Celebrating the Spirit of Competition

1927 Stutz Black Hawk Challenger

Chassis Number : 86284             Horsepower : 95           Displacement : 8-cylinder, 4.88 L           Wheelbase : 131"

These Cars

In 1927 Samuel B. Stevens, seeking to find the best combination of speed and endurance, offered the Stevens Challenge Trophy Cup. His belief was “flash speeds as against sustained speeds mean very little. It is the latter quality that really counts, as it means the superlative degree of merit in automobile design and construction”. His challenge was to be conducted for 24 hours at the Indianapolis Speedway in a purely stock car without modifications of any type. Fred Moskovics, already actively preparing his cars for stock car racing, took up the challenge and this was the beginning, in 1927 of the famous Challenger Stutz engine.

Throughout most of the 1920s Stutz produced rather staid high quality cars with an occasional sporting flair, but not serious speed/endurance competitors. In 1926, in his effort improve importance, Moskovics met with Ettore Bugatti in Paris, with whom, presumably because of shared interests, he developed a friendship. Their specific subject was design of a head which could tolerate performance modification without overheating and bending valves, a problem faced in earlier testing.

By mid 1927 larger ports and a newer round intake manifold increased the brake horsepower of the developing Challenger engine from 95 to 115 without warping the valves. Moskovics now felt he had an engine which was of international significance and he planned to prove this by entering a series of stock car races sponsored by the Automobile Association of America (AAA). Moskovics was disappointed to learn that these stock car races could run with no top, windshield, or fenders. This should have been fine with him, except that for the fact that all of his production open cars had non-folding windshields. Rather, they were straight up and integral with the body, thereby imposing at least a 10 mile per hour speed deficit.

Hastily a new streamlined shape with folding or removable windshield, a racy boat sail body was designed, and this became the Black Hawk Speedster. The two passengers speedster was made first in quantities, but it was obvious in 1927 that a four passenger boat tail version should also be designed because the Le Mans regulations made a four seater body mandatory. The Robbins body company, known for their fine coachwork, was charged with constructing the special, limited-edition sports clothing. Test revealed that the cylinder head still need redesigning and that gear ratio options had to be changed. Plain and simple, he could not have a car ready for the May 7 Atlantic City Board Track Race. Ultimately the problems were solved and by September 1927, two passenger Black Hawk speedsters totally dominated American stock car racing.

In the meantime, four passenger speedster reached appeal here and abroad. Its powerful and very reliable overhead valve engine, sleek streamlined boat tail body, and its four passenger configuration nicely conforming to current Le Mans regulations, made it an easy choice for overseas racers who wanted to capitalize on these features in an attempt to win the great French endurance contest. The prospect of entering 1928 Le Man would ordinarily have delighted Fred Moskovics but a sad series of events before the race shattered his spirit. On April 18, the famous Stutz-Hispano Match Race, to be discussed in detail later, damaged the Stutz image primarily in America. Then, exactly one week later, famed Stutz master engineer and test driver Frank Lockhart was killed on the Daytona beaches when his Stutz Black Hawk Special crashed at over 200 miles an hour. At that point the Stutz Motor Car Company retired from racing and the great adventure was over.

However Hispano drivers Robert Bloch and Charles Weymann were impressed by their experience with the Black Hawk and Weymann commented, “I have come to the conviction that if there is any car that can crack the Bentley team at Le Mans it is the Stutz Black Hawk.” With Le Mans less than two months away a stock four passenger boat tailed Black Hawk speedster was rushed to France modestly modified by the addition of knockoff wire wheels and Marchal lights, and with Bloch and Lock and Brisson (a Le Mans competitor since its beginning in 1923) at the wheel, the car made a remarkable showing, almost winning, but after 24 hours placing second to a Bentley 4.5 liter team car. Commenting on that race Motor Sport in July 1928 mentioned that, “There is something remarkable about the fact that two sports cars, built on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with totally different backgrounds, should prove so nearly identical in performance throughout a long 24 hours of demanding racing.”

The 4.5 liter Bentley had 30 cubic inches less engine capacity than the Stutz but it was 200 pounds lighter. Both cars used a 56 inch tread with 130 inch wheel base. In reality the Stutz had one serious flaw that reflected its lack of previous road racing experience; a cheap, poorly constructed, wide ratio three speed gear box that had been designed to do little more than get the car underway. With the second gear ratio of 7:1 (overall) the Stutz was forced to use top gear for all speeds above 60 mph. To compensate for this lack of gearbox flexibility it was necessary to torture the engine with much higher speeds than sufficed for the Bentley. For the latter had a splendid four speed gearbox that had been designed to be used constantly at speeds up to 80 mph.

“The Black Hawk engine had a smoothness and flexibility that Brisson had never experienced before, and it seemed possible to push the car beyond its safe limit. When in his second lap the tough but resourceful Bentley driver, Woolf Barnato thundered through at an average of 74 mph, Brisson found the temptation to strike an answer unresistable, and this proved to be no less than 76.2 mph. Later in the race Brisson and Block then decided to turn the tables on the Bentley team and attempt to lure Barnato and his co driver Bernard Rubin to their destruction. There followed one of the fiercest and most unrelenting battles n the history of Le Mans. Some time in the sixth hour the Black Hawk fought its way into the lead. Quite naturally this sort of performance from an American machine filled W. O. Bentley and Barnato with both shock and dread. An American victory would rob Bentley of much of the glory it had won the year before and the mere thought of the ribbing that would follow was insufferable.

“The Stutz Bentley deal had stirred such emotional support within each camp that all thought of strategy was thrown to the winds. There was but one common urgency: to out lap the other no matter what the cost! All of this proved to be a great stress on the Stutz gearbox which weakened with excessive downshifting.” To quote the Motor Sport finally, “At the twentieth hour misfortune overtook the Stutz and had to continue minus top gear. It was determined to run the Stutz at full speed, attempting to overcompensate for the remaining low gear and, recognizing full well that the engine should disintegrate at some point. However the Challenger engine rose to the occasion with such will that when the 24 hours did end second and third places were still separated by nearly 50 miles. The winning Bentley’s average speed was 69.11 miles per hour whereas the Stutz’s average was 66.42 miles an hour”.

In 1928 no more than a handful of Americans had ever heard the term sports car or knew the existence of an event as important as the 24 hour race at Le Mans. The world of automobiles was not very large then and the few besides those who attended the American stock car races knew about Stutz’s supremacy there. Theirs was probably the best record of stamina ever set up, but there was such sparse coverage of Stutz activity in the American newspaper and motor journals that it didn’t register in the face of the bitter reaction against the Stutz-Hispano failure. Had it been possible to make known to the public the demanding nature of the Le Mans race and the great honor that went with putting up a fine performance there, had it been possible to explain why the Hispano never competed at Le Mans, the course of Stutz history would have been changed. The car could have been brought into perspective as a unique and valuable expression of American technical genius supplied to a type of machine that in the past had been offered only in costly hand built editions. However, with no understanding of the terms and values involved there was no means of communication.

“How different it was in Europe. Here Stutz once again became, “the car that made good in a day after its stirring performance at Le Mans. By October 1928 Stutz export sales broke all records.” These quotes from Mark Howells book Racing Stutz, represent a perceptive and unbiased look into a forgotten but very significant piece of American sports car history.

Our Car

First I must apologize for including a 1927 Stutz Challenger four passenger Black Hawk speedster when it was actually a 1928 edition of this model which, as a virtually stock car, came in second in the great Le Mans race that year. My apology is somewhat tempered by the fact that, first of all, this car in its as found condition, is a complete early original with unaltered paint, upholstery, or any mechanical details. As such it is certainly the most original example of the four passenger Challenger Stutz Black Hawk to be found. Secondly, there is so little difference between the 1927 and 1928 models, that with some alternation of conscience, I can reconcile this distortion of history, but it’s really because I could not give up cherishing the 1927 model because of its stark level of preservation. Hopefully, the reader therefore will excuse this subterfuge.

It’s really the library, again, which lead to the acquisition of this car. I’ve often been asked about how cars we collected, particularly in times of modest impecunity, were chosen. The answer oft repeated, besides the insights that my dad gave, was the information from the library which I had accumulated somewhat obsessively since my early years. Collecting original factory literature, particularly sales brochures and instruction manuals, often provided specific insights with reference to originality, manufacturer’s intent, and plain historical reference which made the decision as to which car to acquire much easier. There seems to be nothing more definitive than the words of maker at least in terms of originality and history.

In 1970, while reading the classifieds of the periodical of the Antique Automobile Club of America I noticed an ad for a 1927 Stutz automobile. The seller did not specifically mention its body type except to imply that it was an open car and that it had been in storage for some time. A telephone conversation was little more enlightening until the title, which was actually much more accessible than the car, was read off to me from its inherited owner in Hampton, Virginia. Its serial number was preceded by a code which happened to define its body style. This code, in turn, was deciphered in the 1927 Stutz shop manual in the library. I realized that this, in fact, was a true and very rare four passenger Black Hawk boat tail speedster and at the time (and since), I have learned of the existence of only two others. The owner indicated that he had inherited the car from distant relatives, and that it remained stored in the same barn for many decades. I told him that I would be there the next morning with cash and my current girlfriend and I flew to see it. We were not disappointed.

In the darkness of the garage we could see the original paint with some striping still remaining. The tires had been inflated. The nickel was in outstanding condition as was the upholstery and everything about the car. Of course it had not run in years. This seemed of little consequence since everything under the hood seemed intact. Side curtains, leather fender drapes, even a labeled tire cover were still intact. The complicated removable top bow mechanism was folded up in a small boot in the boat tail. She was absolutely amazing. At that point, however, I recognized that when this car saw the light of day, the inheritee may rethink the sale particularly if a knowing stranger walked by. Therefore, we paid his price with a proviso that the car be taken directly to Philadelphia. He would be the driver and be given a plane ticket to come back, to all of which he readily agreed.

We went back to the airport and asked for the biggest oldest rental Hertz, and a high mileage gas monger was available. The owner needed to know why the rush and I told him, truthfully, that I had to be in surgery the following morning (Monday), so the whole thing had to be in Philly by 7:00 AM. My companion, Miss Eller, also had to provide anesthesia at the same time, so while we slept in the back of the Ford, Mr. Guthrie, now a bit richer, drove us home. At about 7:00 I told Dad to meet us near the hospital and to be ready to unload a car. We had little time for details. My last image of him was inspecting the newly acquired gem while we drove off to the hospital in his old T Bird to let Mr. Guthrie help him figure out how to get home and find a place for the Stutz.

This was one of the happiest finds I’ve experienced, in the days when such gems were still hidden away. There was absolutely nothing about the car that was disappointing, although ineffective the water brakes had to be swapped for Stutz hydraulic brakes which was something universally done shortly after the cars were made anyway because the hydrostatic brake system was a failure. The virtually stock Le Mans Stutz did race with hydraulics and was otherwise a very close cousin to our four passenger speedster. It was obvious, early on, that the sheer appeal, fabric, smell, presence, and respect that an original well cared for car generates far exceeds whatever pleasure one gets from the perfection of a shiny new restoration and hopefully that feeling will be transmitted to our visitors.