By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
What car looks like a sub sandwich on wheels, swings like a hammock, and has space for a game of gin? Why, the Stout Scarab, of course. An experimental, futuristic car created by aviation engineer William Bushnell Stout who called it a "travelling machine", it had a host of new-fangled mechanical and design features. The car topped out at 80 mph and, on the road, produced a little more than 18 miles per gallon. While fewer than ten of these marvels were ever made, a handful of those still survive and the Scarab turns heads whenever and wherever it appears.
1936 Stout Scarab.
The car was conceived in the thirties when Art Deco reigned and sleek lines, tear-drop shapes, and impressive waterfall grilles ruled the car kingdom. While Stout was known as the American Leonardo da Vinci, his car was likened to a turtle, an oversized bullet, or a giant beetle. Despite its stubby looks many thought ugly, it was variously hailed as a sky car, the car of tomorrow, or a car with sideways streamlining. And this early fastback with teardrop streaming at the rear may well have been the world's first production minivan.
The Scarab was developed by Stout Engineering Laboratories in 1932 as a concept car, and Stout Motor Car Co. of Detroit was formed in 1934 to produce it. By 1935 a version slightly revised mechanically and stylistically was available. The cars were made until 1939.
A 1936 ad extolling its features called it "A Challenge and a Prophecy". In an illustrated panel of a night scene, a couple stands atop the stairs of their wooded home gazing down at the blue Scarab sitting on a stone-paved driveway. Text explains this marvel of the future and its many features: "Engine in the rear • Unit body—no chassis • Inside floor area—7' 6" x 5' 7" • Running board and hood space usable inside body • Loose chairs, adjustable to all positions • Rear davenport seat convertible to full-length couch • Card and dining table • New, full-vision driver's position • Thermostatically controlled heat • Forced, draftless ventilation, with rain, dust and insect filter • Fully insulated against sound and temperature • Smooth body lines minimizing wind noises • Concealed, recessed rear window • Grill-enclosed headlights • Electric door locks—no projecting handles • Flush-type hinges • Exceptionally long wheelbase for overall length (no overhang) • Minimum unsprung weight • Soft, individual springing of all wheels • Less weight on front axle—for easier steering • Maximum brakes at rear—not front—for safe, rapid deceleration • Slanted windows, no reflections."
The Scarab was definitely different. While production cars of the day had a separate frame and body, the Scarab utilized instead a single (unitized) body. One of the earliest space frame chassis, the car's skeletal frame was made of connected tubular steel components with a lightweight aluminum skin. Stout is said to have chosen the "Scarab" name because the scarab beetle had an exoskeleton.
1936 Stout Scarab.
Other production cars had a front-mounted engine, placed lengthwise behind the front axle. The hood covered the engine compartment, making all that space unavailable to the car's occupants. The engine connected to the transmission directly behind it and, through a connecting drive shaft, drove the rear axle. Because the floors in these cars had to allow for the transmission and drive shaft, passengers became used to straddling a hump in the middle of the floor.