Forgotten Dreams: Lesser-known 1950s concept cars
With little doubt, the 1950s marked the pinnacle of American dream cars. Prosperity allowed Americans…
By Angelo Van Bogart
Photos by Don Heiny, Courtesy of RM Auctions
Other than a penchant for Stutz motor cars and ownership of one of the marque’s most impressive examples, Richard Mitchell has little in common with gold—burying hoarder A.K. Miller. Mitchell remains a true gentleman, willing to share his Stutzes from the show floor of Old Iron Works, his Montgomery, Texas restoration shop, to concours fields across the country. The secretive Miller, on the other hand, was remembered by those best acquainted with him as an arrogant cheapskate that probably basked in his mystery, and enjoyed taunting collectors with the promise of a glimpse at his Stutzes.
The story of A.K. Miller is legendary, even outside of Stutz collecting. The Vermont collector was born in 1906 and developed a taste for fine cars — what would be considered Classic cars today — and began gathering them when they were used cars. Commensurate with his frugal ways, Miller stored his valuable collection in dirt—floor wood sheds and lean—to’s on the primitive East Orange, Vt., farm he shared with his wife, Imogene.
Although great Peerless, Cadillac and Rolls—Royce cars passed through Miller’s hands, it was Stutz he preferred. A 1917 Stutz was Miller’s first car, and he occasionally drove it until he died in 1993. The other cars in Miller’s 40—some—vehicle collection were often parked on makeshift “wood stump” jack stands and left to gather dust while surrounded by spare Stutz parts. Miller would sometimes trade these parts, but he drove a hard bargain to his financial benefit and the misfortune of his fellow trader. It was not until his wife died in 1996 that it became clear what exactly was hidden in the wilds of Vermont, and more than car collectors were interested.
The Millers had essentially lived as recluses on their simple homestead. They had no children, and they had almost no paper trail. Their collection had been known to only a few outsiders, and the handful of people allowed to visit rarely caught a glimpse of more than a car or two. Only visitors from foreign lands were typically offered more than a peek, supposedly because Miller could be assured they were not from the IRS. Indeed, Miller had lived so far off the grid he was able to avoid paying state and federal taxes. He and his wife were also hiding more than cars and income — they had buried or otherwise hid millions of dollars in gold bullion and silver ingots around their property.
After Imogene’s passing, the Millers’ fortune captured the attention of car and tax collectors, and an auction was held by Christie’s, after which the IRS was to receive its due. Police scouted the property leading up to the auction to stop the shovels and metal detectors of treasure hunters, and the curious eyes and hands of car enthusiasts. When the auction was held Sept 7—9, 1996, about 35 “barn find” Stutz motor cars crossed the block, most fetching far more than their pre—sale estimates in front of a standing—room—only crowd.
The Lancefield Stutz coupe
One of the stand—outs in that sale was a special 1929 Stutz Model M with coupe coachwork by Lancefield of London. Lancefield often bodied Rolls—Royce and Bentley chassis, but it also held an association with Stutz of Indianapolis, Ind. The aluminum—sheathed Lancefield coupe body sat low on the Stutz chassis, thanks in part to a worm gear drive setup, but was made to look lower with Lancefield’s tear drop step plates and trademark low roof, cycle—type front and rear fenders and dozens of louvers that ran the length of the apron that masked the frame sides. In deep black, the masterpiece was sinister.
“They only built five of these coupes,” said Richard Mitchell, the Lancefield—bodied Stutz coupe’s present owner. “Two were sold to the Woolworth Brothers and this is one of the two. Of the two cars, only this one was supercharged. There is no record of the others; this is the lone ranger.”
Only two Stutz Model M models of all built are known to have been supercharged, which made the 325—cid straight—eight good for an estimated 185 bph — about 65 percent more power than a normally aspirated Stutz straight—eight of 110 hp. The horsepower figure was impressive in its day, but it wasn’t surprising that those numbers came from a Stutz. The car had built a reputation at its 1911 founding by making an impressive debut at the first Indianapolis 500 race. There, a Stutz placed 11th in a field of cars with larger engine displacements, and with a noteworthy 68.25 mph average speed. From that point, Stutz would be known as the “Car That Made Good in a Day.” Production kicked off in 1912 with the typical roadster, touring and toy tonneau models, but it was the unforgettable Bearcat speedster that solidified Stutz as a performance car throughout its life, whether the chassis wore the racy Bearcat speedster body, or a lithe limousine body.
The first Stutzes were four— or six—cylinder models, and in 1926, the Vertical Eight debuted to make the company a competitor to the likes of Duesenberg, which built eight—cylinder cars elsewhere in Indy. Stutz eights of the mid 1920s were usually in the $4,000 range, while Duesenbergs were about twice that. Stutz’s reputation, however, was no less sterling.
That reputation grew with the straight—eight Stutz Model M of 1929, and the succeeding single—valve eight—cylinder (SV—16) and dual—valve eight—cylinder (DV—32) models that debut in the 1931 calendar year. It was these powerful models that brought the Stutz aura to a pinnacle of reputation. These single— and dual—valve eights would also carry the marque into the sunset around 1935, albeit with the speedometer pegged.
Not the first Stutz in the family
While A.K. Miller experienced the magnificence of Stutz in the company’s heyday, Mitchell’s adoration for all things Stutz came by way of a family member who also experienced a new Stutz motor car.
“I had a grandfather who, in the early ’30s, was chasing the oil fields between Oklahoma and California, and he bought a Stutz — a ’29 that was a convertible coupe that he converted into a pickup,” Mitchell said. “We found a picture my mother had of the car and nobody could figure out what it was.”
Mitchell took a close look at the picture and determined from the hubcaps that the mystery car in the photo was a Stutz. Then a letter from Mitchell’s grandfather surfaced shortly after the Stutz picture was found. It offered praise from the man that owned the Stutz, and Mitchell was sold on the marque.
“We found a letter to my step—grandmother about how good the car was and how it never gave him any trouble,” Mitchell said. “I had started restoring a Packard and decided that, well, I think I am going to try to find a Stutz, and I started learning how far ahead Stutz was and got enthralled with them. Now I have 19.”
Like Miller, Mitchell’s collection includes Bearcats and Black Hawks and the equally exotic SV—16 and DV—32 models. Since Mitchell’s show—winning Stutzes rarely have a chance to get dusty, he’s able to offer a comparison of the Lancefield—bodied supercharged Model M coupe to the better—known SV—16 and DV—32 models, and the earlier Model M can hold its own.
“It’s an interesting car. You can drive the car along at 65 mph [and engage the supercharger] and it will go to 75 mph without touching the accelerator,” Mitchell said. “I have only done that once. I hesitate to use that supercharger, because there aren’t any left. I would say it’s as fast as a DV—32, but it’s hard to [draw a comparison to a DV—32], because that [engine] can be in a lot of different bodies. I have a DV—32 Bearcat and it runs like a scalded dog.”
Riding in the Lancefield coupe’s intimate cabin offers all the refinement one might expect in a British body of the period, despite the brute force under the long Stutz hood.
“It’s not very noisy; you don’t get much road nose or gear noise,” Mitchell said. “It’s a right—hand—drive car because it’s bodied in England, and you have to get used to shifting the gears with your left hand. [Right—hand drive] doesn’t hinder you from driving it at all. It’s a very natural car to drive. It doesn’t have any bad habits. It’s a nice car to drive.”
Mitchell’s restoration shop made sure the rakish Stutz remained ready for the show field after he purchased it from an RM Auctions sale in 2010. The car’s history is not known between its purchase by the Woolworth Brothers from Stutz’s main agent there, Warwick Wright Ltd. of London, and A.K. Miller’s acquisition. However, the Lancefield coupe was very intact in 1996 when it was pulled from the barn it shared with DV—32s, SV—16s and Bearcats at Miller’s farm. It was prepared relatively quickly for the 1997 Peking to Paris Rally. It then thundered onto the green of the 50th anniversary Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2000, where it won Best in Class and the Briggs Cunningham special award. By the time of Mitchell’s acquisition, the car had a solid decade of concourses and rallies to its credit.
“At the time I got it, it was a 10—year—old restoration,” Mitchell said. “We thought all we had to do was touch it up here and there, but after about the third week, I said, ‘Stop and tear it down.’”
Mitchell’s shop went through the mechanics of the car and re—plated parts and repainted the coachwork to again put it in top concours condition. He’s since been rewarded with several Best of Shows, from the Keeneland Concours d’Elegance to the Santa Fe Concorso to the Ault Park Concours d’Elegance and points between. However, its show car status doesn’t stop Mitchell from sharing it with school children and veterans alike, or taking it out on the road to turn heads, perhaps like his grandfather did so many years ago with his own 1929 Stutz Model M.
“If you were 30 and you wanted to impress somebody on Fifth Avenue, that’s what you would drive,” he said.
The Lancefield’s list of awards prove that those who see it today remain as impressed as they were in 1929.