NOTE: Another submission by my friend in Sweden, Billie Biscayne. She previously wrote a column on the Chrysler Plainsman ‘dream car.’ If you missed that one, check it out here. Cheers. -TK
This is the tale of one of the most ostentatious and flamboyant neo-classic luxury “rat rods” ever created, and some of the eccentric, unorthodox and rather dubious owners it has had since 1971!
It all started in the late 1800’s with an Ohio farm boy who had a natural talent for engineering. Harry Stutz assembled his first gasoline powered vehicle, a creation he called “Old Hickory”, mainly from bits and pieces of old farming equipment. One can only assume that he refined these skills somewhat over the years as he later went on to become the founder of The Stutz Motor Company (originally Ideal Motor Company) in 1911. The first car rolled off the production line in Indianapolis, Indiana, that very year and Stutz Motor Company continued to build high-end sports and luxury cars, like the Bearcat and the Blackhawk, there until 1935 when they unfortunately became yet another automobile manufacturer to succumb to the Great Depression.
It would take another 33 years before they would experience a rather unexpected revival led by legendary Virgil Exner, the designer credited for the Forward Look he created for the 1955-1963 Chrysler products. However, by 1964, Exner had been fired from Chrysler due to the rather bizarre design of Chrysler’s bottom-line models in 1962 and he had resorted to drawing revivals of famous classics such as Duesenberg, Stutz, Packard and Bugatti in his downtime. These designs were published in Esquire Magazine and Exner began to consider actually producing one of these “revival cars”, combining American engineering with the superior artistry of Italian coachbuilders. Financing was provided by James D. O’Donnell, a prominent New York businessman and investment banker who had fond memories of driving a classic Stutz and decided to use that brand for the revival as he believed the brand name was now in the public domain. In 1968 Stutz was resurrected and the first model was to be called the Blackhawk! The Blackhawk’s design came from merging the designs of the revival Stutz with the revival Duesenberg. Only 26 of the distinct split-windshield “Series I” Blackhawks were built in 1971. They had all started their lives as a Pontiac Grand Prix before being shipped to Carrozzeria Padane in Modena, Italy, where they were basically stripped bare down to the chassis and driveline, thus keeping the 455cui Pontiac Grand Prix V-8 with 325hp, and the GM TH400 three-speed automatic transmission. The metal bodies were handmade at eye-watering expense and have no panel gaps. The body is one seamless form, with only the necessary cutouts for the doors, hood and trunk. An average of 1500 man hours went into the production of each car!
Carrozzeria Padane mainly constructed buses and campers, but alongside the Blackhawk, they also built production Maseratis such as the Mistral, Indy and Bora, and other cars such as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Interestingly, the Series I Stutz Blackhawk therefore contains many Maserati parts, including door handles, seats and gauges which are from a Maserati Indy. The rear glass on the Blackhawk is from a Ferrari, and other items taken from the parts bins of Northern Italy were lights and fixtures used on Innocenti, Alfa Romeo and the Lancia Stratos. The quirky design certainly wasn’t lacking Exnerisms – a massive chrome chunk of a grille, ornamental side pipes inspired by the Deusenberg, freestanding headlamps à la Imperial and a spare tire that protruded through the trunklid – the fuel filler cap is oddly positioned inside the spare tire on the first models.
The Series I Stutz Blackhawk was also equipped with every imaginable luxury feature inside. This included electric windows, air conditioning, central locking, electric seats, Ducellier window switches, Connolly leather interior, 24k gold bezels and moldings, bird’s eye maple and redwood features throughout the interior, floor coverings made of Australian lambs’ wool, a built-in liquor cabinet, mink fur trunk lining (at the expense of 200 minks per trunk)! Luckily for Exner PETA wasn’t around back then…
The original radio for the 1971 Blackhawk was a Lear AM/FM 8-track, (Lear as in Lear Jet!), the most costly car audio system on the market 1971.
Unsurprisingly, the most expensive car in the world in 1971 was not a $19,000 Rolls-Royce or a $20,000 Lamborghini Miura. It was a Stutz! With a price-tag of around $30,000 it was almost ten times the annual wage in 1971!
With the small amount of cars built and the extremely high cost of building each one, we can only assume that Stutz were not expecting to make a huge profit their first production year, and they subsequently lost approximately $10,000 per unit before O’Donnell concluded that shipping complete Pontiacs to Italy only to scrap the majority of each one wasn’t the best business plan. From 1972, all subsequent Stutz models used significantly more of the donor car’s substructure.
The original idea when launching the 1971 Stutz Blackhawk was probably more likely to have been to create a hype around the brand which certainly succeeded! Stutz very quickly became a favorite of the Hollywood stars. The likes of Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Liberace, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley all owned a Stutz. Elvis was known for his love of cars, especially Cadillacs, but he apparently said he preferred to be driven in a Cadillac, while he preferred to drive a Stutz! Elvis was said to have bought four Stutzs, a black 1971 Stutz Blackhawk prototype, a black 1971 production car, a white 1972 and a black 1973. The 1971 production car was later gifted to Dr. Elias Ghanem, house doctor for the Las Vegas Hilton and the personal physician of Elvis Presley. Dr. Ghanem later had it painted white.
The first Stutz Blackhawk prototype was constructed in 1969 and had its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. A second followed a few months later, intended for the auto show circuit, and was entrusted to a dealer in Beverly Hills, California. Elvis was shown the prototype (nr. 2 out of 2) and immediately wanted to buy it, but it was going to be shown at the 1970 Los Angeles Auto Show a couple of days later and the dealer told Elvis he would need the car for that, which was fine with Elvis who also agreed to take some press-pictures with the car which was obviously good publicity for Stutz. Rumor has it that Frank Sinatra was another prospective customer, but as luck would have it, Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t want any publicity shots taken with the car, whereas Elvis didn’t mind, as long as he got the car! In October 1970, after the Los Angeles auto show, the keys were handed to the King and he enjoyed this car until July 1971 when a hired driver unfortunately destroyed it.
The first prototype (nr. 1 out of 2) was driven by James O’Donnell himself. The most significant detail of the prototypes compared to the production cars that were produced starting in 1971, was the big rear-window. Only the two prototypes had the large size rear window.
A mere 14-16 of these rare and historically significant Series I cars have survived. One was brought to Sweden by Bruno Tillander, a Swedish Elvis fan who emigrated to the States in the mid 1970’s in pursuit of Elvis memorabilia and material for a book he later wrote about Elvis after actually managing to get interviews with many people close to Elvis. When Tillander returned to Sweden he started a globe-trotting Elvis museum that toured more than 30 countries in the 10 plus years it operated, stopping at more than 300 cities for two weeks at a time showing amongst other things Elvis’s last Harley Davidson, his film outfits, a collection of gold jewellery and the 1971 Stutz Blackhawk. Tillander later sold the car to Bengt Dahlgren, another Stutz enthusiast in Sweden. Originally the car was painted tan/beige-metallic, with a beige interior, but was black with a red interior while touring with the Elvis museum.
In 2005 Dahlgren restored the Blackhawk and recolored it a golden color. His most interesting contribution to the car is probably a slight modification to the glove compartment! When Priscilla Presley’s memorial concert for Elvis called “The Wonder of You” reached Malmo in 2017, he removed the flap of the glove compartment, brazenly approached Priscilla for an autograph, and succeeded! The autograph is still in place when you open the glove compartment!
This car changed hands in 2020 and is now on display at one of the world’s foremost museums for American classics, World of Classics Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. It is now once again black with a red interior! Realizing that one of these iconic cars was residing a mere 200 miles away, it was a no-brainer to do some research and head up to Stockholm to see the car! And it turns out the story behind the car was far more fascinating than first anticipated!
The 1971 Stutz Blackhawk displayed at World of Classics was first purchased by George I. Norman Jr., a millionaire financier and investor, and a colorful (and rather shady) character to say the least! (You don’t get deemed “America’s greatest living criminal genius” by Esquire magazine in 1997 for nothing)! With charm and movie star good looks, he rubbed elbows the big names of Hollywood – he played golf with Bob Hope, gambled in Las Vegas with Chuck Connors and hosted the likes of Lucille Ball at his $1 million mansion in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately though, for the Rocky Mountain Bank in Denver, Norman was partly financing his lavish lifestyle by siphoning $500,000 from them…
He was caught and convicted for this crime and other tax-related charges, but on March 13, 1973, the day he was to receive sentencing and subsequently start a two-year prison term for misappropriation of funds, Norman abandoned one of his defense attorneys and then fled in an orange Pontiac LeMans convertible belonging to his other defense attorney! And he didn’t stop there! A few hours later he exchanged the Pontiac for a 1969 Cadillac he “borrowed” from his friend Edward C. Day, a Colorado Supreme Court judge, and disappeared for the next two decades! The Cadillac was found weeks later in Las Vegas and Day’s keys and a thank-you note came in the mail!
Needless to say, Norman’s defense attorney, Orrin Hatch, was never compensated for his work on the case. He apparently said: “I never did get paid. But I never billed him. I knew it was useless.”
Norman’s escape, however, didn’t stop IRS agents seizing his cars to sell off to satisfy creditors. Several cars were seized, a Jaguar, two Rolls-Royces, and four Stutzs! One tan 1971 2 door (most likely the car that is now located in Sweden), a burgrundy 1971 4 door (the only 1971 four door made which was later displayed in a museum in Sarasota, Florida, for many years before being offered for sale by RM in 2019), one burgrundy 1971 2 door and one 1972 Stutz. Norman also had a blue ’71 Stutz that was not seized as his son had time to move this car to another location before the IRS agents arrived.
When federal marshals finally caught up with Norman in 1996 it turned out he hadn’t exactly been idle during his 23 years on the run! He had reportedly amassed $50 million through stock deals and legitimate companies in Houston and elsewhere, but he had (true to his trade) also swindled country club goers with penny stock schemes in several states. When apprehended Norman was driving a luxury motor home, a $180,000 Monaco Dynasty, towing a matching green, late model Lincoln Continental adorned with a rather charming bumper sticker that read: ”Prayer Changes Things.” One of the US marshals who arrested Norman said ”He was wearing a solid gold Rolex and had a fistful of $100 bills”. And he also had a pretty young wife, 30 years his junior, whose deceased grandparents’ names they had been using while on the run!
Mr. Day, the Colorado Supreme Court judge, was apparently still annoyed about the Cadillac incident 23 years later when he was interviewed in connection with the arrest of Mr. Norman…
After serving one year of his sentence, Norman was paroled because of failing health from prostate cancer. He died in March 2006.
Remember Mr. Tillander who first brought the 1971 Stutz Blackhawk to Sweden? Well funnily enough (maybe not for Tillander), he also got into trouble with the IRS, albeit the Swedish version. He published his book about Elvis in 2015, but the book received scathing reviews to say the least – poor language, factual errors, deplorable literary level, spelling mistakes and the usage of words previously unknown to the Swedish language. Painfully aware that a career in writing wasn’t on the cards for him, Tillander instead entered the entertainment business where he organized mini-concerts in malls that featured famous Swedish entertainers, followed by meet & greets and autograph-signings. Regrettably for Tillander (and the 19 very famous Swedish entertainers he brought down with him) all business was conducted off the book, cash in hand, and the IRS soon caught up with them. Tillander spent a year in jail while the entertainers avoided custodial sentences. They did, however, have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back tax!
Dubbed everything from “The Frankenstein of ultra-luxury cars” to “One of the most uniquely stylish Italian-American hybrids” this car is certainly as outlandish and unconventional as at least two of its previous owners! It’s one of those “either you love it or you hate it” kind of cars, but unlike most other luxury cars, with Stutz, all that glitters is actually gold!