F.B. Stearns Company got its start in the basement of F.M. Stearns’ elegant home on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. It was there that the wealthy Stearns had set up a well-equipped machine shop for his 17-year-old son Frank, who built a prototype six-horsepower single-cylinder car in 1896. Two years later Frank was joined in the business by brothers Ralph and Raymond Owen, with the operation having been moved to the barn where the first of about 50 “production” cars rolled out in December 1898, each with a single-cylinder 8-hp, two-cycle engine. By 1901, the Owen brothers had moved on to build their own cars, and F.B. Stearns was building cars equipped with four-cycle 10hp single-cylinder engines with a bore and stroke of 6.25x7.5 inches, considered the largest single-cylinder engine in America at the time.
Throughout Stearns history, it made a reputation for building quality cars, and made a name for itself by competing in automotive contests without ever building a purpose-built race car. At Ventnor Beach (Atlantic City) in 1907, a Stearns Model 45-90 with an 800cid six-cylinder engine covered the mile in 42.5 seconds with a speed of 87 mph attained. At Brighton Beach in 1910, a stock Stearns broke the 24-hour record by traveling 1,253 miles. Even the smaller four-cylinder Stearns were breaking records and winning hill climbs in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and it was the first car to reach the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, covering the 12-mile road with seven passengers aboard!
James Gilman “Pete” Sterling was hired as chief engineer in 1903, and remained with the company until 1920. In 1911, Sterling was significant in securing the first American rights to manufacture the Knight sleeve-valve engine, a 28hp four-cylinder version. Two versions of the Knight double-sleeve engines had been tested in 1909, which included five days of running on the bench, plus more than two-thousand miles of road testing. Significant findings during the test showed that horsepower actually improved over time, and upon disassembly, there was no visible wear to moving parts.
Adding the durable and efficient engine (and name) to the Stearns line proved successful, with production and sales doubling from the previous year. In 1916, when Cadillac V- engines had already been on the market for two years, Stearns reacted and introduced its sleeve-valve version displacing 332 cubic inches and producing 33.8 taxable horsepower. For 1916 and 1917, Stearns was near the top of the heap for luxury car makers, almost matching sales with Packard, but with World War I limiting resources to build non-essential goods, production plummeted to just 1,415 cars in 1918. Stearns was hit doubly hard, as Frank Stearns contracted pneumonia in 1917 and sold his interest in the company in 1918. The V- engine was dropped for 1919, and the company concentrated on building four-cylinder cars with a six being offered again in 1923. In 1925, John North Willys purchased controlling interest in Stearns, immediately dropped the four-cylinder car, and installed his own management team.
Two new engines were introduced a year later for the 1927 models, both of which were offered on the 137-inch wheelbase: the six-cylinder D-6-85 produced 81hp and the straight-eight G-8 produced 102hp. Production, though, never reached the levels as had been achieved in 1916-17. Willys accepted a position to be ambassador to Poland and sold his Stearns stock in the summer of 1929. The final blow to Stearns was the stock market crash, and its doors were shut before the year ended.
The complete history of the award-winning feature car is known. It was delivered new to Adelman Brothers in Boise and remained there through two or three different owners. Harrah’s Auto Collection, Reno, bought it in 1978 (the same year in which Bill Harrah died). During the Harrah auction in June of 1986, the car was sold and went to England. Present owners, Pat and Anne Barnes, Willoughby, Ohio, brought it back to the US in 1994 and gave it the detailed restoration it needed. It is the only G-8 cabriolet known to exist. Incidentally, Anne is Frank B. Stearns’ granddaughter. The AACA Museum in Hershey is indebted to the Barnes’ generosity, as they have donated several Stearns-Knight automobiles from their large collection.
West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.