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Design Review: Stout Scarab (1932-1935)

An ingenious vehicle designed in the 1930s, considered to be the ancestor of modern minivans

Nowadays, an automotive designer has to comply with many strict regulations concerning safety, utilise modular platforms and part-bins for cost-cutting, and create shapes that are considered acceptable by a wide target group. He or she is also a member of a large team, where every idea is filtered through management meetings with various levels of directors, engineers and executives. In stark contrast, none of those things applied in the car industry back in the 1930s, especially in special projects like the one we are going to review today.

The Stout Scarab was a clean-sheet design named after the Egyptian sacred beetle, questioning the existing norms and proposing a new way of thinking to the automotive industry.

This ingenious vehicle was designed by pioneering engineer, designer and inventor, William Bushnell Stout (1880 -1956) who worked as a journalist with a made-up name, served as a chief engineer in Packard Motor Car Company, founded an aircraft company bought by Henry Ford, designed a flying car (Skycar) and even started his own airline before founding the Stout Engineering Laboratory.

With the Scarab, his goal was to create a new type of car in terms of aerodynamics, packaging, efficiency, styling, driving comfort and dynamics, taking inspiration from his aeronautical background and staying true to his quote “Simplicate and add more lightness”.

The first Stout Scarab prototype was built in 1932 with an aluminium and magnesium body based on a unitised steel structure unlike the body-on-frame vehicles of its era. A rear-mounted Ford V8 powered the rear axle through a three-speed manual gearbox and a custom transfer case. Suspension was independent on all four wheels, with coil springs and oil filled struts offering a plush ride while reducing body roll for a more dynamic driving experience.

Styling of the Scarab is credited to Dutch-American automotive designer John Tjaarda who was inspired by the Streamline Moderne - the last phase of the Art Deco movement.

The front of the car was full of curved lines. The chrome surrounded headlights were protected by chrome louvers, and sat very close to the double windshield divided by a stylish fin. The signature Scarab emblem sitting proudly on the front bonnet was framed by metal wings replacing the conventional grille.

The silhouette of the Scarab was similar to an airplane’s fuselage with a rear end resembling the beetle’s tail. The only vehicle that looked similarly futuristic back in the 1930s was the Dymaxion car (1933) - a three-wheeler prototype designed by inventor Buckminster Fuller.

From the side, the single-box proportions and the tiny overhangs of the Scarab were complemented by a clean 'pontoon' look for the bodyshell - no articulated fenders or running boards. A horizontal chrome strip running from the front wheel to the rear bumper emphasised the length of the wheelbase in combination with the covered whitewall rear wheels.

The rear end of the vehicle was dominated by curved chrome bars hiding the rear windscreen and the fan, which together with the side louvres allowed the engine to breathe. Two separate trunks (one on each side) opened like the wings of a beetle, providing access to the internals. While sacrificing rear visibility, the streamlined design of the rear end is a highlight of the 1930s exuding luxury and style.

The car had four windows on each side and two doors - one for the driver and a central one for the passengers. A very cool design element is the complete absence of external door handles which were replaced by electric buttons for improved aerodynamics. At the same time special hinges allowed easier access to the interior.

Thanks to the long wheelbase (3480 mm), the lack of a driveshaft and the design of the body which covered the full width of the vehicle, the Scarab could seat six passengers and was far roomier and more practical than any other vehicle of similar size (length, 4966 mm).

The luxurious cabin was similar to an office, with a flat floor, a retractable table, wicker-basket roof, interior lighting, a full-width rear sofa and three independent seats. Two of the passenger seats had skids which allowed them to move and rotate freely, forming different layouts, while the driver’s seat was fixed.

So, what happened next?

In order to prove the practicality, comfort, drivability and reliability of his creation, William Bushnell Stout drove his own Scarab daily, covering more than 250,000 miles travelling the United States, often sleeping and dining inside the car.

In 1934 the Stout Motor Car Company was founded in order to put the Scarab into production. A second prototype was built in 1935 with a body made of steel in order to reduce manufacturing costs. The plan was to build 100 units of the Scarab per year at the Dearborn factory in Michigan, but the steep price of US$5000, which was more than the cost of a house during the Great Depression, led to a short production run of only nine vehicles between 1932 and 1936.

Among the few owners of the Scarab where well-known industrialists who had invested their money in Stout’s company, like Phillip Wrigley (CEO of the Wrigley chewing gum company), Harvey Firestone (founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company) and Willard H Dow (of Dow Chemicals).

In 1946, after World War II, William Bushnell Stout presented the final evolution of his design - the Stout Scarab Experimental (above). The last Scarab featured a more conventional two-box shape styled by Howard Darrin, however it was the first automobile with a one-piece laminated fibreglass body and also the first with air suspension. It also featured additional amenities inside the cabin like the rear bench seat which could turn into a double bed. Initially, Kaiser-Frazer showed interested in producing the Scarab Experimental however the car would remain a one-off due to the complexity of its design that would have resulted in a very high price.

It seems the world wasn’t ready to appreciate the virtues of the Scarab which preceded single-box rear-engined designs like the Volkswagen Type 2 (1950) and the Fiat 600 Multipla (1956). Actually, the first true minivans would arrive half a century later, with Italdesign’s Alfa Romeo New York Taxi (1976) and Lancia Megagamma (1978) prototypes exploring the idea of practicality, leading to the first true production minivans - the Dodge Caravan (1983) in the US and the Renault Espace (1984) in Europe.

Verdict

The Stout Scarab is an inspiring piece of design and engineering showcasing William Bushnell Stout’s vision of the future automobile, inspired by the streamlined airplanes and locomotives of the pre-war era. Although it was a commercial failure, the automotive industry eventually adopted many of the Scarab’s features, just as its creator predicted.

This revolutionary car looked out of this world back in the 1930s and proved that innovation can only happen when we question the basic principles of a product. The unconventional looks were polarising but the overall concept followed the 'form follows function' principle without sacrificing style over substance.

Thus, the Scarab managed to be practical, luxurious and exciting, making great use of its interior space without the boxy looks of a utility vehicle. At the time of its launch it was an expensive and technically advanced vehicle for the rich, but the ingenious layout of its cabin would later inspire the design of modern minivans, bringing unprecedented levels of practicality for young families.

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