Frank B. Stearns, of Cleveland, Ohio, first became interested in the power driven vehicle in 1893 at the early age of fourteen years when he attended the Chicago World's Fair. During his freshman year at the Case School of Applied Science his "desire to build and operate a motor-driven vehicle became strong". This desire coupled with "the agitation in connection with the activities of Mr. Pennington in Cleveland with his motor bicycle", caused Stearns to quit school with "the ultimate aim of manufacturing of motor- driven vehicles as his business and life work".
Frank Stearns' father had amassed considerable wealth from his quarry in the area, so finances were of no concern to Stearns. A 2-HP steam plant and machine shop in the basement of his family home on Euclid avenue was established. In the fall of 1896 Frank B. Stearns' first car was actually completed. The car ran so successfully that his father advanced him $1,000.00 to establish a full-fledged machine shop in the big barn in the back of their yard.
The original design was a horizontal four-cylinder motor of 4-by-4-inch size. Because Stearns did not get all the four cylinders to work alike, the car as it finally rolled down the driveway was equipped with a single-cylinder motor of 4- by-6-inch size giving about six horsepower.
In 1898, F.B. and partners Ralph and Raymond Owens established F.B. Stearns and Company with the first marketable car sold in the winter of 1898 and about fifty more 2-cycle vehicles were turned out in their old barn prior to 1900. Stearns kept no books and "the office was in his hat". He devoted all his time to development work and had no amusements or pleasures outside of his work.
As soon as a company put a car on the market that Stearns thought had merit, he would purchase a model of this car. He bought in turn a Duryea, a Haynes, a Winton and an Apperson. This policy was pursued as long as Stearns was associated with the Company, to give his engineers and officials an opportunity to see what the other people were doing.
The Owens left in 1900 and by 1901 the Stearns vehicle became 4-cycle having one enormous cylinder (6 1/4-inch bore and 7-inch stroke) of 10-HP and wheel steering. Production was moved to a rented shop at Euclid and Lakeview in Cleveland. Later a much larger factory was built on the site, covering some six acres. The factory was enlarged many times and remained the home of the Stearns the rest of its days. The building still stands today.
Having no financial constraints or stock holders to answer to, Frank Stearns from the beginning built powerful cars for the well-to-do sporting motorist, which could be called one of America's first sport cars. Early Stearns cars were among the largest and most powerful cars built incorporating the latest in engineering design. As early as 1901, Stearns were successfully competing in endurance runs.
By 1902 the Stearns had grown into a bonneted 20-HP double-opposed retailing for $3,000.00. By 1902 the company name had been changed to-"The F.B. Stearns Company". Also in 1902 Frank Stearns took on "Pete" Sterling as his Chief Engineer and, most importantly, married Maybelle Wilson, of "The" Wilson Steamship family, again eliminating any financial concerns for his motor car business.
Stearns produced some 80 cars in 1903, by 1906 production had increased to 300 cars a year. The 1905 Stearns was altogether more European with its mechanically- operated side valves, paired cylinders, and Mercedes-style radiator. A 40-HP four-cylinder sold for $4,000.00. Introduced in 1905 was the striking white trim on the face of the radiator shell which became distinctively unique to the Stearns. To capitalize upon public recognition, advertisements began to proclaim "The White Line Radiator Belongs to the Stearns"tm. The 1906 Stearns came even more into its own with a 4-cylinder 40-45 Horsepower engine and elegant body. The 1906 Stearns 40-45 HP stock cars were accumulating an impressive number of victories of hill climbs and cup races, mostly in the hands of owners.
Then for the 1907 season, at the age of 28, Frank Stearns introduced the superb 30-60 HP four-cylinder, which sold for $4,600.00 and the legendary 45-90 HP 800 cu. in. six, retailing for $6,250.00. In 1907 the 30-60 HP had 19 important victories, during which it set three world's records. Frank Leland made one record by covering a mile in 41.4 seconds at Atlantic City. In 1908 the 45-90 HP won hill climbs in Cincinnati, New Haven and Pittsfield. It took first place in races at Baltimore and Brighten Beach. The Stearns was considered one of the fastest stock cars of its time. Barney Oldfield won one of the early Mount Wilson (California) hill climbs with it, and Al Poole won the Brighton Beach 24-hour race with a Stearns in 1910.
It must be remembered that Stearns built only stock cars and "never built a special racer". What other car maker could advertise a "mile record of 41-2/5 seconds" in a stock car?
For 1909, Stearns brought out a new less-powerful and less- expensive "little" Stearns, which was described as a "hit" of the Madison Square Garden Automobile Show. It had 4-cylinder cast en-block (4 1/2 bore x 4 5/8 stroke) with a 116-inch wheelbase. By 1910, Stearns built and sold almost 1000 cars.
With these fabulous cars, considered by many as the "Best Stock Cars in the World", and the long list of impressive victories in races and hill climbs, why was it that Frank B. Stearns sent his Chief Engineer, James Gilman "Pete" Sterling to England in 1909 to study the Daimler-Knight engine? One must bear in mind that while studying the Knight-type motor, The F.B. Stearns Company was in the position of BUYERS not SELLERS. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain if the motor failed to make good. Their engine was admittedly among the best in the world. They too had heard criticism of the Knight-type motor.
Before adopting the Knight-type motor, The F.B. Stearns Company subjected test motors to severe test conditions. Sterling even built a new poppet-valved engine incorporating the latest in European and U.S. designs in an effort to match the efficiency of the Knight engine. During the two years they were experimenting with the Knight type engine, they gave it tests more severe than the average automobile owner ever conceived. The drivers of the test cars were given orders to "drive it to death". For two years they tried to kill it under harder conditions than the poppet-valve motor could stand, but instead it proved itself. It proved to them that no poppet-valved motor could be built that would show the efficiency of the Knight-type. Then the Stearns Company bought it.
What is this engine that so captivated F.B. Stearns and Pete Sterling, and proved to be so superior in the tests given it by The F.B. Stearns Company? What is this engine that remained so little understood or accepted not only then, but also today? It did work, and work well, in some of the finest automobiles ever built.
The sleeve-valve principle was invented by Charles Yale Knight, who had become disillusioned by the noise and frequent valve grindings inherent in his poppet-valve car. In 1902 he completed his first engine, a single-sleeve version. The double-sleeve type was completed in 1904 and first commercially demonstrated in the United States in 1905. Acceptance from auto builders was not forthcoming and, indeed, engineers ridiculed the invention as a "freak". Knight decided to try the European manufacturers and finally, in 1907, the English Daimler Company at Covertry invited him to England and agreed to test the engine. After a year of testing, Daimler announced that they had accepted the engine for exclusive use in their cars, and the Daimler sales trebled.
Other manufacturers, becoming somewhat worried, demanded an official test by the British Royal Automobile Club to disprove the claims made for the Knight-type motor. To silence the skeptics, Daimler submitted its engines to the Royal Automobile Club for exhaustive tests, but in turn demanded conditions many times more severe than those imposed by the Club. The tests were run between March 15th and 28th, 1909, at Coventry and on the Brooklands track. The tests consisted of over five days of bench running and over two- thousand miles of track tests for each of the two production engines. Not only were the test results favorable, they were astounding! Engine disassembly showed no perceptive wear to moving parts but, more important, final tests showed an increase in horsepower - 54.3 to 57.25 for the larger engine and 38.83 to 38.96 for the smaller. The results of these tests, and Daimler's increase in sales, earned the Daimler Company the coveted Dewar Trophy in 1909. In short order licenses from the Knight and Kilbourne Patents Company were also awarded to the greatest manufacturers the automobile industry has ever known, such as Rover Company in England, DMG (Mercedes) in Germany, the Minerva Company in Belgium and Panhard et Levassor in France. Knights engines had really been accepted.
The principle of the sleeve-valve in not unlike that of the sliding valves used in the steam engine. The sleeves, with a stroke of about one inch, move in opposite directions. Valve action is created when the ports of each sleeve register with the ports of each other and the block ports. This results in a larger area of the valve ports and straight-through flow design. Valve timing of the Knight engine is seldom if ever needed except at engine tear-down or chain replacement. Valve action is positive, being constant regardless of engine speed.
The increased efficiency of the Knight-type motor over the poppet-valve motor is accounted for by a number of reasons. As a result of these increased efficiencies, Stearns guaranteed their motor would develop 50% more horsepower than that called for by the A.L.A.M. rating. The actual amount of power developed was considerably more than that guaranteed.
On July 1, 1911, for the 1912 model year, The F.B. Stearns Company introduced the first Knight-powered production car in the U.S. This 1912 Stearns-Knight four-cylinder replaced the lovely 15-30 HP model that had been first introduced in 1909. The 30-60 HP model, offered in either shaft or chain drive, was continued through 1912, the 45-90 HP model having been discontinued after the 1909 model. Soon to follow suit were the Stoddard-Dayton-Knight, Columbia-Knight and a host of other very limited production cars. At this time, Knights were winning races and setting records in Europe. In the 1913 Indianapolis 500, a Mercedes-Knight, said to be a standard chassis, finished fifth overall, averaging 70 MPH without a single pit stop. With the introduction of the Stearns-Knight, sales of Stearns cars doubled.
Every Stearns-Knight engine of that era was put on a test stand prior to being installed in a vehicle, after it had been torn down for examination and reassembly following the motor run-in. It was the Company policy that the engine must show a minimum of the guaranteed 43 HP at the brake before it would be installed in the vehicle. Time after time in testing the motors, they actually showed far in excess of 50 HP. Stearns dropped its ball bearing mains in favor of bronze-backed insert bearings. The 1912 "4" was equipped with 5 main bearings totaling 14 1/2-inches in main bearing length. The oiling system consisted of pressure feed from a gear-driven force feed pump. The connecting rods dipped into an arrangement of individual troughs that were moveable and capable of adjustment up and down in accordance with demand. A dry multiple disc clutch was used on all Stearns models. The clutch consisted of a comparatively small number of steel discs of large diameter. The driving discs were lined on both sides with an asbestos fabric, the alternating driven discs being of hardened and ground saw steel.
July 1, 1912, was the introduction date for the 1913 year model four cylinder Stearns-Knight. August 15, 1912 saw the end of the Stearns-poppet engine era with the introduction of the Stearns-Knight six cylinder, replacing the 30-60 HP model. Stearns thus completed its transition from poppet- valve to the sleeve-valve principle.
The "six" had few noticeable departures from the design of the four-cylinder chassis. The motor included an additional cast-in-pairs block unit similar to those used with the 4- cylinder. The bore remained the same as the "4" at 4 1/4- inches, while the stroke was increased to 5 3/4-inches, increasing compression allowed by the use of an electric starter, for a total of 489 cu. in. displacement, rated at 43.6 S.A.E. HP. The "six" differed mostly from the "four" in having a 4-speed selective type transmission, mounted amidships, fitted with a Gray and Davis starting and lighting system, and had 37 x 5 tires all around. The same models of the "six" were offered as were offered for the "four" except the wheelbases were 134 and 140 inches respectively and prices started at $5,000.00 for the seven-passenger touring car. Only 412 serial numbers were assigned to the 1913 "four" cylinder and an even fewer 327 serial numbers assigned to the "six" cylinder.
The 1914 Stearns-Knight chassis was similar to past models. Both the "four" and "six" were offered. The major changes were moving the driving position to the left-hand side, moving the transmission amidships on the "four" with full floating rear axle, and the incorporation of European body styling with the hood smoothly blending into the body.
Acknowledging the current rebellion against the Horsepower tax in 1914, for the model year of 1915, the new Stearns- Knight "Light Four" (L-4) was introduced. This car was in addition to the larger "four" and "six" models, which were continued. The new model was offered as a five-passenger touring car, a cabriolet and a limousine all on a single 119- inch wheelbase chassis with the touring car selling for $1,750. Production took a remarkable increase with 702 serial numbers being assigned to this new light car, while the big "six" dropped to 109.
In his letter written in 1915 to David Beecroft at "The Automobile", Frank Stearns summed up his situation in one sentence, to wit: "I believe at the present time, ours is the only concern, with possibly one exception, in which the founder has been President and in active charge of the management since the inception of the automobile industry, and believe I am the oldest executive in point of automobile experience that is actively engaged day after day in the industry, and at the same time the youngest man in years who is President of a company in the automobile industry, having just passed my thirty-fifth birthday".
The Stearns was no longer winning road races or hill climbs and other manufacturers were producing large, noisy, more powerful engines. The Stearns engine was a quiet, efficient engine that did its job better than most. It should be mentioned that cars equipped with this type motor were everywhere the choice of Kings, Emperors, Governments - those accustomed to the best the world affords. In 1915 Willys- Overland Company introduced the Willys-Knight. At that time the only relationship between the Stearns-Knight and the Willys-Knight was the fact that they both used the Knight patented motor as did Daimler and Mercedes.
Late in 1914 Frank Stearns was taken by the success of the Cadillac V-8 and started to design and build a V-8 sleeve- valve motor. By February, 1915 the first test motor was built. According to Frank Stearns personal diary, he did much of the sleeve timing trials himself. He further wanted to introduce the V-8 Stearns-Knight in June, 1915, however, his production manager said no, so the car was introduced in August, 1915, for the 1916 selling season. Also for 1916 the "four" and "six" were dropped leaving only the L-4 and the V- 8 in production. Approximately 2100 L-4's and 900 V-8's were made and sold for 1916, and 4,000 cars for 1917.
The Stearns Company had been prospering. The company declared a 25% dividend in 1912 and another 18% the following year. Profits dropped somewhat in the next few years, but mostly because profits were being spent for expansion of manufacturing facilities.
In 1917 the U.S. finally became involved in the war, which had been raging in Europe for three years. Now, with the U.S. in the fray, it meant the government would impose restrictions on steel and other materials needed for the war effort, i.e. the production of guns, tanks and airplanes. After Europe and England became embroiled in W.W.I in 1914, the European Allies had suddenly found themselves short on manufacturing facilities for making all the machinery of war. Because Rolls-Royce was unable to build enough aircraft engines, they would have to search out a U.S. plant capable of meeting their incredible standards for precision and quality. Is it surprising that they selected the Stearns Plant? So it obviously meant fewer Stearns-Knights for 1918, a drop all the way to 1,450 machines.
Perhaps for the record we should also note that The F.B. Stearns Company had also been, on a limited basis, manufacturing trucks, beginning as early as 1911. After adoption of the sleeve-valve engines for passenger cars they were also used in the trucks, in sizes up to five-ton capacity. But truck production never became a major factor in the Company and after 1914, when Stearns took on that contract to produce Rolls-Royce aircraft engines, the trucks were dropped.
In early 1917 Frank Stearns had contracted a nearly fatal case of pneumonia. Concerned about what would happen to "HIS" company in case of his death, in May 1917 the capitalization of The F.B. Stearns Company was increased to $1,760,000. Of this amount, $550,000 was issued as a stock dividend (to F.B. and his father), $700,000 was sold to investors, and $510,000 was in unsold stock. This large block of unsold stock left Stearns "ripe for picking" by "Corporate Raiders". In June, 1917 a $500,000 plant expansion was announced.
Still too weak to resume his duties in September of that year, he resigned from the Presidency but retained his financial interest in the company and the title of Chairman of the Board. L.M. Sanford, manager of the European branch of General Motors since 1911, was brought from London to take over as General Manager. Also in September, 1917, George W. Booker, a St. Louis banker and Stearns dealer, reportedly representing anonymous financial interests, took over as President. He promptly fired Roy York, Vice President since 1905, and replaced him with William McGuire. Another causality was Secretary-Treasurer Edwin McEwen, who was replaced by Martin L. Henschen. Sales Manager Guy Vaughan then quit, and L.M. Sanford resigned in November. In May, 1918, Frank Stearns sold his holdings and severed all connections with the Company founded by him and still bearing his name. Pete Sterling quit in April, 1920 to manufacture his own car, the Sterling-Knight. Most of the engineering staff left with him.
Production of passenger cars was slow in recovering in 1919, with steel and other vital materials still in short supply even though the war had ended in November of 1918. Stearns-Knight would produce only 1,256 cars in 1919 and, strangely enough only 56 of them would be V-8's. Perhaps the material available was being allocated to the smaller, easier to build car.
The new managers, after 1919, dropped the proud V-8 and concentrated on the production, and sales, of the single, small four-cylinder model, that L-4. In the presence of that sellers' market they could take this risk and get by with it, ringing the cash register. According to serial numbers assigned, Stearns made and sold 3,849 cars in 1920 and 3,046 in 1921. Near record numbers for the relatively small company. But then the bottom dropped out. In 1922, as the post-war boom suddenly ended and a small but sharp economic recession took charge, that sellers' market very quickly flipped to a buyers' market. Besides would buyers not get tired of the same unglamorous four-cylinder model, year after year? The serial numbers indicate that only 693 Stearns- Knights were made in 1922.
Even bankers interested only in milking as much money as possible, coasting free on a past reputation, would now have to recognize that they could not travel forever on a single out-of-date model. But now, in 1922, Frank Stearns and Pete Sterling and the "Old Guard" were all gone. It very quickly became apparent that somehow, someone would have to come up with new ideas, new engineering and new models, if The F.B. Stearns Company was to be kept alive.
The Company did it by placing on the market, for the first time since 1915, a new six cylinder motor car with updated styling and, of course, a sleeve-valve engine. The new engine checked in at 3 3/8 x 5 for a respectable 268 cu. in. and 68 HP. Not on the spectacular side, but an improvement over the nine-year-old L-4, which had originally been designed as a smaller, lower-priced companion car to earlier sixes and V-8 of the 1916-1919 period.
The new model S-Six, introduced in July, 1922 for the 1923 model year, rode on a 130-inch wheelbase, compared to 125 for the L-4, which continued in production. Prices on the new S- Six would run from $2,700 to $3,700, with prices on the four beginning at $2,250. Four wheel hydraulic brakes and wire wheels were offered at extra cost.
The available record does not show who designed the new six, or who was chief engineer at the time. When Sterling had left, he had taken all the top engineering and production personnel with him. However, several students of Stearns- Knight have speculated that the new six was a Sterling design worked up before he left. In fact, it is further speculated, part of the reason for Sterling's departure may have been the foot dragging by management in putting the new engine into production.
If the new six was being counted on to help save the company, it did, at least to an extent, succeed. Production for 1923, after that disastrous dip to less than 700 units in 1922, managed to top the 2,000 mark, with 1,753 of the machines being the new six. Production of the L-4 barely topped the 300 mark. It should have been clear by now that buyers wanted something new.
If the Stearns-Knight model picture had been on the sparse side before 1923, it was now about to become a bit confusing. For the 1924 sales season production on the four-cylinder machine, now known as the B-4 (Big Four), would continue despite the poor sales record of four-cylinder machines for the past several years. The engine at 3 3/4-x-5 5/8, would remain virtually unchanged, but the chassis and body would be updated and restyled. The wheelbase which had been 125, was now reduced to 119. Prices would be reduced to the area of $1,595 to $2,095 for six body styles. But sales of this less-expensive model would drop to just over 100 units for 1925 and less than 80 for 1926.
Meanwhile, the engineering staff was busy with another six, this time a smaller engine with a 3 1/4-inch bore and 5-inch stroke. This new engine would be introduced in a new model car, to be known as the C-6-75, in October, 1924, for the 1925 model year. This new six, strangely enough, had the same cubic inch displacement as the four, 249 cu. in., but was rated only at 55 HP. The new smaller six would ride on a 121-inch wheelbase and was available in the same six body styles as the B-4, and sold for prices ranging from $1,875 to $2,475. It would cost a bit more than the B-4, but it would outsell the four at nearly 1,250 units to 100.
When production had started on the so-called 1925 models in the latter half of 1924, the larger S-6 had been continued with the 3 3/8-x-5 engine, rated at 66 HP. But just before the New York Auto Show in January, 1925, the size of this engine had been upped to 3 1/2-x-5, bringing the cubic inches up to 278 and the horsepower rating to 70.
But now, in the midst of all this juggling of models and engines a new element, on the historical side now, was about to enter the picture. The ownership of the company was about to change hands once more. It was in December, 1925, when the announcement appeared that John North Willys and his backers had acquired the 250,000 outstanding shares of The F.B. Stearns Company for $2,500,000. It was a takeover. A few days later Willys also announced a new management team at Stearns to replace George Booker and company. Willys apparently was familiar with the Booker philosophy of Management. The new president, the announcement said, would be H.J. Leonard, formerly with the Stephens Motor Company. John T. Trumble, formally an engineer with General Motors, would take over as Chief Engineer. O.T. Lawson, also an experienced automobile man, would become manager of production.
The new management, and Willys, stated that The F.B. Stearns Company would retain its identity as a separate corporation, that the present manufacturing facilities would be kept intact and that production policies would be unchanged. If the commitment to quality was renewed under the new chief engineer, it would be because John North Willys wanted it that way. It has been suggested that Stearns, at least in the years under the administration of Frank B. Stearns and under the engineering genius of Pete Sterling had began to seek a bit of that mystic aura of quality surrounding such cars as Rolls-Royce and Daimler of England. Even after Frank Stearns had been forced by ill health, to retire, the luxury image had lingered on despite the ill- fated commitment to a single model by the post Stearns management. It was this image of quality and luxury that Willys now wanted to add to his stable of sleeve-valve powered motor cars. In the low-priced field, he would continue making Overlands and Whippets.
One of the first major actions of the new management was to drop production on the old four-cylinder machine which had been on the assembly lines since 1915. The small Model C-six was retained through the 1926 model year, but then it too was dropped. The new engineering staff would be designing its own new models.
It would be in September, 1926 that the first new model under the new management would be announced, the Model D series 6-85. Actually the engine from the larger sleeve- valve six, the model S-6-95, which was upgraded in January of 1925, would be updated and retained for the new model, at least for the time being. Engine improvements were on the way, but there had not been enough time to complete them.
Perhaps the most unusual feature on the new car was a Timkin worm drive rear axle as standard equipment. This permitted a substantial drop in overall height and vastly improved roadability, especially on what had been somewhat top heavy sedans. The worm drive was a feature rarely seen on American motor cars, with Stutz and Cunningham the notable exceptions. Stearns-Knight had offered it as optional equipment as early as 1914. The new Stearns-Knight's brakes would now be four wheel mechanicals, the hydraulic option being dropped. The wheelbase would be stretched to 137- inches, with longer, lower bodies in 10 styles ranging from a two by two passenger roadster at $3,250 to a seven-passenger limousine at $3,750. There would be a new Tillotson carburetor, air cleaner and oil filter, probably because Willys owned Tillotson.
But hectic work was continuing on more improvements and after 432 of the new models had been made, in time for the 1927 auto show, the engine would be redesigned to incorporate seven main bearings, a must on a modern luxury machine. In mid-model year the 12-volt electrical system would be changed to six volts, an industry trend. Although the size of the engine had been kept the same, at 3 1/2-x-5, internal refinements in combustion, breathing and other internal components now enabled the company to advertise the engine at 82 HP. It was obvious that the new engineering staff, which now included W.E. England, was learning some of that old Pete Sterling magic.
A straight-eight engine was becoming a major trend, with each maker of cars above the middle-lower price class feeling compelled to join the parade. If Stearns-Knight intended to keep its reputation as a maker of fine motor cars, an eight would become a necessity. And since Stearns was committed to the sleeve-valve principle, it would simply mean that the new eight would have to be a sleeve-valve. With a renewed commitment to quality design and production, the new engine would have to have nine main bearings. Then instead of a single eccentric shaft (the camshaft on a sleeve-valve engine) to operate the sleeves, the new eight would have two eccentrics, one on each side of the crankcase. They would be driven by silent chain.
By using a new alloy of "semi-steel" (ductile iron), the engineers were able to come up with much thinner, and lighter sleeves. Then using the latest techniques in precision manufacture, tolerances and clearances were reduced to nearly the ultimate limits, as low as .00025", or even .00005". This would be extremely important in the performance, silence, durability and oil consumption on an engine of such design.
The huge crankshaft would be drilled for pressure oil feed to its entire length, including tubular connecting rods for pressure lubrication to the wrist pins. The engine would have a new Skinner oil rectifier, a new harmonic balancer and an improved hot spot intake manifold for better combustion. The ultra precision fitting also made it possible to reduce the number of oil rings on the cylinder heads. Only a sleeve-valve engine would create such a concern. The compression ratio was given as 5 to 1, the first time this term would be used in connection with Stearns-Knight cars. It was near the peak for the motor car industry and at least partly made possible by the perfect spherical shape of the combustion chambers, another plus for sleeve-valve design since there was no clutter of valve ports, no valves, in the combustion area.
The new Stearns-Knight eight, when first introduced in January, 1927, as the Model G-8-85, would be rated at 100 HP. For 1928 that would be jumped to 112, for 1929, 120 and for the brief number of 1930 models, 125 HP. Once again the highest rating ever for a sleeve-valve engine, or for that matter, nearly any motor car engine in 1928. The new eight would ride on the same chassis as the six, at 137". Prices would range from $3,950 to $5,250 for the eight and $3,250 to $3,950 for the six. To handle the higher horsepower and torque, a double-plate Long clutch was used on the eight while a single-plate Borg and Beck was used on the six.
For 1928 a longer chassis, at 145-inches, would become available for the seven-passenger models, but production of the 137-inch chassis would also continue for the five- passenger models. The shorter car would be designated as the Model H, Deluxe 8-90, while the longer chassis would be the Model J, Deluxe 8-90. The new eight, especially on the longer chassis, lent itself perfectly to the custom body trade and a number were made, notably by Brunn. Prices ran from $4,600 for chassis only to $5,800, with Brunn bodied cars even higher.
But one more major development was coming at Stearns- Knight, another smaller, updated and improved six-cylinder engine, at 3 3/8-x-4 3/4, with 255 cubic inches and a rating of 70 HP at 3,200 RPM. It is interesting to note that the peak RPM figure was creeping up, disproving a widely held belief that Sleeve-valve engines did not lend themselves to high RPM. In fact Voisin, in France, had been making sleeve- valve engines which turned more than 4,000 RPM as early as 1921.
Beyond this, the new engine, together with its new chassis marked the first major cooperative production effort between Willys-Knight and Stearns-Knight. The engine and chassis would, in fact, be produced in the Willys-Knight plants and be used by Willys-Knight in its Model 66-A, beginning in 1927. The design of the engine and chassis would be to Stearns-Knight tolerances and specifications. The bodies, however, for the Stearns-Knight Model M (126-inch wheelbase) and the Model N (134-inch wheelbase), would be Stearns-Knight coachwork. Except for the wheelbase lengths, the two models were identical. These models were designed to fill the niche in a slightly lower-priced field and, if possible, to capture more of the market. These models would sell for prices ranging from $2,195 for a cabriolet roadster to $2,645 for a seven passenger limousine. The latter, of course, on the longer wheelbase. These models would be introduced in May, 1928, a mid-year introduction, and continued in 1929.
Despite the glorious 8-cylinder cars offered, only 877 Stearns-Knight machines were produced in 1927. In 1928, the great year of glory for the machine itself, even that low figure dropped slightly, to around 816. In 1929, although production would rise somewhat in this last year of prosperity before the big crash, the accumulation of costs from development of the new cars, coupled with lack of sales, had brought trouble to the doors of The F.B. Stearns Company. The stock market crash in the fall of that year would be the final blow.
John North Willys would have the good luck of selling his stock in the summer of 1929, just months before the big crash. It might be suggested that he knew about the shaky condition of the company and got out, just in time. Perhaps he did, but the official reason was that President Herbert Hoover had appointed him ambassador to Poland and he was severing his connection with the auto industry. As an aside note, Willys took with him to Poland, a 1928 Stearns-Knight 8-cylinder All Weather Cabriolet Town Car by Brunn.
It was the combination of the Willys sellout, the dismal sales picture and, finally the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 that spelled the end for Stearns and Stearns-Knight. It was on December 20, 1929, when the assembly lines came to a halt. Ten days later, on December 30, stock holders were summoned to a meeting where they heard the sad news and voted to cease operation.
What these stockholders probably did not know was that the company had been in financial trouble and barely able to survive from year to year for quite some time, at least as early as 1925 when Willys took over. Perhaps even as early as 1922, as a result of the bank management's policies of milking profits with little thought for the future.
It was H.J. Leonard, the last president, who confessed it quite bluntly in a statement to the press on that fateful day, December 30, 1929, "The management took charge of the company January 1, 1926, at a time although it was not known for some months, when the company was practically bankrupt. The inventory was unbalanced, written up beyond its real value, and its product scattered throughout the country in the hands of dissatisfied dealers. Large sums were owned to the banks and the company was involved in considerable litigation. We hoped for a complete financial reorganization or consolidation with a strong automobile company which could absorb our product, but these efforts have been frustrated by business conditions, including the recent slump in the stock market."
For performance, power and durability, the sleeve-valve engines had produced plenty of evidence, over the years, to show they could not only match the performance of the poppet-valve engine, but surpass it. George M. However, an engineer who had worked with Pete sterling, said it this way in a statement published: "Curves that have been made as a result of scientifically conducted power determinations, have demonstrated conclusively that the Knight type motor gives more power for a given piston displacement than any other form." Plus the fact that the longer a sleeve-valve engine ran the stronger it ran, while the poppet-valve engine grew weaker. True, as steel for producing valves and springs improved over the years, the poppet-valve engines overcame some of these weaknesses. But then we can always ask, What if development on the sleeve- valve engines had also continued? They, too, were growing stronger, year by year.
In fact some experimentation on sleeve-valve engines has continued over the years, although most modern developments have come in a single sleeve configuration, a design dating as far back as 1909 in Great Britain (Burt-McCollum patents). In this form the single-sleeve is equipped with a drive system which not only pushes the sleeves up and down, but gives it a twisting action so there will be sufficient port openings and closings to match those of the double-sleeve type. Several single-sleeve engines were used by the British in aircraft as late as the World War II years. Some modern tests have shown that a single-sleeve engine can develop up to 150 HP per liter at 8,200 RPM, with RPM capabilities as high as 10,000.
The concept of the sleeve-valve engine as a freak can never stand up when one considers that at one time or another some 50 motor car manufacturers have used it. Some of them, such as Voisin, of France, set world speed records. Remember the little sleeve-valve Mercedes which made such a good showing in the Indy 500. In their days of glory, in such places as Britain, Germany and Belgium, the sleeve-valve motor cars found great favor among royalty, the rich or just about anybody who could afford one. The stately glide of the great 180 HP V-12 Daimler was a performance difficult to match, and Daimler was still making sleeve-valve engines for years after they faded from the American scene.
In any case the end had come for Stearns which, while a small company, had produced some of the finest, most durable, most powerful and fastest motor cars ever built in the U.S. Frank B. Stearns, the man who had started it all as a starry- eyed college dropout, the man who had seen his project flourish for a time under his direction, but then had to give it up because of illness, most certainly must have felt pain at seeing the Stearns-Knight name removed from the roster. When it happened, he had recovered his health and was working with a small crew of men in a private workshop, experimenting with 2-cycle Roots blown diesel engines. In the mid 1930's he had developed a giant 24-cylinder diesel which performed so well the Navy contracted to use it. In his later years he retired to putter in his organic garden. He died in 1955.
In acknowledging the painful truth, it must, perhaps, be admitted that the Stearns, and the Stearns-Knight, never quite acquired that mystic aura of greatness which had hovered for a time over a few other American motor cars - Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac, to name a few. The list had always been a brief one. Part of the reason may be that Stearns had never been able to obtain nationwide distribution, and thus national renown. In fact while Frank Stearns had been in control he had never wished to make it a mass production car. But with its area of distribution thus limited, Stearns could not penetrate that tiny, mystic circle.
Even most of those of the mystic circle which did make it, did not survive. Pierce-Arrow disappeared in the 1930's, Packard in the 1950's. Cadillac has survived but, some observers say, it no longer commands the respect it once did. Is it now Mercedes which has inherited the Mantle?
At any rate, the Stearns and Stearns-Knight motor cars were simply too good and too important to be so utterly ignored as they have been by many historians of the American automobile industry. It is a motor car which truly deserves more attention than it has received, either in its time or ours.
Stearns/ Stearns-Knight for at least a moment in history, perhaps two or even three, was the King of American motor cars!
The F.B. Stearns Company factory building was razed March/April 2001.
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