By on February 3, 2022

An early American car company, Stutz started out as a manufacturer of a race car for the road. However, much like its founder, the brand’s direction changed very quickly. Stutz followed a winding path to its creation and went through a wild ride of death and rebirth over several decades. We begin our story in Ohio in the late 1800s. Everything is probably dark and muddy.

Stutz was named after its founder, Harry Clayton Stutz (1876-1930). An Ohioan, Stutz was born in Ansonia, a small town in the middle of nowhere between Dayton and Fort Wayne, Indiana. He grew up on his father’s farm, where his assigned job was machine maintenance. Dayton had much appeal after a pastoral upbringing, so Stutz moved there after he finished basic schooling. He worked at a sewing machine company, and then at National Cash Register. Always a tinkerer of machines, Stutz started his own general repair shop in Dayton in 1897 at the age of 21.

In the surrounds of his new shop in 1897, Stutz built his first car almost immediately. With additional development and work, he created a follow-up car in 1900 that was powered by a gasoline engine he designed and built himself. Both cars were sort of homegrown prototypes and never realized production. However, the gasoline engine seemed a promising enterprise. Stutz founded Stutz Manufacturing Company to build the engines he’d designed. The small-time manufacturing outfit garnered the attention of the Lindsay Automobile Parts Company. They made Stutz an offer he couldn’t refuse and bought out his business in 1902. They also asked him to come and work at Lindsay.

Stutz agreed and closed up his shop. He moved his family to Indianapolis for his new job at Lindsay’s headquarters. Stutz was full of larger automotive ideas and wasn’t satisfied with simple engine work, so he used the capital from selling his engine business and went in with two other investors to start the Central Motor Car Company. Indianapolis was quite the bustling place for the automobile industry in the early 20th century, but it’s unclear if Central actually produced any cars. It was established in 1903, but Stutz moved on from Central the very next year.

Then he took a job with Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor (1902-1987) and became a carburetor salesman. Stutz was partially responsible for the creation of Schebler, as while he was employed at Lindsay he introduced engineer George Schebler to money man Frank Wheeler. Wheeler would go on with a group of investors to found the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, and Wheeler-Schebler eventually became a part of Borg-Warner.

In 1905, while employed selling carburetors, Stutz left to design an all-new car for the upcoming and short-lived American Motor Car Company (1906-1913). American was notable for its creation of the “underslung” automobile in 1906. The design (a rework of the Stutz design after they sacked him) used a frame placed underneath its axles, and the car’s leaf spring suspension was above the frame. It allowed for a lower ride height and was considered much more stable and less prone to rollovers.

Stutz’s next automotive employment came in 1907 when he moved back to Ohio to work at the Marion Motor Car Company (1901- c. 1912). He performed the dual role of factory manager and chief engineer, though he had no formal training in either. He took up race car driving for his employer almost immediately while doing other tasks on the side like engineering his own transaxle.

Said transaxle was marketable, and lead to the creation of the Stutz Auto Parts Company in 1910. The company focused almost entirely on the transaxle, but while managing his business Stutz received a call from the folks of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, already acquainted with Stutz via Frank Wheeler. The speedway’s founders wanted to start their own car firm (why not?), the Empire Motor Car Company. Stutz designed their first car, the 20. Available as a standard small runabout or as a sportier two-seater, it was called “the little aristocrat.”

Around that time the first Indy 500 was approaching and Indianapolis was abuzz. Stutz wasn’t content sitting on the sidelines, so in five weeks he designed and built a car of his own to put in the race, driven by Gilbert Anderson. It was called the Stutz Racer, nicknamed Bearcat. On May 30th, 1911, the Stutz took 11th place in the race. Stutz himself termed the quickly built Racer “the car that made good in a day.” And though it ran the race as a product of the Stutz Auto Parts Company, the path forward was immediately apparent: It was time to sell the Racer as a production car.

Stutz went in with a buddy named Henry Campbell to establish the Ideal Motor Car Company in June 1911. Ideal set up their manufacturing facility quickly so the Bearcat could enter production and make use of the excellent free publicity received from the Indy 500. As regulations were not quite as rigorous in 1911, changes made to the race version to turn it into a passenger car were minimal. They included adding some fenders, lights so it could be driven at night, and a chromed Stutz emblem in the grille.

Other bodywork was as minimal as could be and consisted of a hood, two tufted bucket seats, and a small oval-shaped windshield in front of the driver’s face that was known as a monocle. Doors were not available. An exposed cylinder of gasoline was at the rear, with a trunk behind for storage. Under the hood, the first Bearcats used a large inline-four engine. The 6.4-liter mill offered 60 horsepower and was a product of Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing (1909-2018). The engine had four valves per cylinder and was one of the earliest engines to employ multi-valve technology. Stutz used his own handy transaxle in the Bearcat.

The first Bearcats went into production in 1912 and were called Series A. Worth noting that at the time, the BearCat name was two words. The Series A was fittingly advertised in the program for the 1912 Indy 500 and featured the company’s new “car that made good in a day” official slogan.

Ideal Motors was up and running, selling a car that had been developed in just over a month. Things were looking up, but Stutz was not the type to remain content about anything automobile. He started editing the Bearcat almost immediately and headed in an upmarket direction. More on that in Part II.

Note: 1915 Bearcat shown here.

[Images: YouTube, Wheeler-Schebler]

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