Story and photo by Bill Vance

1936 Stout Scarab
1936 Stout Scarab. Click image to enlarge

William Bushnell Stout was a man of many accomplished titles, among them engineer, writer, inventor and futurist. His design accomplishments covered motorcycles, airplanes, including the famous Ford Tri-Motor, and automobiles, which he called Scarabs.

He even combined his interest in cars and planes by building several combination car/planes called Skycars. He was held in high esteem by fellow engineers, and served as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1935.

Stout was born in 1880 in Quincy, Illinois, the son of a Methodist minister. He studied engineering at the University of Minnesota and married Alma Raymond of Kingston, Ontario.

He joined the Packard Motor Car Company, as chief engineer, and became intimately involved with the design and production of the renowned World War I Liberty V-12 aircraft engine.

In the early ’20s, he established the Stout Metal Plane Company, which was bought by Henry Ford in 1924; Stout remained as vice-president. Stout also formed Michigan-based Stout Air Services, said to be the first U.S. airline to offer regularly scheduled passenger flights; it was sold to United Airlines in 1929. When Ford and Stout disagreed about the Tri-Motor plane, Stout left the company in 1932.

He then concentrated on cars, and through his Stout Engineering Laboratory, began applying the principles of aircraft design to automobiles. In this he was following somewhat the same path as his contemporary, geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, although Fuller’s Dymaxion car would have only three wheels.

Stout’s first Scarab prototype was completed by 1932 and looked like no other car on the road. Its aircraft heritage was evident in the steel space frame and aluminum body. It had no conventional hood, fenders or running boards and was powered by a Ford V-8 engine mounted in the rear, a la Dymaxion. It rather resembled a fat aircraft without wings or tail.

The lack of a driveshaft allowed a low, flat floor, and with its very long wheelbase, and the wheels pushed out the corners, the Scarab was very space efficient. It could really be called the forerunner of the modern mini-van.

It resembled a small room: the rear seat, for example, was like a 1,829 mm (six-foot) wide sofa. The driver’s seat was fixed, but the others could be moved around, and a card table could even be set up.

Encouraged by the prototype, Stout formed the Stout Motor Car Company to put it into production. The second Scarab, completed in 1935, was an evolution of the first, although with some styling and mechanical changes. The headlamps were set behind a fine, vertical-bar grille, and a small, moustache-like louvered grille was mounted between the lights. At the rear, narrow chrome bars curved from the back window down to the bumper, giving the car an art deco appearance. For economy reasons the body was now steel.

An advanced feature was four-wheel independent suspension, which utilized coil springs surrounding large oil-filled struts, an idea borrowed from aircraft use, where they were called “oleos.” They were much like the automobile suspension struts that Earle MacPherson would later invent.

The tops of these struts were mounted high, just below the window line. With the suspension thus anchored above the car’s centre of gravity, the body was slung like a hammock, which meant that it “banked” inward in corners instead of leaning out as conventional cars did. The idea, while ingenious, wasn’t entirely practical, and double transverse leaf springs were later used at the rear. Stout also experimented with air suspension using rubberized fabric bellows.

To demonstrate the Scarab’s superior riding qualities, Stout delighted in placing a glass of water on the card table and driving around without spilling it. In the ultimate demonstration, he is said to have driven a Scarab from Detroit to San Francisco without losing a drop of water. All in all, Stout reportedly drove his personal Scarab coast to coast six times.

Stout offered the Scarabs for sale for $5,000, a large sum in those days. Several were bought, probably for their novelty value, by such well known figures as tire maker Harvey Firestone, chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley, and Willard Dow of Dow Chemical. Stout built only nine Scarabs, of which, remarkably, five still exist. Typical of an inventive genius, no two Scarabs were identical.

Immediately following the Second World War, Stout built one more prototype Scarab. It was shown in 1946 and was more conventional in appearance, although still equipped with a rear engine. It never went into production.

William Stout “retired” to Arizona shortly thereafter. Characteristically, he was working on an ornithopter, a machine that flies by flapping its wings, when he died in 1956.

Connect with