It might seem difficult to reconcile a 1950s Oscar Mayer Weinermobile – an outsized promotional hot-dog on wheels – and the rakish, neo-classic Excalibur SSK of the early 1960s, but both were conceived by the same mind and drawn by the same hand.
And it’s a little startling to learn the latter-day Mercedes SSK look-alike was the result of a commission that emanated from Studebaker’s front office. Studebaker’s brass was certainly more than a little nonplussed by the car, which was promptly dubbed the “Mercebaker.”
But when you find the multi-faceted mind, and the pen-hand it wielded, belonged to one of the great American industrial designers of the last century, Brooks Stevens, it begins to make sense. Well, sort of.
Since the 1930s, Stevens had been using both to put the styling polish on a diverse portfolio of products (eventually some 2,000) that ranged from Allis-Chalmers tractors, Lawn Boy mowers, the 1949 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide and Rocket tricycles to the Miller High Life beer logo. By 1952, it was said, annual sales of things he’d plied his design artistry on, were pulling in a billion dollars a year.
He also had an interest in automobiles, instilled at an early age by his father, the inventor of a pre-selector type gearbox. Following the Second World War, he worked with Willys on Jeep designs, and from 1948-1955 on Kaiser’s sedans, and later for Volkswagen and American Motors Corp. In the 1950s, he penned the Paxton, which was conceived as a steam car, then the short-lived luxury Gaylord for the heirs of the bobby pin inventor. His name is associated with almost 50 automotive designs.
Like many Americans in the postwar years. he developed an enthusiasm for European-style sports cars, and in 1952 he set about designing one. What emerged from the drawing board was the Excalibur J, a two-seater built on a Henry J chassis and powered by Willys and Alfa-Romeo engines. Three were built and raced.
The Excalibur SSK story began in 1963, when Stevens was retained as a design consultant by Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert to create a trio of special versions of its Lark model to crank up enthusiasm for the rapidly sinking brand at car shows. Another design legend, Raymond Loewy, was busy putting the finishing touches on the Avanti.
Stevens may have thought the job itself something of a lark, and created a black and pink convertible, called Mademoiselle, plus customs called the Yachtman and Town Car, which bombed at the Chicago show. Egbert then told him to come up with “a real eye-catcher” that would attract New York show-goers to the Stude stand.
Egbert was then diagnosed with cancer, preventing him from providing the adult supervision that might have prevented Stevens from tearing off on the highly unlikely tangent that produced the Excalibur SSK.
Stevens had long admired the 1920s Mercedes SSK, and owned a 1928 Mercedes. He decided to design something similar for Studebaker, and informed his new boss, Byers Burlingame, over the phone that he was going to build him a contemporary classic. “Great … what exactly is a contemporary classic?” was Burlingame’s response. After having Stevens’ vision explained in more detail, he hung up on him.
Undaunted, Stevens and a three-man team (led by one of his two sons) set to work on the Lark Daytona convertible chassis, and supercharged 289-cubic-inch, 290-hp V-8, that Studebaker had sent to his Milwaukee headquarters.
The engine was moved back 29 inches, basically putting the driver and passenger where the Lark’s rear seat once was, and bodywork created that obviously owed its inspiration to the original SSK. The flex exhaust pipes were even sourced from Mercedes’ German supplier, although the seats were Studebaker and the instruments from its Hawk GT. It was completed in just six weeks and shipped off to New York.
Studebaker wasn’t having any of it. Fearful the public might think it was actually going to build something like the “Mercebaker,” it nixed any notion of displaying it on its stand. Stevens managed an end-run, however, with the connivance of the show’s organizer, local Chevy Jerry Allen dealer, who found him an out-of-the-way spot to display the car.
It proved a surprise hit, with people willing to hand over $6,000 cash (a number pulled out of the air by Stevens’ 21-year-old son) to place an order. Enthusiasm for this modern classic soon spread across America, and the decision was made to put it into production, with Stevens fronting the money for his two sons to establish Excalibur Automobile Corp.
Production of the Excalibur S1 Roadster – with fibreglass bodywork and a weight of 2,200 pounds, a 300-hp, 327-cubic-inch Chevy V-8 and four-speed gearbox, it was a quick car – began in 1964, and 50 were painstakingly hand-built over the next two years. A more lavish Roadster and a four-seat, open phaeton followed in 1966. And a new series, each more flamboyant than the last, arrived about every five years until production ceased at the end of the 1980s, after 3,166 had been built.
The Excalibur’s performance and over-the-top retro-classic look attracted high-profile owners, among them Steve McQueen, Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Liberace, Sonny and Cher, Prince Rainier, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Foreman. And interest in the cars continues, with owners’ clubs active around the world. The 1967 Series 1 pictured here was among the lots at Bonham’s inaugural Boca Raton, Fla., auction a few weeks ago.
The Brooks Stevens Museum, which housed his extensive car collection, remained open until 1999, four years after his death. Alice Preston – Keeper of the Sword – who had worked for Excalibur and the museum, then created Camelot Classic Cars of Milwaukee to “continue the legacy of this great automobile,” which may include seeing it built once again.
|Back in 1967|
|The Maple Leafs beat Montreal for the Stanley Cup and Chicago Black Hawk Stan Mikita wins the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer and the Hart Trophy as most valuable player. Six new teams are added to the league.|
|The Rolling Stones appear on the Ed Sullivan show, and he has them change the lyrics of Let’s Spend the Night Together to “let’s spend some time together.” U.K. censors make The Monkees change the title of a new single from Randy Scouse Git to Alternate Title.|
|Canadians celebrate the Centennial with Expo 67 and other festivities, including an Eric Burdon and The Animals concert in Ottawa, at which the band refuses to perform over a money issue and 3,000 fans riot.|
|It’s a good year for big-name American racers with A.J. Foyt winning the Indy 500 and USAC championship and Dan Gurney winning Le Mans in the Ford GT40. Mario Andretti wins the Daytona 500 and Richard Petty the NASCAR championship.|