Once hoarded, the thoroughbred has since been shared at Pebble Beach
Legendary collector car auctions don’t all take place in Scottsdale or Monterey under bright lights in massive tents. In fact, one of the most memorable car auctions went down nearly 30 years ago on an old farm in East Orange, Vermont, once owned by an eccentric hoarder and littered with the remains of one of America’s earliest sports car builders. Now, nearly 30 years later, the star car of that auction, A.K. Miller’s 1916 Stutz Model 4C Bearcat, will come up for auction once again.
A flatlander from New Jersey who once flew autogyros for the U.S. Postal Service, Miller and his wife Imogene had moved to Vermont sometime in the late Forties. He became known in the area for salvaging nails from burned-down buildings; for the various outbuildings he built around the property, many of which had grown dilapidated over the years the Millers lived there; and for the ever-growing fleet of old Volkswagen Beetles that they’d drive into the ground, then discard under a tree on the property somewhere. Among Stutz collectors nationwide, he was known for having one or two of the cars but more for the Stutz parts that he’d sell, usually hand-fabricated. Rumors, however, told of a more sizable collection, though nobody seemed to know the true extent of it or why the Millers eyed everybody with suspicion.
Only after A.K. died in 1993 and Imogene died in 1996 did their story become a national sensation. The couple had no children – a local church even reportedly took up a collection to arrange for their burial – and avoided paying taxes, which explained their reluctance to trust any outsiders. As a result, the IRS tapped the local sheriff to prepare the estate for auction. In the course of doing so, he not only found a stack of bonds taped to the backside of a mirror, he also found $1 million in gold bullion hidden in the Millers’ wood pile, $75,000 in silver stashed around the property, and $900,000 in stock certificates.
And then there were the cars. Miller had hid away forty-seven different cars – Stutzes, mainly, but also some Franklins, a Locomobile, a Rolls-Royce, a Stanley, and some H.C.S.es, in addition to the aforementioned Beetles – as well as sheds worth of original Stutz parts on which he patterned the reproductions that he sold to other Stutz owners. Among the Stutzes were a few Blackhawks, a Bulldog, a couple DV32s, and multiple Bearcats, including the one that Miller appeared to prize the most, a 1916 Model 4C.
Stutz as a carmaker rose to prominence after a solid 11th-place finish in the inaugural Indianapolis 500, and Harry C. Stutz capitalized on that finish with a line of passenger cars that included, starting in 1912, a stripped-down roadster with its most powerful engine under the hood and hardly anything behind the cowl but a pair of seats and a gas tank. While it unquestionably built off the reputation of Stutz’s on-track racers, the Bearcat nevertheless came with fenders, headlamps, and a minimal monocle windshield and was thus intended for the street, competing against the likes of Mercer’s Raceabout. These days, the Bearcat is commonly referred to as an “American thoroughbred,” though some also describe it and similar cars as America’s first sports cars, the pre-war counterparts of the Chevrolet Corvette, Kaiser Darrin, and Woodill Wildfire
Exactly where Miller found his 1916 Bearcat, chassis number 3021, is unknown, but it was likely in his possession for 50 years or more by the time the IRS called on New York-based auction house Christie’s to handle the liquidation of Miller’s collection. Unlike many of Miller’s other cars, this one was complete, with a 50hp 390-cu.in. T-head four-cylinder and three-speed manual transaxle. Though one of the last of the Bearcats that Stutz made before it started to add bodywork to the roadsters, it also benefited from a number of improvements, including a factory electric starting system, as well as a set of factory optional wire wheels. Miller had even crudely repainted it red with black fenders. “It carries correct headlamps and taillamp, a correct MotoMeter and good diamond-tufted leather bucket sats. The car’s attractive and sporty appearance is further enhanced by period accessory Houk wire wheels,” the Christie’s description read. “Paint is of amateur quality and the car generally appears to be nearly road-ready but not of show quality.” Miller had placed its axles on cribs of wood blocks to keep its tires from getting flat spots; as Bonhams has more recently noted, the Bearcat appears to be the only car in his collection in which Miller was photographed.