Not only could I connect it to one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of all times… it linked directly to my field of academic expertise: Egyptology.
What is occasionally described as the “decorative mustache” (!) on the front of the Stout Scarab is actually a superb art deco ancient Egyptian–inspired winged scarab. A direct link to Egyptology, to warm the heart of an Egyptologist! In ancient Egypt the scarab—with or without wings—was a symbol of resurrection, associated with the sun that rose every morning after dying the previous evening. This association between the scarab (a.k.a. the dung beetle) and the sun came by observing the natural world.
The Egyptians had noticed beetles pushing balls of dung that contained their eggs and imagined an invisible scarab, a manifestation of the god Khepri, similarly pushing the sun across the sky. The baby scarabs emerging from the dung ball were further evidence of life after the decay of death.
William Bushnell Stout, who designed this unusual automobile, believed the scarab to symbolize creativity (or so it says in his biography). We won’t fault him for that, because death and resurrection are perhaps not the most appropriate themes to associate with automobiles! However, as the aeronautical engineer who created the Ford Trimotor, William Bushnell Stout was definitely a very creative man, and his vision for the Scarab was that of the car of the future. (He was off by about 50 years!)
The Scarab’s startling, smooth, and slightly tapered shape stems from its monocoque chassis and body combination, which allowed all four wheels to be located at the corners of the vehicle. Stout thought of this structural skin as the exoskeleton of a bug, the hard shell protecting the delicate insides. The interior was just as surprising as the exterior: it was extremely spacious and could be configured in various ways. It features a long banquette seat at the back, a fold-down table, and passenger seats that can be moved around (the perfect car for an Egyptologist who wants to catch up on some reading, take a nap, work on her laptop, and spread out a bunch of books while having the possibility to drive in style to different locations). This was radical back in the day .. Stout basically invented what we know now as the minivan!
It should not be surprising that Stout chose the Egyptian winged scarab to adorn the front of his radical, bug-inspired automobile—art deco was often inspired by ancient cultures. However, ancient Egyptian motifs were all the rage during the 1920s and ’30s, more so than any other ancient or exotic culture that influenced the art deco style. The discovery of the almost-intact tomb of King Tutankhamun by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922 brought a fresh new wave of Egyptomania to the world in a most glorious way—Egyptian motifs appeared on anything and everything from fashion and jewelry to automobiles. Don’t believe me? Take a look just below the “Cocotte” hood ornament of the 1936 Voisin C28 Clairière; you’ll find there another ancient Egyptian winged scarab.
I would like to thank Ken Gross and Ron Schneider for making it possible to have the wonderful Stout Scarab in Rolling Sculpture. The exhibition would not have been the same without it.
Caroline M. Rocheleau is curator of ancient art at the NCMA.