Sold for $96,250 at 2007 RM Sothebys
Sold for $82,500 at 2012 RM Sothebys
Before the turn of the 19th into the 20th century a glimpse of the new horseless carriage would certainly be something to behold. It would send the imagination on a flight into the dream world. Many would come back from that dream world to carry on with their lives perhaps with the use of one of these new contraptions. For Frank B. Stearns, after witnessing one of these automobiles for the first time at he Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he would never come down out of the clouds and would forever be obsessed with the automobile.
Another Stearns would come onto the scene about the same time and would often be confused with Frank B. Stearns. Edward C. Stearns started out owning a hardware store in Syracuse, New York before moving into bicycle manufacturing in the early 1890s. Edward C. would then move into automobile manufacturing by 1899.
That first exposure to the horseless carriage in Chicago in 1893 would forever change the course of Stearns' life. At the time, Stearns was only about fourteen years old; a student planning on heading to college for a wholly different career. The introduction to the automobile would change all that, and immediately.
Stearns would act upon his dream of manufacturing automobiles and would do so by the age of seventeen when, in 1896, he would build his first experimental car in his parents basement. One year later, he would build a four-cylinder car. This was an amazing feat for the young man. There was just one problem…the car didn't work.
Undaunted by the problems with the four-cylinder engine, Stearns would switch to a single-cylinder engine. Frank's father would be impressed. As a result of witnessing his child's genius, Frank's father would convert their barn in Cleveland, Ohio over to a machine shop and would actually support his son financially.
Things continued to move quickly. In 1898, just one year after building his first non-working four-cylinder car, Frank B. Stearns would establish F.B. Stearns and Company with the help of some partners, Raymond and Ralph Owen.
In the same year as the company's founding, it would go on to produce its first production model. The first model would be a buggy-style automobile that would have tiller steering, wire wheels, chain drive, planetary transmission and it would run on gasoline. Combined with its one-cylinder engine, this first production model would get the company off the ground.
Being young and energetic about his new career path enabled Stearns to be on what was considered the cutting-edge of automobile technology at that time, talking about the turn of the century. By 1901, Stearns would introduce models using a steering wheel instead of the tiller. Stearns also continued to work on the one-cylinder engine advancing its usefulness as well.
By the end of 1901, Stearns had sold about 50 cars. That same year production was moved to a rented facility located at Euclide Avenue and Lakewood in Cleveland, Ohio. This move enabled an increase in production. The success would also enable the young company to offer different models, and by 1902, a touring car model would be added. That same year, Stearns would introduce another innovative feature, the sliding-gear transmission. Many of today's automobiles would also owe something to Stearns as he would introduce his models with most all of the controls attached to the steering wheel.
In many cases, the prices of Stearns' automobiles suggested wealth and affluence. The touring model would be a perfect example. At around $3,000, the car would be many times the price of cars from the same period. But what Stearns' cars offered was luxury not seen on many other cars.
The touring model would include a water-cooled flat twin engine with a three-speed transmission, the now standard steering wheel and even a tonneau that made the car capable of seating six passengers.
In 1904, Stearns would have a four-cylindered model available that came with a pressed steel chassis. This would be a very big car for the time and would include magnetos as standard in 1905. With the addition of the more reliable magneto ignition Stearns would be the first to use the add slogan Runs like a deer.
Stearns' company continued to grow just like his automobile models. With each new year, new designs would roll out of the manufacturing facility. The engines grew and became more powerful, including a four-cylinder model that produced a grand 40 hp.
Stearns' also continued to introduce innovative designs and technologies including aluminum body panels and windshields. Stearns would even make sport car models that would become popular with early racing drivers. Al Poole and Cyrus Patschke would win a 24-hour race at Brighton Beach driving a Stearns Six. Over the course of the race the two men would cover a little more than 1250 miles.
As the first decade of the 20th century drew to a close, so too did Stearns' interest in producing sporty models of automobiles. Instead, he would focus on luxury and innovation producing the Stearns-Knight which would have electric lighting and an electric starter along with a V-8 engine, one of the first to be offered by any automobile company.
By 1919, when Stearns was just 40 years old, he had decided it was time to retire. Unfortunately, Stearns' company would be one of the first to go when the depression came calling at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s.
By 1920, production at Stearns had reached more than 3,800 automobiles. However, by 1925, the company would lose its way and would be facing bankruptcy. Therefore, the company would be sold to J.N. Willys of Willys-Overland Co. in Toledo. Throughout the first couple of decades of the 20th century Willys had been on something of a spending spree to help bolster his own company. However, when the depression really took hold it took hold of the luxury Stearns-Knight company and would never let go. As a result, the Stearns name would be forever lost as the division would be liquidated.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Stearns' was considered one of America's pure luxury automobile manufacturers. In fact, Stearns would be considered the Packard of its day. Stearns would be one of the first to well and truly combine innovation with luxury. And one of those early examples of the blending of innovative features and luxurious comfort would be up for sale at the 2012 RM Auction in Arizona.
Offered at this year's RM Auction in Arizona would be Stearns chassis 114. The car is a 1903 Stearns Suburban Rear-Entry Tonneau.
The car itself comes with a single-cylinder, 214.7 cu. in. engine capable of producing about 11 hp. This single-chain driven Stearns comes with a two-speed planetary transmission and a solid front axle with full-elliptic leaf springs. Braking for the 83 inch wheelbase machine is accomplished through two-wheel belt-tension brakes.
This particular model Stearns includes the tonneau rear seat that would help to provide seating for between five and six passengers. Drawing from the French word meaning barrel, the tonneau would be an open passenger compartment that would be rounded along the sides like a barrel. Because of the rounding on the sides of the tonneau access to the compartment, early on, would be accomplished through a rear-facing hinged door such as the example up for sale.
History surrounding the chassis offered at this year's RM Auction in Arizona is about as muddled as some of the specifics of the company from which it came. However, the stories and legends surrounding this particular chassis would be enough to make this automobile something truly spectacular even without having already been a Stearns.
It is believed chassis 114 had been the honor of being the first automobile on Washington Island on the tip of Wisconsin's Door County peninsula. Sylvia Nelson, who lived around the area and was part of a farming family herself, has recollections of the Stearns around the year 1913. Billy Smith would come to own the car later on and would believe it had first been owned by the Astor family before it came to belong to a family by the name of Lindstrom.
David Uihlein, a noted collector, had first come to know about the automobile's existence around 1949. However, he would not be able to purchase the car until nearly a decade later. Once in Uihlein's possession, he would have the car sent to Paul Freehill in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Freehill is noted as a Stutz expert and craftsman and would take delivery of the car in 1993 for a complete restoration.
Upon inspection of the car it came to be believed that it is the oldest surviving Stearns. And while the car was complete, great care needed to be taken while disassembling and going through reconstruction.
After restoration, the car would be used very little but would be thoroughly enjoyed. Then, in 2007, the car would come to be part of John O'Quinn's massive car collection. O'Quinn was an avid car collector and had numerous cars at his estate. The famous litigation lawyer had once worked in his father's car garage in Houston. This love of automobiles led him to have a collection of more than 600 cars valued at over $100 million dollars. However, when he died in a car accident in October of 2009, RM has been piecing out the collection.
Complete with white balloon tires, gloss-black finish with dark red bench seat and tonneau and complete with brass trimming it is easy to see why the Stearns automobiles were considered some the most luxurious of its day. Certainly belonging to a special class, this 1903 Stearns Suburban still boasts wealth and luxury and would certainly add depth to any serious car collection. At auction, the car was expected to earn between $80,000 and $100,000. Sources:
'Feature Lots: Lot No. 138: 1903 Stearns Suburban Rear-Entry Tonneau', (http://www.rmauctions.com/FeatureCars.cfm?SaleCode=AZ12&CarID=r171&fc=0). RM Auctions. http://www.rmauctions.com/FeatureCars.cfm?SaleCode=AZ12&CarID=r171&fc=0. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
'Stearns: 1903 Stearns Suburban', (http://www.conceptcarz.com/vehicle/z14644/Stearns-Suburban.aspx). Conceptcarz.com: From Concept to Production. http://www.conceptcarz.com/vehicle/z14644/Stearns-Suburban.aspx. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
'1903 Stearns Suburban', (http://classiccarweekly.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/1903-stearns-suburban/). Classic Car Weekly: The Best Cars in the World. http://classiccarweekly.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/1903-stearns-suburban/. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
'F. B. Stearns Company', (http://www.cartype.com/pages/2851/fb_stearns_company). Cartype. http://www.cartype.com/pages/2851/fb_stearns_company. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Stearns (automobile)', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 November 2011, 08:31 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stearns_(automobile)&oldid=458428942 accessed 5 January 2012
Wikipedia contributors, 'Willys', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 January 2012, 20:05 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Willys&oldid=469384653 accessed 5 January 2012
Wikipedia contributors, 'Tonneau', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 November 2011, 05:46 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tonneau&oldid=461549752 accessed 5 January 2012
Wikipedia contributors, 'John O'Quinn', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 November 2011, 21:41 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_O%27Quinn&oldid=462964072 accessed 5 January 2012By Jeremy McMullen
Frank Ballou Stearns, at the age of seventeen dropped out of school to purse a career at building automobiles. The year was 1897 and the popularity of cars was slowly beginning to form. Stearns quickly showed potential by building a superb model. It was powered by a four-cylinder engine that never really fired evenly. So he reverted back to a single-cylinder unit and gave it a very large bore and stroke in order to achieve the same horsepower output of the four. The prototype, featuring chain-drive, was completed in 1896. His father was so impressed he provided some financial backing and allowed his son to move the production from the basement of their house to their barn. The barn was converted into a machine shop and the F.B. Stearns & Co. was formed in 1898, with the help of Ralph and Raymond Owen of Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1899 about fifty examples of the Stearns automobile were purchased. They were single-cylinder cars with around 8 horsepower available from the two-cycle engine and equipped with tiller steering and Stanhope configuration.
The following year produced similar sales figures. An improved vehicle was introduced featured a ten-horsepower engine that had a bore of 6.25-inches and a stroke of 7-inches. The price tag was set at $1200. Over the years the design, mechanical components, and complexity continued to evolve. The tiller was replaced with a steering wheel in 1901. That same year production was moved to a rented facility located at Euclide Avenue and Lakewood in Cleveland, Ohio.
Demand for the Stearns automobile continued to grow; agents were sent to New York and Pittsburgh to generate interest in those markets.
The Owen brothers left the company to start an Oldsmobile distributorship in 1900. Two years later the '&' was dropped and the company became known as F.B. Stearns Company.
In 1902 the Stearns Company introduced a two-cylinder car that produced around 20 horsepower and sold for $3,000. The single-cylinder Suburban was still available with either a phaeton or tonneau body.
In 1904 a 316 cubic-inch smooth running engine was introduced; it was the largest American automobile with a four-cylinder engine of its day.
By 1911, the true legacy of the company was formed when they adopted the Knight sleeve valve engine, becoming the Stearns-Knight Company. They engines were very quiet and had smooth operation. The price of the vehicle reflected this luxury and the company became one of the prestigious car manufacturers in America, with price tags that came close to a Packard.
In 1917 Frank Stearns retired from the company due to ill health. After spending some time away from his company he began experimenting again with engines and eventually produced a two-stroke overhead cam diesel engine. This was later sold to the United States Navy.
The company continued to prosper due to their styling and durability. Though their nitch in the market was in high-end cars, they shifted down-market in 1914 to compete on a wider scale. Sales continued to be strong for a number of years until they were bought by John North Willys, the owner of the Willys-Overland Company, in 1925. Under Willys direction, the company continued to produce high-end cars until they were forced to dissolve the company as the Great Depression depleted the market.
By Daniel Vaughan | Jan 2012