The 20th Century was young, still in the horse and buggy era, when engineer Fred Tone conceived and designed the first “underslung” automobile in Indianapolis.
The Underslung was a radical automobile design with the frame suspended below the suspension. The top of the hood was the same height as the top of the fenders. Giant 36 inch wheels amplified its low, racy profile. The Underslung even looked fast. It was America’s first sports car, decades before the term was coined.
The seminal moment occurred when Harry C. Stutz (of Bearcat fame) swapped employers with engineer and Underslung designer Tone. Stutz left the American Motor Company shortly after the debut of the American company’s “Tourist” model. Tone quit the Marion Motor Car Company to become chief engineer and designer at American. He stuck around long enough to turn American car design, literally, upside-down.
In 1907 American introduced the Underslung. Tone attacked the central dynamic problem of all early automobiles with simplicity and engineering elegance. His underslung concept hung the frame beneath the axles investing his design with a stability that neutralized the inherent problem of all early American automobiles: a high center of gravity. Tone’s design was practical as well as brilliant as his cars still had sufficient ground clearance required on America’s rustic roads.
The bigger tires took a long step toward muting the relentless problems of pre-World War I tire technology. Enlarging the tire’s footprint by lengthening it made the tires wear better through reduced rim speed. The longer footprint also put more rubber on the road and that made the Underslung steer without the wooziness of the typical pre-WWI car with a high center of gravity. Straight-line stability was improved as well.
The Underslungs were high quality cars for people who loved to drive. For the 1909 model year American’s Underslungs came in two and four seat configurations. Fred Tone did a lovely job with the four-seat “Traveler”, as the model was known, that had the same sort of sporting proportions and dynamics that had made the two-seater a showroom success.
The Traveler wore 40 inch wheels and that brought the new Underslung’s ground clearance to an even foot without disrupting the six-passenger’s lines, proportions or road manners.
Despite the Underslung’s sporting appearance, the company marketed it as “America’s Most Luxurious Car.” There was more than a kernel of fact in the claim. The American Underslung had the unusual distinction, from the perspective of the 21st century, of being able to be operated by a single person with such amenities as a self-starter, etc.
American Underslung’s Scout model led American’s 1912/1913 catalog with an “entry level price” of $2000. Expansion was in the air at American, as was a whiff of optimism bordering on hubris as the autumn of 1912 approached. But the seasons brought unusually severe winter weather, even for America’s Midwest. The spring of 1913 was late; roads flooded, disrupting distribution of the new models to dealers. The cash-strapped company was dragged into receivership by a squadron of creditors.
War, peace and the polarization of American automotive economic realities (with Henry Ford’s Model T on one side and, ultimately, Fred Duesenberg’s cars on the other) obscured the Underslung’s true functional luxury. As Harry Stutz predicted, tire technology progressed with automotive technology and tall tires with long footprints were replaced by lower profile tires with wider footprints.
Stutz created his famous and glorious Bearcat in 1914. The roadster is often remembered as America’s first sports car. But it is Fred Tone’s practical and capable Underslung that can lay claim to the title “the world’s first sports car.”