Looking as if it has driven straight out of a Syd Mead rendering, the Brubaker Box’s base is as ubiquitous as it is humble.
Curtis Brubaker was a car designer who had studied auto design at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Working in GM’s advanced research group, in 1969 Brubaker left GM to establish his own design company in Los Angeles; still providing design consultancy work for GM but now also for Volvo, Ford and a few Japanese car manufacturers. He also formed part of the design team for the famous Learjet.
During a trip to nearby Newport Beach, Brubaker could not help but noticing the many old and often customised VW buses – the vehicle of choice for the active surfer community. It was there that the idea for what would become the Box was born. Curtis Brubaker applied his experience in both car and aircraft design to create a novel vehicle that would appear unique and modern while at the same time using the tried and trusted VW T2 floorpan and mechanical layout.
Brubaker recalled: “It was a one-box design. We did a mock-up right there in our little office and brought in investors; people got excited and we ultimately raised about $160,000.” Working together with colleagues Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes, a very clean, fuselage-like shape emerged from his studio. The windshield and rear window were placed at quite severe angles – especially for an early example of what the world would later call the SUV, albeit a small one in this case.
The body consisted of 13 inner and outer fiberglass panels, including a floor panel, all riveted and bonded onto a tubular frame attached to the VW floorpan. Entry and exit was only possible via a large sliding door on the passenger side. The Box had a removable roof panel to allow more al fresco motoring if the weather allowed.
In the interests of safety the fuel tank was centrally placed and the spare wheel was front-mounted and claimed to absorb crash energy in case of a frontal impact. With the main body of the car being so uncluttered, the prominent impact-absorbing telescopic bumpers front and rear look somewhat out of place although it can be argued that they contribute to the uniqueness of the vehicle. They were made of a composite material treated to look like wood.
Brubaker cleverly used existing parts from cars other than the VW as well: the windshield came from the AMC Hornet, the rear window from the Chevrolet El Camino and the tail lights were sourced from a Datsun pick-up truck.
Outwardly, the Box may have looked like something from the future (it would appear in the dystopian 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green) but inside the ambiance was very seventies. In the rear a lounge-like curved bench offers room for two to three people, and the ottoman-like seat in the middle actually covered the centrally mounted fuel reservoir. In front were two regular seats for driver and passenger.
Since there was no door on the driver’s side, the VW-sourced dashboard controls and radio were mounted in the panel. This, combined with the instruments being placed unusually far from the driver under the base of the windshield, resulted in a unique look, but questionable ergonomics.
Displayed at the 1972 Los Angeles International Motorsports Show, the only 53″ tall Box caught a lot of attention. Following the positive reception, Brubaker decided to take the plunge, leased a 17,000 square foot factory and announced that the Box would soon be available for just under $4000. However, the Box was not a kit car that was to be assembled by the buyer himself, Brubaker insisting on selling the cars only completely built by his factory to assure quality control.
But even before production could be started he was confronted with a major problem: the $4000 price calculated by Brubaker was based on the assumption that his factory would build the Boxes on chassis and drivetrains purchased from and supplied by VW.
VW was concerned about liability issues however and refused to supply them to Brubaker. This left him with no other option than to buy complete VW’s, strip them down and re-sell the unneeded parts. Hardly an efficient way of doing business of course, and Brubaker barely broke even at his sale price.
Investors and financers lost confidence in the future of the venture and walked away, causing Brubaker to file for bankruptcy after having completed just three Boxes. One of the investors, Mike Hansen, tried to breathe new life into the Box, renamed SportsVan, by offering it as a kit (although if a buyer insisted he would also provide a fully built vehicle) through his company Automecca in Chatsworth, California. Only about 30 additional Boxes (the SportsVan name never caught on), were sold before Automecca called it a day in late 1974.
It is unfortunate that Brubaker’s Box was hampered by an uncooperative main supplier and a somewhat naive business plan. The basic idea and the styling however remain interesting to this day; it is not hard to imagine it succeeding with a more user-friendly interior onto a state of the art electric platform supplied by, for instance, Tesla.
Speaking of which – was Elon Musk inspired by another creation of Curtis Brubaker? In 1978 Penthouse magazine had asked some famous car designers of the day – Giorgetto Giugiaro, Bill Mitchell, William Towns, Albrecht Goertz, Dick Teague and Curtis Brubaker to envision the car of 2001.
In the rear 3/4 view, Tesla’s recent Cybertruck bears more than just a passing resemblance to Brubaker’s entry; young Elon was of course only seven years old when this edition of Penthouse was printed but boys will be boys. Perhaps he discovered it later on as he grew older and spotted the car designs in between the main attractions…