When you talk about the 1975 Leata, or any unusual car, people say, "It was ahead of its time!" You hear the cry anywhere you find an unconventional automobile. Drive up in a "Step-down" 1948-1954 Hudson or any Crosley, and you're sure to trigger a Pavlovian response from someone in the gaggle of onlookers: "Boy, it was ahead of its time!"
Hudson ahead of its time? A very good car indeed, but a case could be made that, with its bathtub styling and flathead six, it was about 10 years behind its time, at least by 1954. Crosley ahead of its time? Sure, it seems to have prefigured today's subcompact, but it was a tinny, underpowered, bare-bones affair. Does anyone seriously think it would sell like hot cakes today?
Such automobiles were not ahead of their time, but rather outside their time. They were anomalies, breaks with the standard practices of their era. As economic realities, government regulations, and a general loss of vision gradually spread a pall of sameness over the auto industry, such anomalies popped to the surface less and less often. But when they did, they were (and are) worth the attention of anyone interested in collectible automobiles.
The year 1975 saw the birth -- and demise -- of one such car, the Leata. It was built by the Stinebaugh Manufacturing Company of Post Falls, Idaho, a firm headed by founder Don E. Stinebaugh. In a way, Stinebaugh himself was as an anomaly, and an inventor (a term not heard as often today as 50 years ago). Out of his Post Falls shop came some 48 patented ideas and devices, including a powerful snowmobile engine which made him a fair amount of money. And from his fertile brain and enthusiasm came the Leata.
In the early days, automaking was often a cottage industry, with small manufacturers from all over the country building what were really "assembled" cars. Most were gone by the Thirties. But one such car -- Leata -- found itself "outside of its time" in 1975 in Post Falls, Idaho.
Having lost his mother as a young boy, Stinebaugh grew up with grandparents in the lovely northern Idaho valley near Lake Couer d'Alene. He gained his mechanical knowledge by apprenticing at age 15 with an uncle who worked as a machinist at the Spokane, Washington, airport. Strong family ties run through the body of his life's work. For example, Leata (pronounced LEE-tah, not Lee-AH-tah), was his wife's pet name, a Norwegian diminutive equivalent to "small" or "tiny." And the decision to produce a motorcar grew out of a project Stinebaugh planned as a wholesome activity for his four sons. "I kept them busy and I kept them out of trouble," he said.
Continue to the next page to learn about the all the pieces that came together to create the 1975 Leata.
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1975 Leata Origins
To understand the 1975 Leata origins, you have to look back a decade. In the late Sixties, before the Leata project was underway, the Stinebaughs built several versions of a small all-terrain vehicle (ATV), including one with tandem axles and six-wheel drive. Don proved its practical pulling power when he used it to rescue a tracked crawler which had gotten stuck in a nearby rock quarry. The ATVs were fitted with hand-laid fiberglass bodies resembling a miniature Model A Ford roadster, a bit of off-the-wall classicism that would continue through their later automotive designs.
The Leata grew directly from those little ATVs, says Stinebaugh. "People told me that if I'd build them a little bigger and make them go down the road I'd make a million dollars." Perhaps Don had a bit of the inventor's innocence about affairs of the marketplace; at any rate, he took the advice to heart. He and his sons became car manufacturers.
Automobile-making had not been a cottage industry since the salad days of the Teens and Twenties. Back then, a town was scarcely worthy of the name unless it boasted at least one such operation. Even the wild and wooly Northwest had produced cars, their names redolent with Indian romance: Seattle, Tilikum, Spokane, Totem. Most of these early efforts were "assembled" cars, built of components purchased ready-made from other manufacturers. A half century later, the Leata would follow suit.
Transmission, differential, suspension, and brakes all came from other companies -- mostly Ford, though Stinebaugh's memory is not fail-safe on exact sources. Leata promotional material refers simply to "Borg-Warner transmissions" and "Spicer rear ends." For the engine he turned to Continental Motors, supplier of motive power to Apperson, Durant, Graham-Paige, Kaiser-Frazer, and many other long-gone independents. At least three early Leatas used a 60-horsepower Continental four. Problems with federal emissions standards, coupled with a potential savings of $180 per unit, soon caused a switch to the 2.3-liter 83-horse-power Pinto engine.
Leata's frame was fabricated in Spokane by a race car builder, but the fiberglass body was pure Stinebaugh from beginning to end. Like so many auto buffs, Don had long admired Edsel Ford's magnificent 1939 Lincoln Continental. He intended that his car pay homage to that great design. The Leata's styling thus fell firmly into the late-Thirties idiom, with well-defined fenders, alligator hood, flat glass, and a spare tire carried ahead of the rear bumper -- a "Continental kit."
Of course, the Lincoln Continental was a full-sized car mounted on a 125-inch wheelbase; the Leata was a small two-seater. Not just small, it was short. Its 70-inch wheelbase measured 10 inches less than that of the minuscule postwar Crosley, a whopping two feet shorter than Pinto's, and fully four and a half feet less than Continental's. It's difficult to create an attractive design for such a small car, particularly when trying to emulate a big one. Certain elements, such as the ergonomic requirements of human beings, just can't be scaled down.
The Leata had its attractive angles, the three-quarter front view being probably its best. But when seen from the side it appeared chopped off, as though one styling concept ran from the headlights back to the doors, with a different, abbreviated form tacked on to the rear. It bore a sort of folk-art relationship to the Continental, like an unschooled painter copying an Old Master.
The analogy can be extended to the car's interior. The inspiration here was not the elegant Lincoln, however, but the American backyard customizer, the folk artist of the automotive world. True to that aesthetic, seats and door panels boasted rolled metalflake vinyl with contrasting diamond-pleated inserts. The dashboard, fitted with a full complement of white-on-black gauges, received padding in some cars and veneered plywood in others. The small-diameter deep-dished steering wheel with perforated spokes came straight out of the J.C. Whitney catalog. Looking inside a Leata conjures up visions of furry dice, day-glo angel hair, and large stuffed animals.
Here, then, was a car made from standard running gear mounted on a custom frame, powered by a Pinto four, and topped with a fiberglass body which resembled something from an earlier time. What then set it apart from the slew of awkward Jaguar, Mercedes, and MG "replicars" displayed in airport lobbies across the country in those days?
To find out, go to the next page and learn about the 1975 Leata under the hood.
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The 1975 Leata Specifications
Now let's look at the 1975 Leata specifications. The Leata could not be classified as a kit car, nor was it intended to be. With the exception of the frame, construction of the entire vehicle took place in the Stinebaugh shops, one son in charge of machining, one responsible for fiberglass layup, another for the upholstery, and so on. Numerous nephews looking for interesting work supplied the additional needed manpower.
Another divergence from the typical kit car was the Leata's build quality. Don Stinebaugh, in the words of a former employee, "really sweated the details." The full text of one promotional piece reads: "One of the best engineered engines in America. A 2.3 Leata with electronic ignition. Heavy duty Spicer rear end. BR78x13 steel belted radial ply tires. Heavy steel frame. 3" x 1 1/2" of 1/8" stock. All wearing parts listed in Owners Manual. Easily replaced in well equipped parts houses. Real instrumentation. Speedometer; ampmeter; fuel, water and oil gauges set in recessed housing. Walnut grain wood trim on the glove box, radio and heater controls. All set in a padded dash. Deluxe harness type seat belts. Wing windows. Deluxe adjustable, foam padded vinyl upholstered seats. Deep pile 100% nylon carpering [sic]. All of fire retardant materials. Continental kit attached to frame. Chrome bumpers and guards with protective rubber inserts. Dual hydraulic brake system. Full A frame coil spring. Independent front suspension. Ten gallon fuel tank."
Not exactly deathless prose. Yet, it speaks volumes about a man's pride in his creation and the engineer's belief that the public could arrive at only one rational purchasing decision when presented with the cold, mechanical facts. Another anomaly: this type of prosaic sales pitch supposedly died out in 1923 when Ned Jordan's ads began sending potential Jordan Playboy buyers "Somewhere West of Laramie," launching the now-universal practice of selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Stinebaugh figured that if the steak was good, the sizzle would take care of itself.
Stinebaugh chose fiberglass as a body material not because he was fond of it -- "I don't like it in my boats and I don't like it in my cars!" -- but because if thick enough it provided great structural strength. As if to demonstrate, one purchaser flipped his speeding Leata one rainy night, skidding 65 feet on its top. No harm came to the driver, and when the Leata was put back on its wheels it started right up. The Stinebaughs made it good as new simply by cutting off the old, bruised top and splicing a new one in its place.
When the government demanded proof of crashworthiness, Stinebaugh built a cement wall and, in front of members of the local press, towed a stock Leata into it at 40 mph, then got in and drove off. He offered an open challenge to the Big Three to do likewise.
The Pinto engine gave the undersized car astonishing performance. A young couple asked the company to buy back their new Leata after a trip to Seattle netted them a citation for unwittingly doing over 90 mph. They told Stinebaugh the car was just too scary for them to drive.
On the next page, find out how the press and the public received the Leata when it debuted in 1975.
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The 1975 Leata Debut
Considering the 1975 Leata's debut, one would think that the Leata had plenty of selling points for an aggressive ad campaign: The cute little car that's storming its way into the hearts of America, or some such. But the inventor felt that word of mouth would keep his production line working at maximum capacity. Since that was very small, he was just about right. Whenever Stinebaugh felt the Leata needed promotion, he'd manage to get an article placed in the popular press.
On March 23, 1975, Leata graced the cover of the Spokane Spokesman-Review's Sunday magazine section. The accompanying article had a bit of gee-whiz about it, referring to the Leata as Stinebaugh's "unique invention." It gushed about an engine "designed especially for the car," delivering 50 mpg and a top speed of over 100. Further, the "very simple task" of replacing the front wheels with skis would convert the car into a snowmobile; switching the regular tires to "balloon tires" created a dune buggy.
In fairness to the reporter, it must be said that Stinebaugh was nothing if not loquacious, and his conversation hopped nimbly from subject to subject. It sounded as if facts regarding the Leata were well shuffled with those of the original ATV.
This wonder machine was to sell for under $3,000 and see a production rate of one car per day. With a waiting list of "over 1,000," Stinebaugh Manufacturing appeared to be set for nearly three years, without having to do any advertising.
Since each car was virtually hand-built, the Stinebaughs were able to experiment with variations on the basic theme. Photographs showed the Leata incarnated as a convertible, a coupe, and a pickup truck on a Pinto-size 94-inch wheelbase. One slightly stretched version of the coupe was also made, a so-called "sedan" fitted with a thin foam pad on the floor behind the bucket seats.
Another bit of gratis publicity appeared on April 26, 1976, in Midnight, a grocery store tabloid. By this time, the product line had shaken down to the coupe and pickup, the price upped to "less than $3,500," with a waiting list given as 2,000. Stinebaugh Manufacturing had also acquired a sales manager, Gary Gockley, who was quoted as saying, "Really, we've had fantastic luck with the thing. We haven't had any trouble at all with the ratio and weights and all those different kinds of problems," great enlightenment indeed for the mechanically inclined. He noted further that since the "basic research and development" was done, a production goal of 10 cars per day was in sight.
Ironically, by the time Midnight hit the checkout lanes, the Leata had died. Although some cars were built in early 1976, all were registered as 1975 models. Production had never reached a car a week, much less 10 a day. Apparently, 22 Leatas were produced, all coupes save for one convertible, three trucks, and the lone sedan. After that, the body molds and parts inventory were sold off, sounding the knell for another anomalous American automobile.
Continue to the next page to learn about the cars that came after the Leata.
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The 1975 Leata's Demise
The cause of the 1975 Leata's demise was its lack of focus. It was not meant to be a sports car, but it was far too small for everyday needs. Its unusual retrograde styling was neither elegant nor ostentatious, merely cute. At a list price of $3,295, it could not turn a profit because of limited production, yet it cost $500 more than a genuine Pinto that could carry four and would raise no eyebrows at any Ford service department. Stinebaugh had ventured into the territory of the small, low-priced car, a quagmire that has swallowed many a marque over the years.
But dreams die hard. The indefatigable inventor pressed on to produce a second automobile, the Leata Cabalero (spelled with one 'l'). It was an entirely different machine, a Chevette decked out with custom fiberglass body panels. Round headlights in square bezels rode slightly inboard, flanking a rectangular "classic" grille. Swoopy feature lines front and rear suggested pontoon fenders. The entire ensemble had the baroque flavor of a miniaturized Monte Carlo or Grand Prix.
Like the original Leata, the Cabalero came as a coupe or a surprisingly handsome pickup. When asked by General Motors how he managed to make a truck out of a car with no frame, Stinebaugh replied, "It's simple -- you put a frame under it!"
Along with the Cabalero came a new approach to promotion. In an attempt at big league ad-speak, brochures referred to it as "a precision-sized luxury automobile, designed by Master Craftsmen ... The Cabalero owner knows he is one of a few people fortunate to experience the pleasure of a truly exceptional automobile meant to be a landmark in automotive history."
Stinebaugh did better with the Cabalero. The original Leata was "one hard little bugger to build," but tricking up Chevettes was easier and faster, though some lovable quirkiness was lost in the process. Perhaps as many as a hundred of the hybrids were sold. Even so, some money was lost on each one.
Undaunted, Stinebaugh later manufactured a handful of full-sized luxury sportsters. This time, the body panels were stamped out in steel in his own shop. No two cars were quite alike, but all shared the neo-classic flavor of the little ATVs and first Leatas. They sold in the $75,000 range.
Said Don Stinebaugh, "I lost over three-quarters of a million dollars making Leatas. I'm out of the car business for good. But you know," he said as if the light of another dream was rekindling in his eyes, "I look at the little four-wheel drives being built today and I think I probably could have made it with that first ATV!"
Perhaps it was just a bit ahead of its time.