snub nosed Yank tank you see here on this page is probably one of the
earliest known examples of what we know today as the MPV. One could be
forgiven for thinking of it as a bloated Volkswagen Beetle with a large
slow revving American V8 at the rear but the nearest the Americans had
then seen of the Beetle was in Nazi propaganda pics and America hadn't
been dragged into the second world war yet!
With shades of the Chrysler Airflow streamliner, this is the Stout Scarab,
a vehicle very much ahead of its time and even though aerodynamically
proficient, it was patently ugly. The brainchild of inventor, motoring
journalist and aviator William B Stout, the Scarab was brimming with innovation.
Not only did it have a unit construction body made out of light aluminium,
it featured the famous Ford flathead V8 placed at the rear driving the
rear wheels via a Stout built three-speed manual transaxle. In an era
plagued with boxy designs, conventional drivelines and cramped interiors,
the Scarab came across differently. Stout, once editor at 'Motor Age'
magazine in the USA, had first designed a cyclecar sometime in the period
1913-15 but this couldn't attract backers for putting into production.
A stint as chief engineer at the Scripps-Booth Company followed only for
him to join the aircraft division of the Packard Motor Car Co. Here he
was credited with inventing the first cantilever-winged, internally braced
aircraft in the US. He also had a hand in the design of the famous Ford
Tri-Motor aircraft. In 1932 he set up the Stout Engineering Laboratories
in Detroit and built the first Scarab that year. This was followed by
another couple of protos before he built a batch of six in 1936.
Thanks to there being no running boards on either side - so typical of
all large American cars of that time - allowed the interior to be wider
than normal. And thanks to there being a near flat floor - no prop shaft
remember! - and a long 135-inch wheelbase, it probably had the most spacious
cabin of any American car of its time. With its low sloping hood, forward
visibility was superb. The Scarab featured independent suspension - using
coil springs - on all four corners, providing a smoother quieter ride.
The rearward weight bias coupled to the coil spring suspension endowed
the Scarab with very good handling and traction. The Ford V8 provided
strong and reliable power and was the only 'conventional' component in
this avant garde creation. More than anything else, Stout was particularly
pleased with his rear-engine, rear drive feature. "We have stuck
by the front-engine car partly because our engineers have made the front-engine
car workable, but also partly because of the horse-and-buggy tradition,"
he had explained at the time of the launch of the Scarab.
it was in its interior that the Scarab stood out, thanks to its flexi-seating
arrangement which is now being touted as a great thing on cars like the
Renault Espace, the Opel Zafira and others. Only the driver's seat was
a fixed one in the Scarab while the rest could be moved around or removed
altogether as the situation warranted. There was also a small card table
which could be fitted anywhere among the passenger seats if so required.
The Scarab sold for the princely sum of $5000 then and in an age of opulence
with marques such as Duesenberg, Auburn, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, Packard,
Lincoln, etc, this was a very large amount. The jury is out on the subject
of how many units of the Scarab were built but a majority of experts do
suggest a figure of nine units built over the period 1934-39. The car
in pic is a 1936 model and was caught on film sometime during the 1990
Great American Race. It was surely a car ahead of its time, an inventor's
view of personal transportation of the future. William Stout's design
might not have stood the test of time but as a precursor of things to
come, his vision was pretty well focused.