The cars we loved.
Those not old enough to remember the 1970s might think that retro automotive design was a recent thing. As the ’70s dawned, interest in classic cars exploded creating an era in American design many call Neo-Classical, Baroque or the Brougham era. The look was easy to recognize, it embodied idealized elements of the 1920s and ’30s rolled up with modern underpinnings. If not executed carefully, the results could look garish to put it nicely.
One of the biggest proponents of this style was Virgil Exner. An automotive designer whose impulses were forward-looking, but whose heart was firmly in the Jazz Age. He was responsible for a long line of influential designs for Bugatti, GM and most famously Chrysler. Not content to just chill after retirement, he produced a string of designs for small projects that never seemed to take off. One such design, for a revamped Duesenberg almost caught on with investors who pulled out at the last-minute. The still-born design did catch the attention of James O’Donnell, a car lover and New York banker who with Exner decided to resurrect the Stutz name as Stutz Motors of America.
The Los Angeles based company first car would be the Blackhawk. While the name conjures up the legendary car of the 30’s, the new Blackhawk was a clean sheet design. Not so clean if you consider that it was clearly a recycled version of Exner’s aborted Duesenberg project. The new Blackhawk would be at the forefront of the new Neo-Classical revival craze. In many ways the retro styled Blackhawk would usher in a style revolution that would impact the Big Three. Even Super Fly’s car resembled the Blackhawk while opening the door to customizers who latched on to its garish opulence. It seemed that everyone from Blaxploitation gangsters to the rich and powerful wanted the Blackhawk – or at least something styled along the same lines. For those who could not afford this new brand of old elegance, a wave of kit cars hastily filled the void.
The very expensive Blackhawk was no mere kit car. Despite its Pontiac Grand Prix engine and chassis at its debut, it was a semi officially backed factory project. Exner and his business partners met with John Deloren at Pontiac who agreed to supply chassis and drive train components, so first generation Blackhawks had a 7.5-litre V8 with a three speed automatic transmission. The bodies were built-in Italy by Carrozzeria Ghia. After an exhaustive multi-layer lacquer paint process (which took six weeks!), bodies were sent to The States for final assembly. In all it took over 1500 man hours to build each Blackhawk. It was no wonder they started at $22,500 in 1970 (adjusted for inflation, that’s 120,000 by today’s standards).
Each new generation of the Blackhawk would have a different chassis from a new host donor. Sometimes it was Ford, but mostly one of GM divisions (Cadillac, Pontiac and sometimes Chevrolet). There were often multiple engine choices within the same generation. Depending on the year, you might find Ford’s 429 Cobra Jet or the Cadillac 500 V8 under the hood. As the generations would pass, usually in 2 to three-year increments, the Blackhawk would retain its overall appearance.
Early cars looked best as they were styled closer to the neo-classical ideals that inspired them. As time went on the Blackhawk became more outrageous looking, morphing in a race to keep up with ever shrinking host cars while trying to retain the same proportions it started out with. Small changes appearance changes mark the generations, but no two Blackhawks looked the same due to heavy customization. A few convertibles and even fewer sedans were built, but most were hard top coupes.
Exposed headlights, vertical grille and a long nose were the hallmarks of the Blackhawks design. While these design elements were not unique to the Blackhawk, others like the close cropped greenhouse would become a standard design feature of many GM cars like the Buick Regal and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Inside no expense was spared inside. Gold trimmed accents with maple or burled walnut wood panels on the doors and dash. Some cars had multiple wood treatments but Connolly leather was standard. Interestingly, the instrument markings were in Italian and English, as to suggest elegant heritage. While the interior was lush, it was not all neo-classical. There were concessions to new and emerging technologies like headlights that sensed low light and a quadraphonic 8-track (later cassette) stereo. There were even 17 inch Firestone run flat tires on some models.
The Blackhawk was not fast nor did it handle particularly well, but it had become a symbol of status and for some bad taste. Celebrities as varied as Elton John, Elvis, Barry White, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball owned Blackhawks. Looking back, the design has not aged particularly well, but the Blackhawk can be credited for inspiring a whole new wave of retro design that even to this day still has diehard fans. More recently Stutz announced a partnership with a Chinese company to supply parts for its Bearcat EVO. While the Bearcat takes the name of America’s first sports car, the new EVO electric car has a 250 mile range and can reach 60 mph in 4 seconds.