There are cars named after South American winds, tigers and iguanas, then there’s a car named after a Beetle. No, not that Beetle.
If you asked someone on the streets of the U.S., “What was the world’s first minivan?”, they’d probably respond with the 1984 Dodge Caravan. Either that, or they’d say, “You’re a bit strange, aren’t you? Who cares about minivans?” Now, you Europeans, on the other hand, will have a different answer. Your first minivan/people carrier was the 1984 Renault Espace. You know what? You’re both wrong. This was, ostensibly, the world’s first minivan. Meet the 1930s Stout Scarab: the car named after a family of beetle.
The car was designed and built by the Stout Motor Car Company, based in Detroit, Michigan. If you look at it and think the body looks more like an airplane fuselage, there’s a good reason for that. The company’s founder, William Bushnell Stout, was a passionate aviation engineer. He founded the first aviation magazine in the U.S., Aerial Age, and also the Stout Metal Airplane Company in 1924.
Although he devoted himself to designing planes, he also instilled some of that passion and knowledge into building cars. He was hired as head engineer for the Scripps-Booth Automobile Company in 1914, and he served as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers. By the 1930s, Stout poured what knowledge he gained from aviation and other pioneers in the automotive industry into building the Scarab.
Most of us are familiar with cars from those early days. Built on a separate chassis, engine mounted under a massively long hood with the passenger compartment slapped on the back. The Stout Scarab did away with all that. In the pursuit of aerodynamics, the Stout Company shortened and streamlined the noise, and tapered the upper body off at the rear, giving the car its beetle-like shape.
Like certain other designers of the time with their people’s car, Stout employed a rear-engine design for the Scarab. Lurking under the car’s largely aluminum body was a 3.6-liter V8 engine pushing out a whopping 95 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque. However, since the Stout Company used lighter materials and a unibody construction for the Scarab, it only weighed around 3,000 pounds – less than a Toyota Camry. It could hit 60 mph in a blistering 15 seconds. This car also focuses on packaging – moving the wheels to the corners and putting as much usable space within the wheelbase as possible – a trend that would emerge again in modern minivans.
Adjustable seating in the 1930s?
Not only did the Scarab feature those distinctive bug-eye headlights, Art Deco design elements and a streamlined exterior design, but it had a flexible interior as well. While the driver’s seat and rear bench were fixed, other seats could move around to face each other. There was even a small table, creating something like an office on wheels. Passengers could access the interior through the driver’s door or – surprise, surprise – a single middle door on the passenger side.
The first Stout Scarab was built in 1932, but the company built more cars throughout the decade, culminating in another “Experimental” car in 1946. It was the world’s first car to feature a fiberglass body and air (pneumatic) suspension. Stout never intended to build the car in huge numbers. The company only built between six and nine Scarabs, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one on the road. Apart from its strangeness, the car was also massively expensive, ringing in around $5,000, or $89,000 in today’s money.
A template for modern minivans
William Bushnell Stout also coined the engineering motto, “simplicate and add lightness.” If that sounds familiar, again, you’re not mistaken. Colin Chapman of Lotus fame took that credo to heart in building Lotus sports cars.
So, in more ways than one, this strange sort-of minivan kicked off the trends that would come to exemplify modern minivan design and engineering philosophies that still ring strong today in lightweight, unibody cars. On that basis, we should tip our hat to the extraordinary Stout Scarab.