contributor to the Minneapolis Times under the clever pen name of “Jack Kneiff”.
In 1914, Stout was hired to be head engineer of the Scripps-Booth Automobile Company of Detroit. Today Scripps-Booth is best known for making the one-off Bi AutoGo, which had nothing to do with being attracted to both men and women but rather was an enormous two wheeled vehicle (with little outrigger training wheels) that was the first V8 powered vehicle made in Detroit. Of perhaps greater significance to automotive history is the fact that the Scripps-Booth company was one of the firms that Billy Durant bought on his path to create General Motors. Scripps-Booth was the project of philanthropist, artist and engineer James Scripps Booth, an heir to the family that founded the Detroit News and the Cranbrook educational community. The car company he founded made conventional automobiles but also tried to capitalize on the popularity of lightweight “cyclecars” with the JB Rocket cyclecar, designed by William Stout.
The moderate success of the JB Rocket brought Stout to the attention of Alvan Macauley, who headed the Packard Motor Car Company. Macauley made Stout general sales manager of Packard and in 1916, when the automaker started up an aviation division Stout was named to be its chief engineer. Stout seems to have been a bit peripatetic because only three years later he left Packard to start his own company, Stout Engineering, in Dearborn.
Stout Engineering led to the creation of the Stout Metal Airplane Company, which I covered a bit in my post on the Trimotor. After Henry Ford more or less edged Wm Stout out of Stout Metal Airplane Company, which built the Trimotor, the aeronautical engineer went back to his Laboratories to apply what he’d learned from making airplanes to designing an advanced automobile. In the 1930s, a number of automotive engineers and designers including Josef Ganz, Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka were looking into both aerodynamics and the packaging needs of inexpensive “peoples cars”. Along with those European engineers, Stout embraced the rear engine, rear wheel drive layout as a solution to both of those design issues. In an article in Scientific American, Stout extolled the virtues of moving the engine from the front of the car to the back, “When we finally ‘unhitch Old Dobbin’ from the automobile, the driver will have infinitely better vision from all angles. The automobile will be lighter and more efficient and yet safer, the ride will be easier, and the body will be more roomy without sacrificing maneuverability.”
Stout called his car the Scarab, no doubt because its envelope body shape resembled that Egyptian beetle’s shape. While Ganz had already introduced the idea of naming a car after a beetle, Stout likely arrived at the same idea independently. In any case, Ganz, who popularized the concept of a volkswagen, an inexpensive entry level automobile, and Stout were pursuing different market segments. From 1934 to 1939, Stout is believed to have built a total of 9 Scarabs with a starting price of $5,000, a price that would approach $90,000 in 2014 dollars. For their money, buyers got advanced design features like fenders incorporated into the body, no running boards, and skirted rear wheels. Not quite as obvious but still found on cars today were the Scarab’s hidden door hinges, flush mounted door handles, and flush glass, all intended to improve the Scarab’s aerodynamics.
In recent years, luxury car makers have started incorporating filters to remove dust from their cars’ ventilation systems. The Scarab featured those as well as other modern amenities like ambient lighting, thermostatic heating controls and powered door locks. One reason for being called the first minivan is the fact that while the driver had his or her own door, passengers used a single central mounted side door on the passenger side, similar to the original Chrysler minivans (and VW’s earlier Type II “Bus”). Another reason is that like some minivans, the passenger seats of the Scarab could be reconfigured around a table in the rear of the cabin. Since the seats were not secured to the floor, that might be a safety issue in the event of a collision.
It’s believed by many that the Scarab’s styling was the work of John Tjaarda, whose styling for the Briggs Dream Car, a rear engine streamlined design, would eventually turn up as the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Others say that the Scarab was not the work of Tjaarda, whose son Tom Tjaarda had his own successful career as a car designer, but rather was simply influenced by the senior Tjaarda’s earlier “Sterkenburg series” of streamlined monocoque car designs. In any case, the Scarab followed the streamlining style manual, adding a heavy dose of then au courant Art Deco ornamentation. From its headlight grilles and ancient Egyptian theme up front to the elaborate and delicate metal work and chrome trim in back, the Stout Scarab today is considered perhaps the finest automotive expression of the Art Deco design ethos. All nine of the Scarabs, built by a company set up by Stout, not surprisingly called Stout Motor Car, had slightly different interiors, as they were effectively custom, hand built cars.
Besides its radical styling and advanced design features, the Scarab was mechanically interesting. With Stout’s established relationship with Ford Motor Company it’s not surprising that the car featured a flathead Ford V8, but unlike in Ford cars it was mounted over the rear wheels. Output was rated at 95 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque. Driving through a three-speed manual transmission, that 94 hp was good for a 0-60 mph time of 15 seconds, per a modern day test by Special Interest Autos. By using aircraft construction techniques, the Scarab weighed just 3,300 lbs, which is impressive considering that it’s 195.5 inches long and over 6 feet tall. Stout experimented with an aluminum body featuring magnesium doors in his 1932 prototype, but he decided those materials were too expensive to use in the production Scarabs, which were made with steel bodies mounted atop a steel tubing space frame. With the engine and transmission facing towards the back of the car, Stout came up with a layout that would later be used by Lamborghini on the Countach, Diablo and Murcielago. The power of the output shaft of the transmission is transferred to a driveshaft that runs underneath the transmission and engine back to the rear axle.
The suspension of the Scarab was sophisticated for its day, with all four wheels independently suspended. Actually, it might even be sophisticated for a modern car. Up front were lower control arms, coils springs and aircraft style “oleo” struts, while the rear suspension had swing axles (considered the latest thing in the ’20s and ’30s), unequal length upper and lower control arms, lower trailing arms, more “oleo struts” and a transverse leaf spring, something that the Corvette still uses, though from period build photos, the rear struts appear to be “coilover” units with coil springs (see the gallery below). Stout’s use of struts in the rear suspension of the Scarab is said to have been an influence on the development of the so-called Chapman strut, fitted by Colin Chapman to a number of Lotus cars including the Elan. Brakes were hydraulically operated with cast iron drums at all four wheels.
The Scarab was never intended to be a mass market vehicle, with production planned at no more than 100 cars a year. While some promotional materials were made, sales were by invitation only. As would expected those who bought Scarabs were well off, including family names like Firestone, Wrigley and Dow. Still, it was an expensive car and there was a depression going on. Combine a high price and styling that was radical in its day and still looks a little bit odd and you can see why sales never reached projections.
In the late 1930s, Stout started looking into the use of the Firestone Rubber Company’s experimental air springs and fitted them to his personal Scarab and they were also likely installed on Harvey S. Firestone’s Scarab as well. During World War II, Stout was a consultant with the War Production Board regarding the use of smaller industrial facilities and Stout Engineering became allied with the Consolidated Aircraft company, with Stout devoting most of his time developing the Aerocar and Helibus concepts.
After the war, Stout returned to the Scarab concept, this time constructing what he called the Stout Scarab Experimental, also called the Project Y or Y-46. The styling was much more conventional than the original Scarabs, with normal sedan styling and two conventional doors but the construction was even more radical. Not only was the Project Y likely to have been the first car built with a fiberglass composite body, Stout predated the Lotus Elite by using the material to implement monocoque frame-in-body construction. The Y-46 also featured air suspension, likely transferred from Stout’s original Scarab (after Stout put over 250,000 miles on that car), and a wraparound windshield, a feature that wouldn’t show up on production cars for almost a decade.
While fewer than a dozen Stout Scarab automobiles were produced, Stout had more success with larger vehicles. Gar Wood Industries produced about 175 transit buses based on Stout’s designs, more or less scaled up Scarabs.
Drivers, then and now, describe the Scarab’s ride as being both smooth and stable. At least five of the nine original Scarabs still exist and a number of them are in running condition including the silver Scarab pictured here. It was made in 1936 and it belongs to Larry Smith of Pontiac, Michigan. It was photographed at the 2012 Eyes On Design show. You can see another of the surviving Stout Scarabs here. The Stout Scarab Experimental Y-46 also still survives, in the collection of the Gilmore Car Museum, near Kalamazoo.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS