In 1932 the Stout Scarab, a futuristic and exclusive car made of aluminium with aeronautical techniques, luxurious interiors and innovative mechanical solutions, appeared in the USA. It was born from the visionary ingenuity of William Bushnell Stout, who anticipated the modern minivans by fifty years
We already had the opportunity in previous articles to talk about the dawning of the use of aluminium in cars and in the transport sector in general. Actually, light metal was initially used not only for the characteristics which later made it indispensable, that is, for its proverbial lightness or other important qualities, but above all for the ease with which it could be modelled and used to build prototypes, small series or niche cars. The laminates already used before the Second World War in aeronautical construction caught the eye of car manufacturers. An easily available material, albeit expensive, which was easy to model and assemble. The car we describe today, the Stout Scarab, had a clean design inspired by the Egyptian sacred beetle of the same name. An absolutely innovative and futuristic project; forerunner of subsequent popular models, among which we might mention for example the legendary Volkswagen van or the equally historic Fiat 600 Multipla. A new way of thinking for the world car industry.
This incredible vehicle was designed by an engineer, William Bushnell Stout (1880-1956); aviation pioneer, designer, inventor with a past as a journalist using a pseudonym, chief engineer in the Packard Motor Car Company, Stout founded an airline bought by Henry Ford, designed a flying car (Skycar) and even established his own airline before starting the Stout Engineering Laboratory. Truly a remarkable character.
Lightness, luxury and efficiency in Art Deco style
The style of the Scarab is attributed to Dutch-American car designer John Tjaarda, who, inspired by the “Streamline Moderne”, the last phase of the Art Deco movement, wanted to create a new type of car in terms of aerodynamics, efficiency, style, driving performance and comfort, taking inspiration from his aeronautical background and remaining true to his motto “Simplicate and add more lightness”.
Produced from 1934 to 1940 in very few examples by the Stout Motor Car Company owned by aviation and car pioneer William Stout Bushnell, the Scarab is inspired by the shape of the beetle, from which it takes its name. Stout created a luxury lounge on wheels, protected by an aluminium shell which could accommodate up to seven passengers. To do this he used innovative materials for the time, such as aluminium for the body, steel pipes for the chassis and high quality wood for the interior. The latter was extremely modular, with seats that could be moved according to the needs of the moment, even to form a lounge or around a folding table: only the driver’s seat was fixed. Practically a forerunner of modern minivans. The Ford V8 engine was fitted at the front and the car had a rear-wheel drive. The first Stout Scarab prototype built in 1932 was based on a unitary aluminium structure, unlike the body-on-frame vehicles of its age.
Design inspired by aircraft fuselages
The front of the car was characterised by curved lines. The chrome headlights were protected by chrome louvers and were very close to the double windscreen divided by an elegant fin. The distinctive Scarab emblem, proudly placed on the front bonnet, was framed by metal wings replacing the conventional grille. The shape of the Scarab was similar to the fuselage of an aircraft with a rear end reminiscent of the tail of a beetle. The only vehicle that looked as futuristic in the 1930s was the Dymaxion car (1933), a three-wheeled prototype designed by inventor Buckminster Fuller.
The car had four windows and one doors on each side, one for the driver and a central one for the passengers. The complete absence of external door handles was another interesting distinctive feature; these were replaced by electric buttons, a great innovation for the time, for better aerodynamics. At the same time special hinges allowed easier access to the interior. Thanks to the long wheelbase (3480 mm), the lack of an axle shaft and the design of the body covering the entire width of the vehicle, the Scarab could accommodate seven passengers and was much more spacious and practical than any other vehicle of similar dimensions (length 4966 mm). The luxurious cabin was similar to an office, with a flat floor, retractable table, wicker basket roof, interior lighting, a full width rear sofa and three independent seats. Two of the passenger seats were fitted with skids that allowed them to move and rotate freely, forming different layouts, while the driver’s seat was fixed.
A car too much ahead of its time
To demonstrate the practicality, comfort, driveability and reliability of his creation, William Bushnell Stout drove his Scarab daily, travelling more than 250,000 miles across the United States, often sleeping and dining in his car.
In 1934 the Stout Motor Car Company was founded to put the Scarab into production. The plan was to build 100 units of Scarab per year in the Dearborn plant in Michigan, but the high price of $5,000, which was higher than the value of an average house during the Great Depression, led to a short production of only nine vehicles between 1932 and 1936. Mass production never started and the nine specimens were built and assembled by hand, so that no two Scarabs are identical. It is estimated that five Scarabs have survived to the present day, and one still functioning car is part of the Detroit Historical Museum’s collections, which periodically exhibits it to the public.
Unfortunately, the Scarab was too innovative and it seems the world was not yet ready to appreciate its virtues. With this idea Stout anticipated projects with a single-volume rear engine such as the Volkswagen Type 2 (1950) and the Fiat 600 Multipla (1956). In fact, the first real minivans would arrive half a century later, with the Alfa Romeo New York Taxi (1976) and Lancia Gamma (1978) prototypes by Italdesign, which explored the idea of practicality, leading to the first real production minivans: the Dodge Caravan (1983) in the United States and the Renault Espace (1984) in Europe.