By on July 12, 2014

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.


William B. Stout

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.


JB Rocket Cyclecar on display at the Henry Ford Museum. Full gallery here

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.

Click on the settings icon to watch in 2D or your choice of 3D formats.

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.


1946 Stout Scarab Experimental “Project Y”, likely the first fiberglass car. Full gallery here

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

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30 Comments on “The Stout Scarab – An Art Deco Automotive Artifact That Was Ahead of Its Time...”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Before he got going on the Scarabs, Stout spent a year or three designing the Pullman-built Railplane.

  • avatar

    What an absolutely stunning piece of rolling art! Every line is so purposeful, a perfect blend of stright lines and gentle curves. Even the door handles are flush.

    *Sigh*, back when auto designers took pride, and accountants didn’t neuter the designers. *looks longing into the distance*

    • 0 avatar

      Closest objects to rolling art these days are Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. If you’ve ever seen one on the Interstates, they are simply breathtaking, coming and going.

      I will admit that seeing a current Mercedes S-class pass me, also makes me catch my breath. They look awesome from any angle.

      Styling is still alive, just not available to the vast majority of car buyers.

      • 0 avatar

        Exactly–if you’re trying to compare this limited-production, sold-by-invitation-only driving machine to any of the entry-level cars you’re probably thinking of, you’re going to come to exactly the conclusion that you wanted to in the first place.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. I think it’s magnificent (and that’s without comparing to the eyesores that populate our roads).

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Add a ducted fan to the model being examined in that lower row photograph, and you have an Optica observation aircraft.

    There is almost too much outstanding engineering in the Scarab; no wonder its price was that high. And the front’s styling is incredibly gorgeous.

    Thank you very much for yet another glimpse into an important footnote in automobile history.

  • avatar

    His styling certainly seems to have influenced the Packards and Nashes of the early ’50’s, and also the Tucker.

  • avatar

    Nice read.
    Hand built and starting at $5k priced the car out of the market.
    The look was radical for the time and it shared the fate of the Chrysler Airflows. Superior engineering and aero design not in step with the mid 30’s customer.
    The big deal then was ponton fenders and a move away from upright rectangular bodies.
    For comparison, a 1936 Packard Super Eight touring 7P cost $3,650.

  • avatar

    If you live in the Northeast and want to see an example of one of these, the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum has one in their collection.

    Displayed next to it is a similar car, the 1933 Eliot Cricket III. Maybe Ronnie could give us a write-up on this one as well. Not a lot of info about it on the internet as far as I can tell, but maybe you could find more info about it at the DPL or the Benson Ford Center?

    • 0 avatar

      The museum is a bit more than 3 hours from Boston, along the Maine coast.

    • 0 avatar

      And try to go on a summer weekend. Owls’ Head believes that old cars, planes, bicycles, etc., should be heard and smelled as well as seen. Summer weekends, they are being driven, flown, ridden. What a wonderful way to enjoy old machines. Don’t forget to take a ride in a Model T Ford. And, yes, they have a Scarab and the Eliiot.

      Not to be missed any day, but best on a summer weekend!

  • avatar

    What a gorgeous bunch of cars!

    Incidentally, the Scarabaeidae are a family of thousands of beetles–dung beetles. Scarabaeus sacer is the single species worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, but is probably not strictly Egyptian. Dung beetles certainly are worthy of worship, as they are the ultimate recyclers, turning dung into rich soil. Without them, the African savannas never would have supported the vast herds of herbivores. When elephants poop in Africa, hundreds, maybe thousands of large dung beetles flock to the scene, often fighting over the dung–as if there weren’t enough for everyone–and hours later, there’s not a trace.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the piece.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Another fascinating story, Ronnie. Thanks especially for including that video. The car seems to glide like a Citroen DS, with its long wheelbase.

    I really love the roominess of these old cars; why can’t they build a roomy car today?

    And I’ll say it: Even though I admire the Scarab’s engineering qualities, I think it’s homely – particularly that nose art.

    • 0 avatar

      “And I’ll say it: Even though I admire the Scarab’s engineering qualities, I think it’s homely – particularly that nose art.”

      Funny – I think there’s a lot of Scarab in the LEAF’s design – just sayin’ :-)

      Also funny – with all of the obvious aerodynamics of the design, the headlights (and fuel filler) stand out like sore thumbs – unless there are flush glass covers under those ornate headlight grilles(?)

    • 0 avatar

      Homely, sure, but absolutely loaded with character.

  • avatar

    ” Although the Ford Tri-Motor was based on Stout’s earlier designs, it’s ironic that he had no input into the final design of the plane with which he remains most-associated with.”

    So says Mark Theobald at in a rather epic biography of Bill Stout that took me a few hours to digest, stimulated by the excellent series published here on TTAC. The bio I would rate as very good, but it is riddled with punctuation errors, and incorrect and missing words caused by scanning old text. It’s as if the author just couldn’t be bothered to reread and edit his ambitious biography. A great pity.

    Nevertheless, such things as Stout’s early eyesight problems are covered, although it never becomes clear whether he ever actually obtained his engineering degree, despite claiming so much later in life.

    Stout was a character all right. Driven is the word that sums him up. He would do anything, however menial, to earn enough income to get by in his early days. His obvious talent was writing which he parlayed into obtaining engineering jobs by his early thirties, mainly as a salesman. That truck company he joined – he was the draftsman, not chief engineer.

    The Imp cyclecar he promoted and later accepted credit for had no engineering input from him. The Rocket cyclecar? Already designed. Not until later in WW1 when he got into aviation did he get involved seriously in design, and there’s no doubt he had a talent for it, and an artistic capability as well from his earlier syndicated boy’s construction articles. He changed jobs about once a year, driven by compulsion to be recognized.

    His main characteristic seems to have been “gift of the gab” and the ability to raise money. His secondary characteristic seems to me to be the championing of ideas that were a bit “off”, and which were never taken up by manufacurers to any great degree. Plus, once the idea had taken root, he never seemed to adjust to a new reality growing up all around him, but soldiered on as a sort of evangelist with disdain for the “not invented by me” ideas. You needed a lecture on future trends? Call Bill and he’d come running with a talk on all manner of crazy ideas that wowed his audiences, and not coincidentally promoted himself as a guru.

    He was a promoter of space-frame design from his aviation days. The change to monocoque design by Boeing, Lockheed and especially Douglas in the late 1920s and early 1930s seems never to have registered on his consciousness. He doesn’t seem to have appreciated stressed skin construction at all. While Budd was working with Chrysler and Citroen to come up with modern car unibody design in the 1930s, old Bill Stout was still stuck on space frames, until belatedly designing the unibody Scarab III after WW2.

    He even designed a space-framed railcar for Pullman when Budd was making monocoque ones, so the original Scarab car was going to be a space-frame no matter what. The derivative bus (made in far greater numbers than the car by Gar Wood) was space-framed too, of course. A pity, since Stout was president of the SAE at the time, and would or should have known about Flxible and their monocoque buses. Not his idea though, so apparently disregarded.

    He had three main wacko ideas, in my opinion. First, that air-cooled engines were better than liquid cooled ones for cars simply because they ran hotter. Second, that light cars always rode better than heavy ones (his idea about vibration transmissibility as shown in a cartoon is laughably incorrect). Third, that rear-engined vehicles always handled better than other configurations and took curves better.

    These beliefs led him up several blind alleys. He apparently had never absorbed the mathematical lessons GM (Maurice Olley) published on ride quality in the early 1930s, wherein they showed that the engine should be placed between the front wheels of a vehicle (leading to independent front suspension on cheap cars as a way to move the engine forward to where the solid front axle used to be).

    His idea was that all four wheels should be at the car’s extremities, but that neglects the basic precept that loads are better absorbed through suspension mounting points placed near or on large masses, like the engine. Long load paths on spindly space-frame tubes are not the way to go on a road vehicle, which is supposed to be rigid, quite unlike an aircraft.

    The description of the rear suspension of the Scarab in your post, Ronnie, makes no sense at all, which is what led me to research the man and the car.

    You cannot have unequal length A-arm suspension with a swing axle. It cannot articulate with three different pivot axes. For proof, all you have to remember is the VW Beetle, Triumph Spitfire, Corvair and two decades of Mercedes sedans. One universal joint isn’t going to work with double A arms. So these cars didn’t have them.

    The answer to the weird suspension you describe lies in the patent application for the Scarab I. It had two transverse leaf springs acting as upper and lower A arms, much the same as the old Imp cyclecar, and not unequal length to any degree either.

    This design was canned for the actual production Scarab II cars, replaced by the huge Oleo struts shown in your picture. Aircraft practice, don’t you know. Thus automatically brilliant! And, allowing Stout to incorrectly claim that since the top mounts carrying the vehicle weight were above the center of gravity, the car was hammock-suspended and leaned into turns!

    Apparently, he neglected to remember that the suspension connections other than the struts constrained the roll center. A pretty amateur mistake. Road vehicle dynamics seem not to have been his area of expertise.

    About sums up my opinion of Stout. A backyard tinkerer of higher than average ability, hobbled by ideas that weren’t quite on, superior writing skills, the ability to wow lecture audiences with his way out there predictions, and avid self-promotion. He liked being looked up to, but was missing some basic engineering knowledge that he steadfastly avoided completely understanding all his life. But a dynamo of a man.

    Thanks Ronnie for writing these articles. They stimulate the quest in me for greater knowledge of the engineering past. My favorite time remains the early to mid 19th century, when all the big battles were won, and my book collection reflects that.

    Sorry for being so wordy.

    PS. The Chapman strut used double-jointed axles. No fool that man.

    • 0 avatar

      No apologies needed. Thanks for your great comment.

      “The description of the rear suspension of the Scarab in your post, Ronnie, makes no sense at all, which is what led me to research the man and the car.”

      Some of it seemed redundant to me but that’s what the source said. Thanks for the clarification.

    • 0 avatar

      Nice post – Stout reminds me of the Wizard of Oz – salesman first, knows just enough engineering to be dangerous. I know this because I’m the same way, I just don’t oversell my abilities :-)

  • avatar
    I've got a Jaaaaag

    The silver car pictured or one that looks just like it is currently on display in Atlanta at the High Museum of Art’s “Dream Cars” Exhibition. It is amazing to look at in person.

    The exhibition runs through September 7th and is well worth the price of admission.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve been considering doing a post on the High Museum’s Dream Cars exhibition because I’ve been fortunate to be able to photograph a majority of the cars in the display, I think 10 of the 17. A lot of the credit for the fine art world appreciating the art of the automobile should go to Fredrick Scharf.

      • 0 avatar
        I've got a Jaaaaag

        Interesting, I hadn’t heard of him. This is the second Automotive Exhibition at the High. The nice thing is non-flash photography is encouraged.

        Some amateurish photos of my visit, if you do a post and can use any go ahead.

  • avatar

    No DLO fail.

    Three words




  • avatar

    You can tell that this design has its roots in aircraft simply because planes don’t have reverse gear.

  • avatar

    Ronnie Schreiber writes: “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.”

    That’s exactly what the term innovator means: ‘A person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products,’ as distinct from an inventor, ‘A person who invented a particular process or device or who invents things as an occupation.’

  • avatar

    Front end looks like a Fiat 500L.

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