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Rare Classic: Stearns-Knight Militaire Tourer

Automotive history is littered with the shattered remains of companies that demonstrated enormous promise but found themselves destroyed by circumstances that were, in a large part, completely beyond their control. That is the story of the F.B. Stearns Company, that marketed the Stearns-Knight Militaire. Commencing operation in 1898, the company was one of many casualties of The Great Depression. Today a Stearns-Knight is a rare sight, with this one popping up in a barn in Northern California. It is a complete and rust-free example that will require some restoration work. If you would like to own a real automotive unicorn, you will find the Stearns-Knight listed for sale here on the AACA website. The owner is asking $35,000 for this classic. I really have to say thank you to Barn Finder Mark P for referring this rare automobile to us.

The F.B. Stearns Company, named after its founder, Frank Ballou Stearns, commenced the manufacture of motor vehicles in 1898. The company produced some interesting and successful models but did flirt with bankruptcy at times. In 1917, Stearns was forced to retire from the company that he had founded due to ill health, and by 1925, with the company experiencing severe financial hardships, it was purchased by John North Willys. The company continued to operate as an effectively independent entity but was now part of Willys-Overland. However, the effort to introduce new models in 1927 and 1928 stretched the company’s finances to the limit. When the stock market crashed in 1929, so did the F.B Stearns Company. Manufacturing ended on December 20th, 1929, and the company folded a mere 10-days later. One of the great difficulties with cars like this is determining exactly what we are dealing with. This is often because production records are either very sparse or quite simply, non-existent. That is the case here, but after plenty of research, I believe that this Stearns-Knight Militaire Tourer was built in 1925. It sits on a 130″ frame and was built to seat five people. It has been sitting in this dry barn in Northern California since at least 2010 and remains completely rust-free. It would be very interesting to wash off all of the accumulated dust, because what lies beneath actually looks fairly promising. It is a bit difficult to determine what are accumulated cobwebs and what are scratches, but the vehicle does appear to at least be complete. This is vitally important because as you can well imagine, sourcing parts would be a pretty difficult job.

If I am correct about this vehicle, what we find under the hood is a 288ci 6-cylinder engine. It is this engine that truly differentiates the vehicle from offerings by other mainstream manufacturers. In 1911, Stearns was the first American company to manufacture a motor vehicle featuring a sleeve valve Knight engine. These engines remained a staple of the company right through until its demise and that gave the vehicles the Stearns-Knight name. The design of these engines is quite complex, but for their time, they were both quite successful, and very powerful. At its peak, this engine would have been capable of punching out 80hp, which was a very healthy figure in 1925. This engine hasn’t been run since the vehicle was placed into storage. It isn’t clear whether it will turn freely, but due to the complexity of the engine, a lot of care would need to be taken when reviving it. If it needs any major work, this would require specialist attention. There are a number of companies that can provide this sort of service, including one that is located not far from where this vehicle sits in California.

The Stearns-Knight was not designed to be a family car for the Average Joe because they were expensive. I mean, very expensive. Buying one of these left no change from $3,200 in 1925, and this was at a time when a Ford Model T Runabout cost $260. Firmly in the company’s gunsights was Cadillac, along with Packard. To this end, the upholstery and trim were sumptuous. Having sat for so long with the top down, the leather upholstery in this vehicle is looking quite sad. However, restoring the upholstery and interior trim will be no more expensive than for any other classic car from this era. As is the case with the exterior, sourcing some of the smaller components such as switches, handles, and gauges would be very difficult. So thankfully, at least the interior does appear to be complete.

For the person who takes on the task of returning this Stearns-Knight Militaire to active duty, their reward will be to own a car that is extraordinarily rare. Total Stearns production for 1925 was a mere 1,575 cars across their entire model range. The restoration of the body and interior would appear to be about as simple and straightforward as they come. The engine might represent a much larger challenge, but at least there is specialist support available out there if it is needed. However, just what it would cost to revive the unusual engine is pretty hard to determine. The rarity of this vehicle also means that if it is fully restored, there is no reason why it couldn’t command a value of $75,000. With those factors in mind, is this a project that you would be willing to take on?


  1. Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

    Really interesting write up,Adam. We’ve heard references to this engine before but reading about in depth with all the info about it on the web is fascinating stuff. This looks like a project for someone very knowledgeable of intricate mechanicals, although there appears to be some great expert help out there as you mentioned.
    Definitely a financial investment in all sense, it’d be great to see this put back on the road almost 100 years after it was built!

    Like 6
  2. geomechs geomechs Member

    Very interesting article. I’m not a big fan of these old luxury cars but I do hope that this car goes to a good home and is restored, and DRIVEN. I’m very interested in the Sleeve Valve setup.

    They really had something interesting when they came up with this concept. I understand it was whisper quiet just NOT having to deal with the valve train noise. But I also understand that this concept was plagued with oil consumption problems. Whatever the case, Bristol, over in England, didn’t hesitate to utilize the Sleeve Valve system on its radial aircraft engines. There’s a museum just south of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, called the Bomber Command Museum and its full of neat warplane stuff including a Messerschmidt BF109 fighter and a running Lancaster bomber. They are embarking on the restoration of a Halifax bomber which was powered by (4) of those Bristol radial engines. Quite an ambitious project.

    Like 12
  3. Weasel

    Oh the memories. I took my drivers test in one just like this but it was blue.

    Like 8
    • Chris M.

      Surprisingly nimble weren’t they?

      Like 2
      • Weasel

        Yes. I remember being the king of the drive-inn watching “The 10 commandments” by Cecil B. DeMille. It had factory A/C and we all hung out by it while it idled and cooled us all off. I’ll never forget that night I got to hold a girls hand. I was a rebel. I even winked.

        Like 9
  4. Fred W

    This is in better shape than a Stutz Bearcat that Wayne Carini resurrected on an episode of Chasing Classic Cars. I’m wondering if it might clean up well and be revered for it’s originality (assuming it hasn’t been restored).

    Like 4
  5. A.J.

    If you have ever seen a sleeve valve engine running it is ridiculously smooth. There is no movement or vibration of the engine block. Stearns was a luxury manufacturer and their cars were expensive. This is probably over priced by about 10k in the current market, but I would expect it to find a home in the 20s somewhere. It is very cool.

    Like 3
  6. Ken Cwrney

    Hi fellas! Dailmler of England did think
    enough of the sleeve valve setup to offer it well into the ’70s. Their cars were whisper quiet and highly prized by the Royal family. Too bad they had that god
    awful Lucas electrical system that shorted out when you sneezed on it.
    Too bad no one told them about the
    systems offered by Autolite and AC

    Like 3
    • luke arnott Member

      Daimler used a sleeve valve in the 30’s,but by 1964 they were part of Jaguar,

      Like 1
  7. Arthur Brown

    Mike Hewland of transmission fame wrote some articles about some research engines he fabricated in the 1970’s. The sleeve valve arrangement would run on very inferior fuels (Octane in the 60-70 range)because of the clear head and central spark plug offering incredible cooling. The compared to geometrically similar engines (Interesting way of doing study – fabricate 1 cylinder engines of same bore x stroke and compare operation and performance) It had better low and mid range torque and output but starved on the top end. Hewland estimated this could be remedied by better port shaping to eliminate the breathing issues at high speeds, saying that at the high rpm it became akin to a 2 stroke. The sleeve valve had the benefit of providing ideal oil distribution. The engines when torn down showed virtually no wear on the cylinders. He had to, in fact, add abrasives (jeweler’s rouge) to the break in oil to get the rings to seat and seal. Most important at the time, the research engines because of the superior cooling never reached a cylinder temperature that would allow the formation of NOx not reaching a temp that would break the N2 triple bond. Why was it rejected. The oiling issues mention in the write up. The non-detergent oils available when the engine was introduced would cause carbon to build up and eventually seize the sleeve in the cylinder. This was not a problem with aircraft that were using pharmaceutical grade caster oil for lubrication, which would not break down like petroleum. However, it left a bad taste with the major manufacturers whose institutional memory remembered the problem but no the cause.

    That’s how we got here.

    Like 11
  8. Bill Hall

    What a neat and rare car. I hope someone gets to showoff and tell people what they are looking at with the engine since you don’t see these everyday and not just get it to make $$ on. To much of that and quite often these cars are never seen again in public.

    Like 1
  9. Bob Mck Member

    I am always amazed at what you guys know. I never heard of this car or engine. So, I got quite an education today. Thank you all! This sure would look nice in my stable.

    Like 8
  10. PeterfromOz

    Note on the front of the ancilliary drive is an external oil pump driven by the fan belt and behind it an older style water pump then generator.

    On the other side mounted on high on the firewall is a glass bottle with metal screw lid. It has a pipe which goes down and if you look in the centre below the carburettor there appears to be a modern electric fuel pump. I wonder if this glass jar holds some ‘upper cylinder lubricant’ to add to the fuel and help lubricate the sleeves.

    Also note the position of the distributor. It sits just below the inlet manifold and I imagine it making the points adjustment awkward.

    If you google Charles Bronson I think you will find he restored a Daimler V12 with sleeve valves which he exhibited at Pebble Beach. When you find the photos it looks as though it has a mild chopped roof but everything else looks standard.

    Like 1

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