Following the carefree fifties and the rebellious sixties, the 1970s were a decade of uninhibited excess. This was the decade that brought us leisure suits, disco music, and brutalist architecture. For the most part, the 1970s are remembered as a dark age of design, and cars were no exception.
During this decade, cars got bigger and heavier, less fuel efficient, and in many cases uglier due to a combination of Federally-mandated 5mph impact bumpers and the prevailing styles of the times. There is perhaps no other automobile on earth that embodies the lavish excess, the indulgence, and the absurdity of the seventies quite like this 1972 Stutz Blackhawk.
When the Stutz Blackhawk made its debut in 1971, it was clear that this car was designed to impress. Like the Facel Vega and the Hudson Italia, the Blackhawk was yet another car that paired an Italian body with an American powerplant. Beneath its heavy gauge steel body, this car rides on a Pontiac Grand Prix chassis.
The 7.5L (455 cubic inch) Pontiac V8 engine produced a beastly 425 horsepower, but the Blackhawk was anything but sporty. It was significantly heavier than the Grand Prix, tipping the scale at more than 5,000 lbs. I can imagine this car had all the driving dynamics of a wet noodle. The 19 foot long car was massively oversized for a coupe, and was reported to get just 8 miles per gallon of gasoline. Eight.
But then, if you could afford a Blackhawk, you could certainly afford the gas. Early marketing materials advertised the Blackhawk as the “World’s Most Expensive Car.” In 1971, the car cost a staggering $22,500 (or $125,816 in 2012 dollars). The price of the coupe increased throughout production, climbing to $35,000 in 1974, $41,500 in 1975, $47,500 in 1976, and a whopping $84,500 in 1981. For comparison purposes, a brand new Jaguar E-Type would have set you back about $7,599 back in 1972.
The only thing more outrageous than its price tag was the Blackhawk’s list of features. Each car was hand-built and took approximately 1,500 man hours to assemble. The body had anywhere from 18 to 22 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer for a mirror perfect finish. The car had a pair of non-functional side exhaust pipes and a full size spare tire that protruded through the trunk.
The gaudiness continued to the interior where all interior lights, instruments, switches, moldings, and screws were trimmed in real 24-carat gold. Customers could choose to have the interior (including the trunk!) upholstered with a number of exotic furs including Lamb’s wool, ermine, mink, or chinchilla. The seats were all Connolly leather and the dashboard was made from a slab of real Italian Walnut.
So who could afford to buy such a flashy car in the early 1970s? Well, the very first one was delivered to the King himself, Mr. Elvis Presley. Elvis purchased the original prototype car, which was unfortunately wrecked by his driver. The damaged car sat in the garage for the rest of Elvis’ life, and has now been fully restored and is on display at Graceland. After his ’71 was wrecked, Elvis purchased a 1973 Blackhawk and later went on to lease two more!
The car’s insane price tag made it a status symbol among celebrities. The list of Stutz owners reads like a who’s who of Hollywood big-timers: Dick Martin, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Robert Goulet, Evel Knievel, Wilson Pickett, Luigi Colani, Johnnie Taylor, Johnny Cash, Curd Jürgens, Larry Holmes, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Willie Nelson, Lou Brock, Isaac Hayes, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Tom Jones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Al Pacino, Wayne Newton, Barry White, and H.B. Halicki. The car in my photographs belonged to Sammy Davis Jr.
The Stutz Motor Company that built these cars from 1971-1987 shares nothing, other than the name, with the original Stutz Motor Company. The first Stutz Motor Company began in 1911 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their most famous model was the Bearcat, an early American sports car that cost about 4 times as much as a Ford Model T. Although the Bearcat was a popular car with celebrities during the Jazz Age, financial difficulties caused Stutz to close down in 1935.
In 1968, a group of investors led by a New York banker decided to launch a revival of the Stutz Motor Company. They hired former Studebaker and Chrysler designer Virgil Exner to design a line of vehicles for the newly reformed company. Exner created the Blackhawk you see above along with the lesser-known convertibles, sedans, and some custom builds.
Stutz sold the company in 1987, having produced about 500 to 600 cars during its 16-year run. These vehicles are truly the pinnacle of excess that was the 1970s.