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Stout Scarab 1200 by M. McCourt, courtesy Southwest Michigan Concours d’Elegance

Stout Scarab 1200, Photo by M. McCourt, courtesy Southwest Michigan Concours d’Elegance

The Stout Scarab is a unique 1930-1940s U.S automobile designed by William Bushnell Stout and produced in small numbers by Stout Engineering Laboratories and later by Stout Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan.

Among a host of novelties and innovations, the Stout Scarab is credited by some as the world's first production minivan, and a 1946 experimental prototype of the Scarab became the world's first car with a fiberglass bodyshell and air suspension.

Description

The Scarab was unlike most cars of the era. Virtually all production cars at the time used a separate chassis and body, with a long compartment in the front, housing the engine, longitudinally placed behind the front axle, and a rearward passenger compartment. The front-mounted engine would typically drive the rear axle through a connecting drive shaft running underneath the floor of the vehicle. This layout worked very well, but had severe limitations where space utilization was concerned.

Instead, the Scarab did away with the chassis and drive-shaft, to create a low, flat floor for the interior, by using a unitized body structure, and by placing the Ford-built V8 engine in the rear of the vehicle. The car’s creator - motorcar and aviation engineer and journalist William B. Stout, envisioned his travelling machine to be an office on wheels. To that end, the Scarab's body, styled by John Tjaarda, a well known Dutch automobile engineer, closely followed the construction of an aluminium aircraft fuselage.

Featuring a very short, streamlined nose and tapering upper body at the rear, it foreshadowed the contemporary monospace (or one-box) MPV or Minivan) design — featuring a removable table and second row seats that turn 180 degrees to face the rear — a feature that Chrysler currently markets as Swivel ’n Go.

Although reminiscent of the Chrysler Airflow streamliner, and aerodynamically efficient, it was generally considered ugly at the time. Today its futuristic design and curvaceous, finely detailed nose earn it respect as an Art Deco icon.

Innovative features

By discarding the usual running-boards and expanding the cabin to the full width of the car, as well as using a long, wheelbase, the Scarab offered a spacious interior. Space was further maximized by placing the engine directly over the rear axle and moving the driver far forward, so that the steering wheel was almost directly above the front wheels. Passengers entered through a single, large common door, and encountered a flexible seating system, that could be configured in almost any arrangement imaginable, except for the driver, whose seat was fixed. Rivalling the seating in modern MPVs, such as the Chrysler Voyager or Renault Espace, there was even a small card table which could be fitted anywhere among the passenger seats if so required. Interiors were appointed in leather, chrome and wood. Design elements also worked in a stylized ancient Egyptian "scarab" motif, including the car's emblem. Visibility to the front and sides was similar to that of an observation car, although rearward vision was almost nil and there were no rear-view mirrors.

The innovations did not end with the car's layout and body design. In an era where almost everything on the road had rigid axles with leaf springs, the Scarab featured independent suspension using coil springs on all four corners, providing a smoother, quieter ride. The rear-engine-induced weight bias coupled to the coil spring suspension endowed the Scarab with very good handling and traction. The rear swing axle suspension with long coil spring struts was inspired by aircraft landing gear. The Scarab suspension would itself inspire the later Chapman strut used by Lotus from their Lotus Twelve model of 1957.

The Ford flathead V8 drove the rear wheels via a custom Stout-built three-speed manual, transaxle transmission. The engine was reversed from its normal position, mounted directly over the rear axle and with the flywheel and clutch facing forwards. The transmission was mounted ahead of this, reversing and lowering the driveline back to the axle. This unusual layout would later be repeated by the Lamborghini Countach.

One of the few Scarabs actually built was supposedly used by General Eisenhower during his European campaign in WW II.

Production

The first running prototype of the Scarab was completed in 1932, probably the first car ever with an aluminium spaceframe unit-construction body, although the frame parts were steel. The second Scarab, completed in 1935, was an evolution of the first, incorporating some styling and mechanical changes. The headlamps were set behind a fine, vertical-bar grille, and at the rear, narrow chrome bars curved from the back window down to the bumper, giving the car its Art Deco appearance. For economy reasons the body was now steel.

Stout issued a statement that the car would be manufactured in limited quantities and sold to those who were invited to buy. Up to a hundred a year were to be made in a small factory at the corner of Scott Street and Telegraph Road (U.S. 24), Dearborn, Michigan. Although the Scarab garnered acres of press coverage, at $5,000 (equivalent to $80,000 in 2010, when a luxurious and ultra-modern Chrysler Imperial Airflow cost just $1,345), very few would pay this hefty premium for innovation, and total production of the Scarab amounted to no more than nine units. The vehicles were completely hand-built and no two Scarabs were identical.

Immediately following World War II, Stout built one more prototype Scarab, called the Stout Scarab Experimental. It was shown in 1946 and was more conventional in appearance, although still equipped with a rear engine. It was 2-door, featured a wraparound windshield and the world's first fiberglass body. Like its metal counterparts, it too was a monocoque, built up out of only eight separate pieces and, for good measure, featured the world's first fully functioning air suspension, previously developed in 1933 by Firestone. It never went into production.

Stout owned and drove his own Scarab, accumulating over 250,000 miles in travel around the United States.

Up to five Scarabs are reported to survive today. A 1935 Scarab in running condition is on display at the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine.

Literature/Media

  • Kimes, Beverly R., Clark, Henry A., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805–1942. Kraus Publications, 1996, ISBN 0-87341-428-4
  • The Stout Scarab is one of 15 hidden vehicles that can be driven in the 2011 video game L.A. Noire.