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.