The groundbreaking 1930s Stout Scarab was the first—and coolest—minivan
“The world’s first minivan.” Few automotive honors are less sexy than that dubious title. Unless, of course, you look like the 1930s Stout Scarab. The Art Deco, aerodynamic, head-turning multi-passenger vehicle created a stir eight decades ago. Its powers have not waned.
Designed and built by engineer William B. Stout, the Scarab’s shape not only resembled the beetle for which it was named, but it also aptly represented what Egyptians believe about the winged insect—that it symbolizes rebirth and renewal. Appropriately enough, Bill Stout did a whole lot of rebirthing and renewing in his day, both before and after the Scarab.
Long before creating the futuristic vehicle, which was produced from 1934–39, Stout’s resume included work as chief engineer for the Schurmeir Motor Truck Company, automobile and aviation editor for the Chicago Tribune, and chief engineer at Scripps-Booth Automobile Company. In 1916, Stout was lured away from Scripps-Booth by Packard Motor Car Company President Alvan Macauley, who named him chief engineer of Packard’s aviation division. Three years later, Stout left to start his own engineering company in Dearborn, Michigan.
Considered the “father of modern aviation,” Stout was the first to endorse an all-metal airplane as a superior alternative to the standard construction of early 20th century aircraft, in which fabric was stretched over a wood frame. He also founded America’s first scheduled airline, Stout Air Service, which later became United Airlines. And he created the successful Ford Trimotor commercial airplane, improving upon his own early designs.
Although Stout loved aviation, he became frustrated by the overall lack of innovation in the industry and turned his attention to other forms of commercial transportation. That led to a very different and definitely innovative vehicle: the Scarab.
The long, bulbous Scarab wore aluminum skin that was riveted to an aluminum space frame, much like an airplane, and it resembled the 1933 Dymaxion or perhaps even an Airstream camper. It featured a 135-inch wheelbase and had an overall length of just over 16 feet. By placing the engine in the rear, Stout’s rear-wheel-drive Scarab offered more leg room for its driver and passengers. Its all-wheel independent suspension accounted for a smooth and stable ride, and it had hydraulically operated cast-iron drum brakes.
Among the Scarab’s exterior features, all created with aerodynamics in mind, were fenders that were incorporated into the body, rear-wheel skirts, deleted running boards, hidden door hinges, and flush glass.
“The driver will have infinitely better vision from all angles,” Stout wrote in the Scientific American in 1935. “The automobile will be lighter and more efficient and yet safer, the ride will be easier, and the body will be more roomy without sacrificing maneuverability.”
Inside, only the driver’s seat was fixed. The others could be turned up to 180 degrees to face each other, and there was a fold-down table for meals or to play games. The cabin also offered cutting-edge amenities like a dust filter to enhance the inside air, interior lighting, thermostat-controlled heat, and power door locks. Only the driver’s door was located in its conventional place; passengers entered and exited through a central, push-button passenger door. The ceiling was covered in wicker-looking lacewood, front to back.
The Scarab was powered by an 85-horsepower Ford flathead V-8, mated to a three-speed manual transmission. It could accelerate from 0–60 mph in 15 seconds and had a top speed of about 80 mph. With the engine located in the rear, there was a storage compartment up front to hold luggage and a spare tire.
In a 1935 magazine advertisement titled “A Challenge and a Prophecy,” Stout predicted the Scarab would be a big seller, acknowledging it offered a clear break from the industry herd. “Created after a decade of aircraft and automotive research, the Scarab rear-engine motor car comes as a friendly but direct challenge to the necessary conservatism of the big-production motor car manufacturers. The Scarab expresses Vision vs. Conservatism. Functional Design vs. Traditional Design. Individuality vs. Standardization. Fine Craftsmanship vs. Mass Production.”
Another advertisement announced that 1936 production of the hand-built Scarab would be “limited to 100 cars,” starting at $5000. That’s nearly $100,000 today. Considering America was still fighting its way out of the Great Depression at the time, it’s no wonder that only nine Scarabs were built prior to World War II, regardless of its innovations. Nearly all of those vehicles went to members of the board of directors, which included Phillip Wrigley and Harvey Firestone. Only five Scarabs exist today.
Following WWII, Stout attempted to resurrect the vehicle with a fiberglass-bodied Stout Scarab Experimental (Project Y), but with an estimated price tag of $10K apiece ($140K), the new Scarab never went into production.
If the groundbreaking Scarab looks and sounds like the perfect vehicle for a family road trip, you now know why it’s often referred to as the first minivan. You also know it’s a lot more than that.