We resume our coverage of Stutz today, in the mid-twenties. The company saw its financial situation deteriorate around the middle of the decade, just as it launched the new Vertical Eight series of cars. More expensive than ever and more powerful, the new Stutz luxury cars were not without flaws. Although superbly built, they had engineering problems with their four-wheel hydraulic braking system that the company could not solve.
The brake problems damaged the company’s reputation but did not ruin it. And Stutz’s high-performance cars continued their racing tradition with a second-place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But Stutz was still losing money and had to invest in new businesses and technologies to stay afloat. Let’s talk about delivery trucks and faux leather finishes.
The delivery truck in question was the Pak-Age-Car. Founded in Chicago in 1925, Pak-Age-Car was a brand of delivery trucks owned by a company called the Mechanical Manufacturing Company. The idea behind the company’s product was to replace the horse part of the old horse-drawn delivery wagon with an internal combustion engine.
A fairly simple idea, early Pak-Age-Cars looked a lot like a delivery truck with a small cabin instead of a horse. The company developed its initial design and called it Pac-Car, which it finalized in 1925. It went on sale in 1926 as the Pak-Age-Car, manufactured by the Package Car Corporation.
In the mid-1920s, the use of horses in commercial delivery situations was still relatively common. Advertising for the new Pak-Age-Car compared the truck to the horse it replaced and touted its superiority. The Pak-Age-Car’s cab had a flat front for easy parking and visibility and had no seat. A standing driver could jump to either side of the cab via a sliding door and make deliveries quickly. The driver drove the van with manual controls. The engine was a seven-horsepower, two-cylinder made by Hercules Engine Company (1915-1999), a company that made a name for itself making engines for military vehicles. The truck power units were modular and could be swapped out in 15 minutes without unloading any cargo.
But there was a problem at Package Car: they had no dealers. The company went looking for a suitable distributor for their vans and came across Stutz. Stutz was in a sales slump, selling fewer and fewer $100 cars with faulty brakes to weary elites. Pak-Age-Car and Stutz entered into a distribution agreement, and in 1927 Stutz became the sole distributor of delivery trucks. It was an interesting move for Stutz, who presumably would have put utility vehicles next to their luxury cars at least. some showrooms.
As the promising new commercial truck venture got underway, Stutz spent the money adding a new type of high-tech body construction to its lineup: cloth. In our previous entry we mentioned Charles Weymann (1889-1976), who used Vertical Eight Stutz cars for his second Le Mans victory in 1928. Weymann was born in Haiti and became a racing driver and aircraft builder . Around 1920, he used his experience in aircraft construction to develop a new type of car body manufacturing using fabric.
Weymann worked quickly and patented his method in 1921. He marketed his new Weymann cloth bodies with immediate success and successfully sold his method to many luxury automobile manufacturers. Weymann’s method differed entirely from that of the coachbuilder. There, a body was constructed primarily of hand-hammered sheet metal panels (usually an aluminum alloy). Once the panels were shaped (or sometimes pressed), they were attached directly to a wooden frame. The finished body was then attached to the chassis.
In contrast, Weymann’s method used a hinged wooden frame covered with layers of fabric and textiles. The frame itself was an ultra-lightweight design that saved weight over what a traditional bodybuilder would use. The frame used metal joints, so in no way was wood touching wood. Shaped metal panels were used much less extensively and were added between the fabric shell and frame to form the necessary rounded areas. At various locations around the body there were also “tension wires”, strategically placed to prevent the body from flexing in the wind or on rough terrain.
The frame, metal panels and wire were eventually covered with a muslin blanket which formed the bottom layer of the bodywork. The muslin was backed by chicken wire and used a bit of cotton padding to hold things flat over larger continuous surfaces where the fabric might sag or pucker. On top of this lasagna of materials was a final layer of fabric, usually dyed synthetic leather. Leather was used wherever normal bodywork would be painted and colored at the request of the customer. In places where the fabric was sewn, an aluminum trim was added as a cover.
It all reads amazing to modern eyes, particularly that body stiffness was largely via chicken wire. But fabric had many advantages over coach-built bodies. Much less noise, vibration and harshness entered the cabin of the car, as there was no wood touching wood in the frame. It was also much lighter, as the construction was not metal-intensive. Repairs were easy, just get a new leatherette panel over any damaged body parts. Assortment of distressed faux leather colors? I guess an owner would find out when it happened.
There was an NVH compromise with the design: as the seats could not be attached to the fabric shell, they were attached directly to the frame along with the engine. In more expensive luxury cars that used cloth bodies, manufacturers contributed to passenger comfort with long seat springs and padded cushions. Cloth bodywork led to technical advances in more luxury-oriented companies, as engineers suddenly had to focus on the smoothness of engines that were suddenly strapped almost to the customer’s spine. Cloth bodies contributed directly to the development of rubber engine mounts. Even with their drawbacks, cloth bodies were seen as the way of the future at the time, and many luxury manufacturers embraced the system.
The bodies were also cheaper to make, as you didn’t need various craftsmen to shape the panels by hand; almost anyone could make a fabric shell. There was a considerable lack of safety with cloth bodywork versus metal bodywork, but this seemed largely ignored by consumers at the time. Stutz also ignored it and continued to market their cars as “Safety Stutz” even after they started using cloth bodies around 1925. They advertised models like the “Blackhawk Weymann Chantilly” to signify the use of cloth bodywork in their glorious Art Deco advertisements.
Customers paid a huge sum of money for a fabric Stutz that cost Stutz much less to manufacture – a bargain. Stutz sold its standard coach-built bodies, but simultaneously offered Weymann options as a “NEW luxury driving experience”. The cloth-bodied car was popular from its introduction in the early 1920s until the end of the decade when it fell victim to changing consumer tastes. At the turn of the 1930s, consumers became more interested in a shiny, glossy finish on their automobiles. The finish on all the cloth bodies was a kind of dull, textured semi-gloss at best. When painting becomes fashionable again, coachbuilders resume their activity (for a few decades).
Weymann had three factories at the height of his company in France, Indianapolis, and French production in the UK ended in 1930, Indianapolis in 1931. The UK factory continued and began bus production almost immediately under the name of Metro Cammell Weymann. This business lasted until 1989. Stutz continued to build Weymann bodies until at least 1933, after they had gone out of fashion. At this time, Stutz’s offerings were widely seen as out of touch.
Stutz had promising new revenue through Pack-Age-Car distribution and was saving money by offering cloth bodies on his vehicles. The product was largely the same as it had been, as the expensive Stutz cars continued in the Vertical Eight BB, M, MA, and MB iterations through the latter part of the model’s run. The company also relied more heavily on its cheaper Black Hawk models, introduced in 1927 as a new base for racing car derivatives (formerly the place of the extinct Bearcat).
Around the time the Black Hawk was introduced as an exciting new sports model, Stutz management began to focus less on performance and racing pedigree in its advertising. Images shifted to more dignified motoring and the publicity of safety devices, with models depicted in oil paint format. The Stutz cars continued to win at races, but the management no longer had any concerns with promoting such exciting aspects. Losing sales and bleeding money, the Stutz board decided to end all support for racing activities in 1928. It was ultimately a terrible decision, but probably had little effect. on the ultimate fate of the company.
Sales continued to decline, even with cash bonuses offered through truck distribution and fabric bodies produced at lower cost. As the timeline turned to 1929, there was plenty more bad news on the way.
[Images: Stutz, Pak-Age-Car]
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