There Are No Words…

…adequately to describe how awful this was (but I’ll give it a go anyway).

Image: journal.classiccars.com

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.

Image: barrett-jackson.com

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.

Image: lofty.com

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).

Image: journal.classiccars.com

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:

Image: vanguardmotorsales.com

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.

Image: autorepublika.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

42 thoughts on “There Are No Words…”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I used to see one of these at the Saturday Night Cruise in The Hague, but the car hasn’t made an appearance in the last couple of years as far as I can tell. It was black with a red interior. I can’t find a photo at the moment.

    Last Saturday’s edition was really good with plenty of cars I hadn’t seen before. I’ll leave you with one of the highlights: this ’63 Riviera.

    1. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. It’s such a great car, even more so in the metal 😉

    2. I can help you out with that Stutz, Freerk- here are a few photos I made when I encountered it at the SNC in 2018:

    3. Good morning Freerk. The photo of the Riviera is a welcome relief from the subject of today’s piece! Incidentally, isn’t the Pontiac Grand Prix a rather handsome beast?

    4. Inagine you bought a Ferrari 365 GTC/4 and you see the rear lights of you car being used on such an atrocity – would you be able to enjoy your car again?

    5. Thanks, Bruno, that’s the one. We might have bumped into each other there once or twice without knowing it 🙂

    6. The reversing and number plate lamps on the Stutz come from a rather more mundane vehicle. Does anyone else recognise them?

    7. Daniel, I’ve always thought the round taillights were from a 1970s-80s Ferrari, but I haven’t a clue which models or actual years. I’ve heard this claim repeated several times, but this was 30 – 40 years ago, and don’t remember the sources. Hopefully some Ferrari expert can either confirm this, or put the rumor to rest. Perhaps these are like Lucas “Fitzal” Lamps from the 50s & earlier. They could be a Moretti “off the shelf” item too.

    8. Good morning Bill. I think Dave has identified the correct Ferrari model above, although the Stutz seems to lack the lights neat chrome bezels.

      Well spotted, gooddog: the Renault 5 Mk1 is the donor vehicle for the reversing and number plate lamps. I wonder if Renault (or an aftermarket supplier) ever produced them with chrome rather than plastic cappings, or did Stutz have to have these fabricated?

  2. The story of wasted talent gets even stranger. The longest Stutz of all, the Diplomatica was ‘designed by Paolo Martin on a basis by Virgil Exner’

    Yes. THAT Paolo Martin. Designer of the Fiat 130 Coupe, Pininfarina Modulo, Peugeot 104 and many others
    Oh how the mighty have fallen. He has this fact on his own website, http://www.madle.org/epaolo.htm

    1. Thanks David, that fact had escaped my research. In fairness to Paolo Martin, he had little scope to improve Exner’s hideous monstrosity. I hope he was well paid for lending his name to a design which surely must have been an embarrassment to him.

  3. Our most prominent owners of Stutz Blackhawks were actor Curd Jürgens and Reeperbahn pimp Kalle Schwensen.

    The front design looks like a direct copy of some of Exner’s Chryslers.

    1. Ah yes, the 1961 Chrysler Imperial:

      It appears that nobody at Auburn Hills got the memo about the demise of the tailfin in the new decade…

    2. Always wondered how you clean and polish behind them – presumably you pay a child with small hands to do it….

    3. I knew I hadn’t imagined that Exner Bugatti:

      From that worthy publication, the 1966 Times Motoring Annual.

    4. Ah, the headlights of the Imperial. A design feature I’ve always found very strange. So much so I have taken multiple photos of it. This photo was made by yours truly on Saturday, you can even see me in the reflection. I think I would be able to clean it though.

    5. Freerk, My shop worked on many 1961-63 Imperials over the years, and I can say there is plenty of room for cleaning and polishing the paint behind the headlights. That said, there is one important situation to consider; There is a horizontal chrome piece between the headlight assembly and the fender, and it has a fairly sharp corner on the bottom edge. I know of at least 2 people [including me] who suffered a small cut to the hand while cleaning these areas, when the hand brushed against the chrome piece. You can barely see that piece in your photo.

  4. Wow. Get the eye bleach!

    Admittedly there is something for everyone in the world of automobiles. But these vehicles just seem like rolling devotionals to excess. I suppose I would dislike them for that even if they were the most beautiful vehicles in the world.

  5. I was raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the wealthiest [per capita] places in the world. Located just outside the Washington DC city line, a local Buick dealership took on the Stutz franchise. Unlike other wealthy areas like New York or Hollywood, where we lived the wealthy generally did not buy flashy and excessive baubles, especially automobiles. Over the years they were able to sell exactly 2 cars, both 2-door Blackhawks. As part of the Stutz dealer contract, they had to stock a fairly large amount of Stutz-only spare parts. I worked as the assistant service manager of the dealership in the late 1970s, and remember well the large separate [and securely locked] room in the parts department, where all the Stutz spares were kept.

    Years later I owned an antique car restoration shop and was contacted by a high-ranking diplomat from a middle Eastern country. He indicated someone in his country had an early [1971 I think] Stutz that had been in an accident, and the car needed Stutz-only trim parts including the grill shell. Knowing many of the needed parts were in that locked room not more than 10 miles distant, I replied that I should be able to provide many of the parts required. As soon as I hung up the phone I called the parts manager and was horrified to discover all those brand new Stutz parts had been scrapped the previous year!

    1. Hi Bill. That’s a great anecdote! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. Exner’s original 1963 proposal was ahead of its time, previewing features which ended up on various production cars later in the decade and into the 1970s, such as: wheel opening shape (1969-70 full sized Chevrolet), door handle shape (Fiat X1/9, Renault R5 and others), wheels (1968 Corvette), side window/C-pillar reverse curve (1974 Chrysler), C-pillar butresses (so many).

    At the same time we can see some Exner-isms that polarized opinions, such as the “toilet seat” spare tire impression on the rear deck, but at least on the Stutz it was often a real spare tire.

    I believe that Exner succumbed to his own excess because he had no “editor” to tell him when to stop, and to steer him away from bad ideas (such as his Bugatti attempt), not that he was particularly known for being an egotistical autocrat, but perhaps because he had formerly worked under one (a certain Mr. Loewy).

    1. Wheel openings shape may have been inspired by the e-type. Which brings me to a slight diversion. Exner claimed his fins were aerodynamically functional, improving stability. Sayer claimed likewise for the XJ-S’ buttresses. Were these claims ever tested and proved or disproved?

    2. Gooddog: The preproduction XJ-S was tested in the MIRA (Motor Industry Research Institute) wind tunnel during its development. The only significant change made was to incorporate a small chin spoiler, to reduce front-end lift and improve airflow into the engine bay, reducing underbonnet temperatures. Sadly, Mr. Sayer passed away in 1970, so it wasn’t possible to obtain his verbatim views on the subject, but when I put it to Professor Randle (who lead the car’s development) that in my estimation, Sayer’s buttresses with a twist were a development of the thinking behind the Le Mans D-Type’s vertical tailfin, he agreed. Randle was by then instructing trainee pilots on the fundamentals of aerodynamics and flight theory, so was probably in a position to hazard an educated viewpoint.

      I would also add that the XJ-S was routinely praised for its high-speed stability; the buttress sail panels helping to regulate the airflow as it broke away from the leading edge of the roof and C-pillars; an area noted for unstable airflow and wave vortices. It didn’t necessarily look it, but the XJ-S was quite slippery.

    3. Hi gooddog. Regarding the XJ-S, I’ll refer that question to our esteemed editor, the DTW oracle on all matters Jaguar.

    4. What a great photograph! Thanks for posting, Dave.

    5. Thanks for that reply Eóin. It makes me wonder why vertical stabilizers were absent for so long at Le Mans (2023 Ferrari prototype pictured below).

      Knowing that Sayer’s and B.A.T designer Scaglione’s much sexier twisted stabilizer shapes work well, I look forward to their revival.

  7. Likely tailfins do provide useful aerodynamic effect. Notice that the aerodynamic centre is moved aftwards, guaranteeing that it is located well behind the centre of mass. This tends to make the vehicle more stable in cross winds at speed.

  8. By all the gods, they are indeed horrible. There are, however, rumours that the Stutz brand-name is to be resurrected, this time for a range of electric vehicles. I wouldn’t mind a retro-styled electric Bearcat or Blackhawk.

  9. …..and then there are the largest tailfins and likely the best of all.

    When the Dodge Charger Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird turned up on the high banks in NASCAR both cars had significant aerodynamic modification from the regular models to reduce drag and also to improve stability. The Daytona was the first of the Chrysler aero-warriors to see the track. There were five modifications from the original Charger body style.
    – Flush rear glass.
    – Rear facing air vents atop each front fender.
    – Extended nose cone.
    – Flush A-pillars.
    – Rear wing mounted on tall struts (tail fins).

    The car could run at over 200 mph as was demonstrated at Chrysler’s proving ground and also at Bonneville salt flats. It was not only fast, but very stable at speed. Drivers reported that when it started oversteering (they refer to this as getting “loose”, understeer is “tight”) aerodynamic effects tended to straighten it up, correcting unwanted oversteer. This meant that the driver could be more aggressive with the throttle than had been the case until then. It was also much safer in traffic. The effect the drivers were experiencing was due to the centre of pressure being behind the centre of mass. The two tailfins were key.

    If you look at a Charger Daytona or a Superbird in profile you can see the nose cones extend well forward compared to the standard models on which these two are based. While they dramatically reduced the drag, they moved the lateral centre of pressure forward. That is not going to help at speed. It will reduce stability as any lateral component of air flow will tend to cause the car to want to depart from the intended path in the direction the disturbance is pressing it and the effect will get larger as he car turns its profile further into the airflow (gets more sideways). The aerodynamic forces are working to depart the car from control and as they get larger the lateral forces generated by the tyres have to provide greater and greater restoring forces to compensate (until they saturate and the car goes into a spin). This aint good.

    The tailfins were an example of good engineering. They addressed multiple requirements at the same time. Being as large and as tall as they were provided benefits to these cars.
    – Allowed the boot lid to be fully opened as normal.
    – Placed the wing high up in clean air so it could operate as efficiently as possible with non-turbulent air.
    – Moved the lateral centre of pressure well aft, more than compensating for the nose cone.

    The last feature meant that aero forces tended to restore the car back to its intended path when it was disturbed. It is often described as a “weather cock” effect. Now what will happen is that lateral components of air flow will tend to cause the car to want to return towards intended path, yawing away from the direction the disturbance is pressing it. The restoring effect will get larger as he car turns its profile further into the airflow (gets more sideways). This reduces the driver’s workload. It means the aerodynamic forces are not working against the tyres. Car is stable.

    The Charger Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird are examples of “styling” purely for function. They were developed with a single minded focus on a defined goal for well specified applications. Those who developed them* were not concerned with “looks” or “style”. Nevertheless, these cars have the largest, tallest rear fins seen on a US domestic market car**.

    *The original designers of the aero modifications for Daytona and Superbird were aerodynamicists and engineers from Chryslers missile development division.

    **Since they were sold to the public, there are more of them about than one might expect.

    A postscript.
    At the time Ford was working on aerodynamics projects of its own. It already had its Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler 2 competing. But the next iteration was to be more extreme still. That was the Torino King Cobra. It had an extended nose cone but no tailfins or wing. My suspicion is that further development would likely have seen aerodynamic appendages of some sort appear at the rear of that car. Tailfins even! Alas, all these projects soon ceased. Bill France, owner of NASCAR, banned them all.

    Still, Ford was not finished with aerodynamics at NASCAR, neither was the man who would eventually be referred to as “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”. Aero would be back. On the other hand tailfins were gone for good.

    1. Fascinating stuff indeed, J T. I’ve heard the rear window and flying buttresses of the regular Charger were designed to have some aerodynamic benefit. After testing it turned out the opposite, but the design had already been finalized. Not sure if there is any truth that story.

  10. Freerk

    You’re right. That is exactly what happened. When the 2nd generation Dodge Charger was designed the thinking was that the rear buttresses and recessed rear window would provide a benefit. Alas that was not the case at the speeds which the Charger needed to race at in NASCAR. The drag of the second generation Dodge Charger was higher than 1st gen its predecessor and it wasn’t as stable aerodynamically either. Much of the trouble (drag) came from the front grille and the recessed rear window. A further problem was that the front wheel wells of the car were being “supercharged”, trapping air and maintaining it at a higher pressure than ambient. Front end lift from this source was a problem which needed solution. Recall that the cars were already racing in the high 170mph to 180 mph bracket. At these speeds an instability from front end lift is unwelcome. Strong buffeting from the rear merely adds much more fuel to this fire, so to speak. The recessed rear window had to go.

    The high drag and instability were major issues for Chrysler since the aero deficit was something that even the prodigious output of its 426 cid Hemi could not compensate for. Ford had its well developed and reliable 427 cid “tunnel port” engine in service and also its own 429 cid semi-hemi being readied to race (with the potential for even more power than Chyrsler’s Hemi). Worse news for Chrysler was that the Ford cars were more aerodynamic than the 2 gen Charger. It was appreciated that the Charger needed drag reduction and improved stability urgently in order to be properly raceable, let alone regain competitiveness. The first steps were to stop so much air getting in under the car, reduce the drag and the turbulence created by the recessed front grille and the recessed backlight (rear screen). A front “spoiler” was developed. The grille was moved forward in its opening, eliminating the lip that had featured there in the original design. Finally the space between the flying buttresses at the rear was filled in by moving the rear glass to a more horizontal angle and welding in steel sheet inserts around the glass so as to to make it flush with the trailing edges of the buttresses. The wind tunnel revealed that these modifications did the trick. The version of the Charger built with these alterations was named the Charger 500. On the track it worked as intended.

    Chrysler needed more though. They were well aware of the potential of Ford’s new 429 cid crescent (semi-hemi) engine. They’d already seen what the FE 427 cid tunnel port could do and knew the new Ford engine was even better. They also seen the Ford FE 427 cid sohc engine (banned as were all ohc engines including Chrysler’s dohc four-valve per cylinder contender, the A925*). They well knew what Ford could do. They knew the costs required for engine development (and by this time Chrysler were becoming very leery of big spend-ups). They needed an unfair advantage and right soon too. Their missile division gave them exactly the advantage they needed. They “borrowed” aerodynamicists.

    The next round of modifications to the Charger led to the Charger Daytona, tailfins and all. In early testing at the proving grounds Chrysler’s engineers immediately knew they had the answer. 200mph+ was instantly available and the car was stable and controllable. The advantage they’d located was so great they had to be super careful how and when they tested the cars. They were worried that competitors were spying on them. Chrysler were right. Certain people had suspicions that Chrysler were up to something and so they hired a helicopter to provide them with the opportunity to spy on Chrysler from above. Two things helped out here. One was that Chrysler avoided testing the cars at speed in broad daylight for full laps of the proving ground circuit. Hence laps appeared slow. Second was the unfinished unpainted look and unusual shape of the Charger Daytona prototypes meant that observers (spies) thought these vehicles were part of some obscure research effort or other, not the actual cars being developed to race. The rest of the story is history. The cars appeared and became dominant. Plymouth demanded their own aero car and got one, hello Superbird. They did this to entice the King, Richard Petty, back from Ford (where he’d defected). The aero wars in NASCAR were well and truly on!

    There is a lot more to this if you are interested, let me know and I’ll try to make time to write it up for you.

    Cheers.

    * there were two four valve 426 cid Chrysler engines being prepared. One had dohc and the other had two cams in the cylinder block operating the valves via shortened pushrods.

    1. I’d love to hear more J T. I think this could be an entire article 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: