By the time the 1970’s rolled around, the television Western was beginning to run its course. Numerous programs such as Bonanza, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and the Virginian (among many, many others) had flooded the airways during the previous decade. American viewers had probably had just about enough and were beginning to turn away. For the 1971 season, CBS attempted a reboot of the genre with a show that, at first glance, seemed just like any other western, but with an interesting twist. Bearcats! centered around two heroes in the American West, doing battle with the baddie of the week, usually in the name of justice and honor… as most Western heroes do. The twist was that the show took place in 1914, much later than traditional programs, and it allowed Our Heroes to eschew their traditional horses for something with a little more oomph, in this case, a Stutz Bearcat. The dashing leads Hank Brackett (played by Rod Taylor) and Johnny Reach (Dennis Cole) spent their days hunting bad guys, saving various villages from said bad guys and performing all variety of stunts with their beloved Bearcat speedster. Of course, the car was suitably equipped to handle baddie-battling; with Gatling guns and various compartments for storing dynamite and such. The program was only moderately successful, getting the axe after only fourteen episodes, but it still garnered a small cult following who enjoyed not only the classic 1970s campiness, but the twist on tradition and the surprisingly accurate vehicles that appeared every week.
Beyond the actors, the star of the show was undoubtedly the 1914 Stutz Bearcat. Of course, given the rarity, fragility and value of such a vehicle, the studio commissioned a pair of faithful replicas to be built for use on the set. They turned to one of the most famous of car builders in California, George Barris. By the time Bearcats was produced, Barris had already established himself as the premier car builder for Hollywood. His creations were used in movies like The Time Machine, The Car, Fireball 500 and his most acclaimed creation, the Batmobile for TV’s Batman series.
For the Stutz Bearcat, Barris started with a custom frame to which a six-cylinder Ford pickup drivetrain was fitted. The sparse body was then fitted to the chassis, built in the style of the original Stutz 4E Bearcat “raceabout”. The body was very well proportioned, and many of the details were very accurately replicated, including the radiator which is said to be completely interchangeable with an original. Brass lamps, a monocle windshield, and other details such as simulated lever shocks, spring gaiters, and outside shifters make for a rather convincing piece, particularly when viewed on the small screen. It is believed that just three were built, with two being used on the set and the third used for promotional purposes. Our featured example is fitted with an automatic transmission which was preferred by the stunt drivers and meaning it was highly likely this example featured on the program.
This Barris Bearcat is presented in its original color scheme of yellow over red button upholstery. For what was essentially a television prop, it is surprisingly well built and thoughtfully engineered. Barris Customs built a car that is convincingly authentic and quite fun to drive thanks to the torquey Ford Six and four wheel drum brakes. It has been nicely restored and retains many of the original props used in the show; most notably a pair of large imitation Gatling guns, no doubt used to stop villains from destroying an orphanage or stampeding cattle. The detailing is quite impressive, with genuine brass lamps, a brass windscreen support, brass radiator shell, spun alloy fuel tank and proper artillery wheels. It is clear to see that this is not a cobbled together prop, but a fully built and usable car that was intended to be one of the stars of the show.
Now presented in pleasing restored condition, this Barris Bearcat is a totally usable and unusual piece of American television history. Genuine Barris Hollywood cars have become very collectible through the years and this Bearcat is a fabulous opportunity for entry into the rarified world of Barris Customs movie cars.
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