…adequately to describe how awful this was (but I’ll give it a go anyway).
From its very earliest days, the automobile was more than just a machine for personal transportation. It represented freedom, independence, individuality(1) and, of course, affluence. Automakers quickly realised that the wealthy could easily be persuaded to part with large amounts of money for a car that not only conveyed them in great comfort, but also conveyed clearly to others their social standing.
For some, Rolls-Royce stood at the pinnacle of the automotive hierarchy, with its superlative, hand-wrought quality and understated, refined elegance. For others, Mercedes-Benz was favoured for the excellence of its engineering. In the US, Cadillac proclaimed itself ‘The Standard of the World’ with at least some degree of justification before General Motors had done its worst to the storied marque.
Some wealthy buyers, however, regarded even these renowned marques as still lacking in the quality they sought above all others, individuality. They wanted a car that could fulfil a desire to stand apart that was so extreme it bordered on the pathological. It was for these people that the Stutz Blackhawk was conceived.
Founded in 1911 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Stutz Motor Car Company was a manufacturer of high-quality luxury sedans and sports cars in the early part of the twentieth century. It enjoyed a colourful history which included changes of ownership and allegations of financial chicanery before finally declaring bankruptcy in 1937.
Thirty years later, a New York banker by the name of James O’Donnell, believing that there was a gap in the market for an ultra-exclusive (and expensive) US automobile, decided to revive the marque. In August 1968 he incorporated a new company, Stutz Motor Car of America. For O’Donnell to realise his vision, he needed a designer who could create something quite unique. Step forward, Virgil Exner.
Exner had made his reputation at Chrysler Corporation, which he joined in 1949, having previously worked for Harley Earl at General Motors and Raymond Loewy and Associates. Chrysler had a reputation for producing solid but rather upright and frumpy cars, but Exner revolutionised the company’s approach to styling, introducing his ‘Forward Look’ with lower rooflines, long bonnets and shorter rear decks. He was also a champion of the tailfin, the most distinctive styling trope of the late 1950s.
A (false) rumour that GM was planning to downsize its cars for 1962 prompted Chrysler to do likewise, but Exner’s styling did not translate well onto a smaller envelope and he also missed the new decade’s fashion for simpler and cleaner designs. Exner took the fall for Chrysler’s poor sales in 1962 and retired from the company, although he was retained as a consultant, primarily to maintain his pension rights.
Exner spent the following years in a largely futile effort to reinterpret classic 1930s US automotive designs and champion the revival of defunct marques such as Auburn, Duesenberg, Packard and Stutz. His speculative renderings never got any further than the pages of Esquire magazine, until he and O’Donnell teamed up.
Exner sold O’Donnell on the idea of a classically styled car that had all the comforts and luxuries expected in the 1970s. Without the funds to develop a new car from scratch, he looked around for a suitable base and found one in the Pontiac Grand Prix. This was an intermediate-sized two-door personal coupe, a style of car that was enjoying strong sales at the time. It was based on GM’s 1969 G-Body RWD perimeter frame chassis.
Stutz initially purchased 26 examples of the 1971 Grand Prix and stripped them back to the platform. A new body, designed by Exner and built from heavy-gauge steel by Carrozzeria Padane(2) in Modena, Italy, was fitted to the chassis. It was trimmed luxuriously in burr walnut or birds-eye maple wood, English leather upholstery and burnished gold fittings.
Those with an eye for detail could spot components sourced from contemporary Maserati and Ferrari models, and even some rather less prestigious cars: the rocker switches on the centre console were immediately recognisable to those familiar with the Renault 4! It all looked smart enough, if still falling somewhat short of the standard of contemporary Rolls-Royce interiors.
In order to facilitate regular servicing and repairs, the Grand Prix underpinnings remained largely unchanged. This included the 7.5-litre (455 cu.in) V8 engine mated to a GM TH400 three-speed automatic transmission. To improve performance and cope with the car’s hefty 2.3 Tonne (5,000 lbs) kerb weight, the engine was tuned to develop maximum power of 425bhp (317kW) and torque of 420 lb.ft. (570Nm). This delivered a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 8.4 seconds and a top speed of around 130mph (210km/h). Fuel consumption was, of course, profligate at around eight miles per gallon (30 l/100km).
The road wheels were 17” in diameter, the largest fitted to any modern production car at that time. The width of the rims was only 3½” (89mm) so they required specially profiled Firestone tyres with steeply inward sloping sidewalls to fit. Whether or not this effort was worthwhile is a moot point: one reviewer described the handling as “wallowy”, the brakes “overburdened” and the steering “desperately imprecise and dead.” The driving sensation was “a motion exactly like that of an overloaded dinghy in a swell.”
Conversely, there was no arguing with the quality of execution of what was called the Blackhawk, reviving a Stutz model name from the 1920s(3). Twenty-two coats of paint were applied to the bodywork over a six-week period, each coat meticulously hand-rubbed down before the next. Construction of each car was said to involve around 1,500 man-hours of labour. The pricing of the Blackhawk reflected that time and effort: at launch in 1971, it cost upwards of US $22,500, which is around US $160k in today’s money and even more expensive than the newly-launched Rolls-Royce Corniche.
The elephant in the room was, of course, the styling. Exner’s attempt to marry 1930s styling tropes to an angular 1970s shape was risibly awful. The curved chrome-trimmed swage lines along the flanks over both front and rear wheel arches tried and failed to suggest separate wings. The front lamps were perched awkwardly in individual nacelles within a deep recess above the front valance, sitting either side of an enormous chromed proboscis that formed the front grille.
At the rear, the spare wheel sat in a well, exposed by a circular hole in the boot lid. Not only did it look ridiculous, but it also made the mink-lined boot space awkwardly shaped and difficult to access. Consequently, Stutz offered the option of custom-made suitcases that fitted around the spare wheel, as well as others that fitted in place of the rear seats. The side exhaust pipes were purely for show as they wouldn’t comply with US regulations. For my money, all the Blackhawk succeeded in doing was to demonstrate how competent a design the Pontiac Grand Prix was by comparison:
The Blackhawk was unveiled at an event in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January 1970. The publicity materials described it in the following breathless terms: “The car defies description…the finished work of art is virtually breathtaking…people gather round and ask excitedly what it is.” Er, ok then.
Notwithstanding its ersatz styling, the Blackhawk was, initially at least, in high demand, with celebrity would-be owners Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra vying to be the first to take delivery(4). Other famous Blackhawk owners would include comedienne Lucille Ball, singers Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis Junior, Issac Hayes, Billy Joel, Elton John, Tom Jones, Liberace, Paul McCartney, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton and Barry White, Actor Al Pacino, Boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel. Even the Shah of Iran was a customer, allegedly owning a dozen examples before his downfall.
Buoyed by this success, Stutz followed up with the Bearcat convertible and the LWB Diplomatica and XLWB Royale four-door limousine versions. The latter was a massive 7,468mm (294”) long, compared with the relatively modest 5,791mm (228”) overall length of the coupé. King Khaled of Saudi Arabia had a Royale with a throne that elevated hydraulically through the roof so he could look down on his no doubt admiring subjects at parades and other public events.
The Blackhawk was produced in its various forms until 1987. The styling evolved little if at all, but the underpinnings were changed to those of the Pontiac Bonneville in 1980 and Buick LaSabre in 1985. By the time production finished in 1987, between 500 and 600 examples had been built. To my mind, this is a pretty impressive number for what was an ugly lash-up designed to part the gullible and impressionable from large amounts of their money. Worse, the Blackhawk marked a miserable and unworthy end to Exner’s impressive career in automotive design.
(1) Maybe not this, in the case of the Ford Model T, granted.
(2) A company better known for building tour buses.
(3) Previously applied to a land-speed record challenging racer.
(4) Elvis won, taking delivery of car no.2 after Sinatra conceded.