The 1930s Stout Scarab

The Stout Scarab story starts in the late 1920s. Here, a new phase of visual styling known as ‘Streamline Moderne’ influenced the designs of things like, buildings, trains, buses and cars. The style’s long lines and smooth curves imitated aerodynamic shapes. Streamlining evoked a sense of speed, direction and the future.

A streamlined Mercury Locomotive.

Streamlining and its stunning creations are now a symbol of the 1930s. The Buick Y-Job concept car is one of the most notable from this period, and perfectly embodies this style. Not all cars were to be as well remembered, however.

The 1938 Buick Y-Job, one of the defining cars of the 1930s.

Famed American engineer and inventor William Bushnell Stout wanted a piece of this streamlined action. Stout had many successes in his career, especially in the aviation industry, designing the basis for the Ford Trimotor transport plane. He also designed the Stout Scarab.

Unfortunately, Stout didn’t quite knock it out of the park with the Scarab.

The strange front of the Stout Scarab. Image by Spencer Wright CC BY 2.0 Source

In hindsight, the Scarab was perhaps undeserving of its failure, as it featured a number of innovations then unseen in the automotive industry.

Using his experiences with aircraft, Stout designed the 1932 prototype’s frame to use large amounts of aluminium, which is less than half the weight of steel. A thin aluminium skin stretched over this frame to produce the body work.

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The exterior design heavily followed the aforementioned ‘Streamline Moderne’ style. It had long straight lines, smooth curves, streamlined windows and handles, and detailed grilles and metalwork from front to back.

The Scarab featured plenty of detailed metal work. Jim Evens CC BY-SA 4.0 Source

The advanced design continued inside, too. It had thermostat controlled heating, interior ambient lighting, and a pollen filter to keep the air inside the Scarab fresh. The door locks power operated. Most of these features wouldn’t show up on common production cars for decades.

The passenger’s aviation inspired leather seats were repositionable around the cabin, while the driver sat in a fixed position. Stout had designed the Scarab to have a large and roomy interior. This was partly due to its pontoon styling (iconic large flat fenders and sides of the vehicle) and lack of step boards, but also because of the mechanical engineering going on behind the scenes.

Cars of the era conventionally used a front engine, rear wheel drive power train. This provides good weight distribution but, to accommodate the propeller shaft running along the vehicle to the differential, the floor must be raised, decreasing cabin height.

A front engine rear wheel drive 1937 Ford convertible. Image by Sfoskett~commonswiki CC BY-SA 3.0 Source

Stout used a 90 hp Ford flathead V8 and placed it, along with its gearbox over the rear axle. Without a propeller shaft and frontally mounted engine, the interior was very spacious for the vehicle’s size.

Most cars of the era used solid axles with leaf spring suspension, but the Scarab used all round independent coil springs and shock absorbers. On modern cars this comfier, better handling setup is still not a guaranteed feature.

So, with all these innovations, why did the Scarab fail? There are two main reasons.

The first, surprisingly, was its exterior look. The public regarded it as ugly, even with the popular streamlined designs influences.

The chunky, beetle aesthetic was perhaps a little too extreme for the people of the 1930s.

The Scarab rear quarter view.

Cost is the second. In 1934, while families could barely afford food during the height of the great depression, the Scarab cost an equivalent to $90,000 in today’s money.

A an image taken in 1935 showing unemployed families using a billboard as a windbreak during the great depression.

But the Scarab may have suffered a fate similar to a select group of designs in history. Like the Concord, Google Glass, and early tablet PCs, the Scarab was ahead of its time. Sometimes a design can be so advanced it can solve a problem the consumer doesn’t yet know they have, or be too far detached from what they already know.

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The Scarab is now regarded as the first minivan, but people of 1930’s America had no previous concepts of a minivan, or that they needed one. Luckily, almost 100 years later, Stout’s work on the Scarab is given the respect it deserved at the time.