Stearns-Knight Automobiles

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999

Knight: "The engine that improves with use"

The name of the Stearns-Knight came from Frank Stearns, the founder and guiding genius of the company, and from the sleeve-valve engines that all Stearns-Knight cars had from 1911 to the last cars they built in 1929. Car builders who used the Knight system of sleeve valves had to include the name "Knight" in their trademarks, which produced a lot of hyphenated car names. The Knight patents protected a valve system that had two sleeves surrounding each piston. The sleeves slid up and down, moved by their own little crankshaft to expose inlet and exhaust ports. The system was much quieter than the conventional poppet valves of those days, which made a lot of clatter and had to be re-surfaced frequently.

The development of hydraulic valve lifters and improved valve alloys removed the objections to the poppet valves, which are taken for granted as standard equipment today. The Knight engine disappeared from the American passenger car market in 1932, when the last Willys-Knight was built.

Frank Stearns' automobiles

Frank Stearns (1879-1955) had been building and selling little cars for five years when Ford and Cadillac went into production in 1903. He was a natural mechanic, and the mysteries of the new motor cars fascinated him. At the age of 17 he built an experimental car in his home workshop; by 1898 his F. B. Stearns Company of Cleveland was building and selling one-cylinder cars. Unlike most of the pioneer car builders, Stearns was wealthy and didn't have to count his coins to see if he could buy what he needed.

Every Stearns car was over-powered; Frank Stearns liked big engines. For example, his 1901 model had one cylinder with a bore of six inches and a stroke of seven inches. It must have had a heavy flywheel to keep that engine spinning between bangs. The early Stearns cars were the muscle cars of their day, and there was hardly a race or hill climb that did not include a Stearns among the winners. Frank Stearns said his company never built a racing car, but there was nothing to prevent dealers and private owners from trying some fine tuning. The Stearns was one of the first cars to have a carburetor with dual throats. Like all other car builders, Stearns built four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines, including a brief try at a V8. In 1927 a big straight-eight sleeve-valve engine was announced; it was a marvel of engineering and complication. A hundred miles an hour was claimed.

Frank Stearns left the company in 1917 because of his failing health. He continued his activity in engineering and experimentation until his death in the 1950s. Almost from the first, Stearns wanted his cars to be recognized on the streets, so he added a thin white stripe around the inside edge of the radiator shell. That was a small change, but I can testify that a Stearns-Knight could be identified from across the street if you could see the front end.

Of course from the side and rear the Stearns-Knight looked like a dozen other makes. Stearns-Knight quality was always as high as could be had for the money, and today The Classic Car Club of America recognizes every Stearns-Knight from 1911 to the last one in 1929 as a "Classic", judged by the strict standards of the club.

Stearns-Knight evaded the grasp of the take-over men until 1927, when Willys-Overland bought the company. John Willys promised that he would not change the character of the car, and he kept his word. The magnificent straight-eight sleeve valve-engine offered on the 1927 cars was the pinnacle of Stearns-Knight engineering, and there were no major developments after that. The Stearns-Knight could not compete with the stylish and sporty cars produced by Cadillac, Chrysler, Cord, Auburn, Lincoln, Stutz, Duesenberg, and others, and the last Stearns-Knight was assembled in late 1929.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

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