Stout Scarab – automotive innovation from the 1930s




The Stout Scarab was a peculiar but also rather clever automobile developed by the famous engineer William Stout back in the 1930s. The car was designed from the outset to be more practical, safer, spacious, comfortable and versatile than any other car available at the time. Many people have since refered to the car as the very first minivan, and that’s a fairly good approximation of what the Stout Scarab was. But it was also much more than that.

William Stout made his name in the aviation business, designing numerous aircraft which were well ahead of their time and brought in new ideas and improvements to the industry. Stout used his aeronautical expertise when designing the Scarab – which was styled by John Tjaarda. In particular in creating an aerodynamic shape which helped reduce the car’s fuel consumption.

The Stout Scarab was based around a monocoque chassis and body – unlike almost every single other car of the time which still relied on a separate chassis/body combination – reducing the overall weight. The interior layout was also unusual. Instead of a front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels through a long driveshaft. The engine and transmission of the Stout Scarab were placed at the rear of the vehicle behind the passenger compartment. This drivetrain position meant the interior could be much more open, and the entire floorpan perfectly flat. A long wheelbase also helped increase the amount of usable room inside the vehicle.

Powering the Stout Scarab was an 85 horsepower Ford V8 flathead engine connected to a three-speed manual gearbox. Ford components were selected because Stout’s aviation business, the Stout Metal Airplane Company, had been purchased by Ford and the two had collaborated on previous engineering projects.

Stout Scarab cutaway

 

Nine Stout Scarabs were built in total from 1934 to 1939 –  although the company had hoped to build up to 100 cars per year. The cars were almost all unique, mainly because they were all more or less pre-production models. The high price tag and rarity of the car meant that most of the nine examples built ended up in the hands of wealthy and powerful Americans. The Firestone family had one, so too did the Wrigleys (yes the chewing gum people). The founder of Dow chemicals was another owner, as well as the Stranahans (the owners of Champion spark plugs).

The interior of the Stout Scarab was particularly unusual and forward thinking. There was a cabin pollen filter to keep the interior dust free, ambient lighting, thermostat-controlled heating, power door locks and leather seats. The front passenger seat could be rotated to face the rear row of seats, while a small table could also be folded out for added practicality.

Stout Scarab interior

The arrival of WWII put the car on hold as America’s industrial might was turned full scale towards producing weaponry rather than quirky family cars. However in 1946, William Stout built one final Scarab, called the Stout Scarab Experimental. Despite being based on a now 10-year-old design, this car became the first vehicle to use a fiberglass body, and also the first to use air suspension.

Of the nine Stout Scarabs built. Five survive to this day. As testament to the original design, many have very high mileage and are still fully operational – granted after a full restoration.

 

Below is what William Stout had to say about the Stout Scarab and the future car back in 1942 when speaking with Popular Mechanics.

It is possible today to build an automobile bigger than a Buick, more powerful than a Cadillac, better riding than any previous ca, yet 50 percent more economical, 50 percent lighter in weight and 50 percent more spacious inside than are present passenger vehicles.

Since this automobile is not being built, even though it is possible, we must regard it as the car of the future. And I believe that it will come at a time not very distant.

But from whence will it come? My answer, based upon actual experience in building both automobiles and airplanes, is that it must be the brain child of the aviation industry. The reason why it cannot come from the automotive industry is that too many tools have frozen that industry into one position. The idea of 1,000 cars per day has obsessed the manufacturers with a tradition of dies and production machinery they cannot overcome long enough to do a new car on any other basis.

Stout Scarab interior

A large percentage of the space in today’s automobile is allotted to machinery, but in tomorrow’s “wingless plane-car” the machinery will be hidden so that you will have to look for it. The motor will be concealed under the rear seat, or just behind it, probably underneath a luggage compartment. Naturally this means that I expect the car to be powered with an engine at the rear, instead of the front. This engine will be air-cooled, most likely developed from the small airplane types now being built for flying use, and will gain 20 percent economy merely from the fact that it is air-cooled and runs at a higher temperature. Being the pancake type  – horizontal construction with the cylinders arranged on their sides instead of standing on end – the engine will fit low down in the back of the vehicle and leave plenty of room for luggage.

One feature I am confident will be incorporated into this car will be a rear seat at least six feet wide, perhaps three or four inches more, giving space for a full-length couch or bed to be used on long tours or by the drowsy passenger. This means that the overall width of the automobile will be about six-feet, six-inches – not a great deal more than the present car, but the difference is that tomorrow’s car will be arranged so that the width will be employed for the comfort of the passenger rather than for a place on which to hang fenders.

Today’s auto – even the largest – has a  front seat approximately five feet wide and a rear seat several inches smaller, while the outside road width at the fenders is six-feet, four inches.

Stout Scarab

Fenders on today’s car will be omitted from our auto of tomorrow. Running boards are fast disappearing and when they finally vanish, fenders as such will disappear also, first on the rear wheels and then on the front. Eventually all wheels will be enclosed.

Wheels will be placed at the ends of the future car, eliminating the overhang found in today’s automobile. This will mean placing the engine directly over the rear wheels, gaining another advantage – hooking the engine directly to the transmission system thus reducing a loss in power that always results from use of a long drive shaft. With the weight in the back, the rear seat ride will be the best ride in the car. At the same time, the weight on the front end will be light enough so that if you run off the slab onto soft spots beside the highway, there will be no tendency for the front wheels to bury themselves in the mud and put the car out of control.

From actual operation of an automobile of this general construction, I know that the rear-engine car is safer, having less tendency to skid because the additional weight gives the rear tires a better grip on the road, than today’s front-engine car. Even on ice, I find it easy to maintain traction in this car – the Stout Scarab, a vehicle I designed and produced and which I have driven 125,000 miles. This car is still able to take the road for a long, high-speed run. A few others that we manufactured for friends are giving similar service.

While it’s easy to laugh at some of his predictions. Others he got right. His theory about the connected engine and transmission were correct, as were the disappearing running boards and fenders and the maximization of interior space.




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