The History of Stutz, Stop and Go Fast (Part XIII)


We pick up the Stutz story once again today after we reached the conclusion of the neoclassical Blackhawk coupe’s life in 1985. The coupe that sold so well in the Seventies with its exaggerated Exner styling was watered down considerably in the Eighties when it switched from its original 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix roots to those of a 1980 two-door Pontiac Bonneville.

However, even though the Blackhawk was the headline and best-known product from the Stutz neoclassical company, it was not the only car in the portfolio. First up: the Bearcat.

The Bearcat was the most exciting car from the original Stutz company and the company’s genesis as a passenger car manufacturer. When Stutz went racing at the first Indianapolis 500 and its car performed well, Stutz modified it to a bare minimum level and put it on sale to the public as the Bearcat (or Bear Cat at the time). It had no doors and no roof, and in the early 20th century that was no problem in a sporty passenger car.

Cut to the Seventies Stutz iteration, and the Bearcat was what new CEO James O’Donnell wanted to build as its premier product and debut circa 1970. An early design for the Bearcat (timeline unclear) included a fixed rear roof area and a removable front panel.

But there were issues in the development of the bespoke roof arrangement, and during the Seventies it seemed like regulation was going to kill the typically styled convertible forever. Said regulation was why targa bars started to appear on convertibles, like the Triumph Stag for example.

The company continued to work on a convertible in the background, and in the mid-Seventies made a one-off (or two-off, it’s unclear) called the d’Italia. It was to ask a ridiculous $100,000 ($551,831 adj.) in 1975 and be the world’s most expensive car. And though Stutz went so far as to take marketing photos for the d’Italia, it was canceled before production.

Later in the decade the d’Italia idea reappeared, but with regulation-wary roof arrangements. A targa bar was added, and in 1979 the new Bearcat made its official debut. It wore the same styling as the nearly dead first-generation Blackhawk, sans roof.

Considering the only publicity photo available, it looks like the roof was cut away from the B-pillar area, which was left as-is to form the required targa (roll) bar. The roof was in two pieces: A separate panel in front of the bar was stored in the trunk, while the canvas top behind the bar folded down and was covered with a tonneau.

The first Bearcat was produced in very small numbers, as Stutz product moved over to the new B-body platform in 1980. Forced to modernize and downsize, the company used styling that contained the essence of the original Exner design but with less grand proportions.

At the same time, it debuted the watered-down Blackhawk we discussed in our last entry, it also unveiled an all-new Bearcat. We won’t venture into styling detail here, as the new Bearcat followed the new Blackhawk’s styling to the letter.

Bearcat adopted the same platform change as Blackhawk and was based on the B-body two-door Pontiac Bonneville. Stutz’s job would’ve been much easier if General Motors was still building full-size convertibles at that time. As before, the Bearcat had two separate pieces for the roof, separated by the targa bar.

With its shrunken styling and scale, it was nowhere near as glamorous as the original d’Italia, and like the Blackhawk, its presence was greatly diminished. Though the Blackhawk continued to sell in small numbers, it was much more a “volume” model than the Bearcat. Pictures of the Bearcat are almost impossible to come by, but it’s clear that many who are photographing a Blackhawk think they’re looking at a Bearcat.

Of course, price surely had something to do with the Bearcat’s rarity. Though it was a sort of hack’s take on a convertible, the Bearcat demanded $100,000 ($332,309 adj.) in its B-body guise. Stutz was stuck on the figure since the time of the d’Italia, and wouldn’t come down off a hundred grand. Comparatively, the revised Blackhawk’s ask of $84,500 ($280,801 adj.) in 1981 seemed a bargain.

Unlike the Blackhawk which stuck doggedly to the Bonneville as its basis through cancellation in 1985, there was more flexibility where the Bearcat was concerned. Perhaps the company only bought enough Pontiacs to support Blackhawk production. As the Bearcat sold additional examples after the Bonneville changed platforms for 1982, it was occasionally based on the Buick LeSabre coupe or the Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale coupe. Stutz picked the wrong B-body to use for its cars, as the Bonneville was the first of GM’s full-sizers to dump the platform (though the Parisienne took its place).

The trio of model bases for the Bearcat ended after the 1986 model year. Downsizing and front-driveification ate away at the General Motors portfolio like a cancer around that time, and since the Blackhawk was finished Stutz was free to take a leap of faith. You won’t be anticipating the platform they selected for the new Bearcat II.

An F-body! That’s right, the third-generation Camaro and Firebird’s platform became the basis of the Bearcat II. The platform debuted under GM’s affordable muscle cars for 1982 and was already halfway through its life when Stutz decided to use it. However, even though it wasn’t a new platform it had already been turned into a convertible by GM. And that removed a lot of stress from the equation for Stutz. Naturally, the Bearcat II was based on the more upscale of the two Fs, the Pontiac Firebird.

With its new underpinnings, the Bearcat II arrived with a completely different scale than its predecessor. The 116-inch wheelbase from the Bonneville was swapped for the 101 inches of the Pontiac Firebird. The Bearcat’s personal luxury approved length of about 214 inches shrunk to around 190 for the II. Pontiac’s Wide-Trac width was missing in the F-body, and the Bearcat II worked with 72.4 inches of width instead of 76.4″ a year prior. Occupants of the Bearcat II would find less room for their festive hats, too, as the F-body reached 49.7 inches high instead of 55.3″ in the B-body.

Although Firebird customers selected from various engines of inline-four, V6, and V8 configurations, there was only one engine available to Stutz buyers: The 350 cubic inch V8 (5.7 liters) that was shared with the contemporary Corvette. That engine was the largest available in the Firebird, and the only engine used in the C4 Corvette (albeit in various states of tune).

The 5.7 was a new offering in 1987, as consumers demanded more power from their sad Eighties V8s. The engine used high-tech multi-port fuel injection and managed 215 horsepower. That figure was 10 more than the top specification of the Firebird’s former headline engine, the Chevrolet 305 (5.0L). A 5.7 was only available with an automatic, the THM700R4 four-speed. Both engine and transmission were ported directly into the Bearcat II.

The Bearcat II’s new platform marked a new product approach for Stutz: The company needed to massage its traditional (and fading) heavyweight personal luxury coupe into something different. Surely using the Firebird as a basis would breathe life into Stutz’s fading customer base. We’ll pick up there next time.

[Images: British Leyland, GM, Stutz]

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