The Milwaukee Magician (Part Two)

A guided tour through some of the notable works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: the author

1936 Zephyr Land Yacht: One of the earliest automotive creations of Brooks Stevens is this unusual trailer vehicle combination, the Zephyr Land Yacht. It was commissioned by thirty year-old millionaire playboy William Woods Plankinton Jr., heir to his father’s vast fortune. The tractor was based on an International Harvester chassis, while the trailer used a Curtis Aerocar as a starting point. The lucky occupants of the trailer wanted for nothing during their travels across the country: a complete kitchen, bathrooms with showers and hot and cold water plus sleeping accommodation for Plankinton, six guests and the butler were provided. Plankington was an avid hunter and fisherman, so ample storage for rifles and fishing rods was also incorporated into the design.

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When World War Two broke out, Plankinton was assigned to recruiting activities in Wisconsin for the US Army, for which he put the Land Yacht to good use, both as transport and to attract the attention of potential recruits. After using it regularly for a few decades, Plankinton sold the Land Yacht to Stevens, who put it on display in his museum.

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1937 Cord L-29 Custom: An admirer of the low-slung front-wheel-drive Cord L-29 from the day it was introduced, Stevens purchased a used example in 1937 and customised it to his personal tastes. A caudal fin, not unlike those that could be found on contemporary Tatras, was an eyecatching feature, as were the Woodlite headlights. New bodywork enclosed the rear seat space and the clamshell wings were replaced with skirted ones.

Stevens also deleted the running boards, designed a built-in golfing equipment storage unit and replaced the original Cord radiator ornament with one of his own design. Without a convertible top or even windshield wipers, this was a vehicle to be driven in dry weather only. The car is also noteworthy for the first use of the black and off-white colour scheme that would be Stevens’ favoured combination for several of his future creations.


1937 Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor: Based in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, the Allis-Chalmers agricultural equipment manufacturer was the first to engage an industrial designer to style a farm tractor. The Model B tractor by Brooks Stevens hid most of its previously exposed mechanical innards under rounded shields, had a teardrop shaped fuel tank and graceful wings covering the wheels; its new interpretation of how farm machinery could look was an immediate sales success and competing manufacturers would soon follow its lead: John Deere enlisted Henry Dreyfuss and International Harvester contracted Raymond Loewy to style their machinery.

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1942-46 Willys-Overland Victory Car: In 1942, Brooks Stevens delivered a lecture to the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit on the subject of America’s post-war car. In his opinion, which would for the most part be proven right, since virtually all resources were directed towards the war effort, the 1942 model-year cars would simply re-enter the market with minimal changes after hostilities ended, and any meaningful development of new cars would have to wait until later.

Stevens did, however, point out that the go-anywhere Jeep could be modified into a small, strong and inexpensive passenger car when the war was over. Moreover, such a car did not have to share the Jeep’s utilitarian looks. Representatives of the press were also present at this event, and a resulting article in the widely read Popular Mechanics magazine caught the eye of Willys-Overlands management. The company had been saved from bankruptcy by lucrative military contracts to build the Jeep for the war effort but realised that, once the war was over, it would need to diversify.

Willys-Overland was eager to discuss the matter in more detail with Stevens, so chief engineer Delmar G. (Barney) Roos invited the designer to their Toledo, Ohio headquarters. It was Stevens’ first chance to design a car to be made in significant numbers. He enthusiastically set to work and his proposal, although not exactly the epitome of elegant proportions, looked more modern than Willys-Overland’s pre-war cars. Stevens named it the ‘Victory Car’.

Because of a difference of opinion between Willys-Overland chairman Ward M. Canaday and chief executive Joseph Frazer, however, there would be a change in course. Canaday was in favour of the Jeep-based idea, but Frazer wanted to pick up where the old Willys Americar left off in 1942 and develop a new car on its base, with Studebakers highly successful 1939 Champion as an inspiration.

Brooks Stevens was instructed to design another new Willys-Overland car, named the 6-66. The result was a more grown-up looking vehicle with a front-end treatment reminiscent of the famous ‘coffin nose’ Cord 810/812. Stevens drew up several proposals, one of which was a convertible, but only the two-door sedan would make it to the prototype stage. The platform and engine were taken from the Americar so the wheelbase was identical at 104″ and power came from a somewhat antiquated side-valve four-cylinder engine that churned out 66 bhp but was capable of delivering fuel economy in the 30mpg range.

The independent ‘Planadyne’ front suspension, the brainchild of Barney Roos, employed a single transverse leaf spring similar to Studebaker’s planar suspension, also engineered by Roos during his tenure there. Interestingly, the rear suspension was also to be independent, by means of swing axles. If the 6-66 had made it to production, it would have been the first American car with independent suspension on all four wheels.

During its developement, the 6-66 changed its name to 6-70 for undeclared reasons. Canaday continued to voice his distaste for the 6-70 and resolutely wanted to stick to Jeep-based models. By mid-1944, Frazer had had enough: he walked out, first to become CEO of Graham-Paige and, after that, to start his own car company together with Henry Kaiser. Although progressing as far as a completely functional and quite well detailed prototype, the 6-70 was stillborn and Willys-Overland would not re-enter the passenger car arena until 1952 with the Willys Aero.

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1946 Jeep Station Wagon and 1948 Jeepster: Joseph Frazer’s successor at Willys-Overland was Charles Sorensen, nicknamed ‘Cast-iron Charlie’. Sorensen had left the Ford Motor Company after working there for almost four decades. He agreed with Canaday on how to continue the business after the end of the war: since available finances were limited, Sorensen proposed to use much cheaper presses and dies normally intended for the production of household appliances to produce new car models.

The limitation with these was that they could only produce simple shapes with limited radii, but the Jeep’s body was already composed of simple shapes. Sorensen asked Brooks Stevens to design a Jeep-based vehicle, taking the limitations imposed by the intended production method into account. Stevens took up the challenge and produced several proposals, one of which was chosen to enter production in 1946 as the Jeep Station Wagon.

Brooks Stevens had designed the Station Wagon with an all-steel body whose appearance cleverly evoked the beautiful but expensive and high-maintenance partly wood-bodied traditional station wagons, the highly popular ‘woodies’. Seen from the front, the Jeep base is obvious, although the Station Wagon actually shares virtually no stamped parts with it. This was the first all-steel station wagon in America (Plymouth’s Suburban would not appear until 1949) and Jeep would build it until 1964(1), after which the tooling was sold to Mahindra in India.

Two years later, helped by the success of the Station Wagon, Stevens succesfully convinced Willys-Overland to add another car to the lineup: unusually, it was a four seater roadster of the phaeton variety- a bodystyle that had fallen out of favour some years before. As it was based on the existing Station Wagon, the development costs were kept within modest limits. Offered primarily in bright colour schemes, the ‘Jeepster’ was an eye-catching but somewhat impractical vehicle. It had no side windows, just a rudimentary canvas top and clear plastic side curtains that could be mounted to keep out most of the inclement weather. Rear passengers had to enter by using  steps mounted on the body just before the rear wheel opening, then clamber over the bodysides.

In its first year, the Jeepster sold rather well for a niche product and approximately 10,000 were ordered. The novelty soon wore off, however, as its impracticality became more apparent. A relatively high price did not help its case and 1951 would see its final inclusion in the Willys catalogue(2).

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1947 Atlantic and Pacific Railroad ‘Hiawatha’ Train: As an industrial designer, Brooks Stevens must have been elated to be given free rein to design just about everything in and on this luxury train, run by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. The ‘Skytop’ observation cars with their distinctive glazed ends are counted among the most beautiful train carriages ever made. Six complete trains comprising twelve carriages were constructed. Not only did Stevens’ company design the Skytop observation cars themselves, but also their complete interiors with all the fittings, the staff uniforms, all the cutlery and china, and even the rail tickets. The trains were all taken out of service by 1969 and only three Skytop observation cars have been preserved.

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1948-52 Kaiser-Frazer: The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was founded  in 1945 as a joint venture between Graham-Paige and the Henry J. Kaiser Company. The highly experienced Joseph Frazer, having worked at GM, Chrysler and Willys-Overland, and Henry Kaiser, the aluminium and steel magnate, constituted a formidable pair of personalities with a shared ambition to match: to challenge US auto industry’s ‘big three’ on equal terms. Kaiser had made an important contribution to the Allied war effort with his lightning-quick (by shipbuilding standards) churning out of Liberty ships and had amassed a substantial fortune.  He was not an automobile man per se, although Joseph Frazer certainly was.

Amazingly, within a year of the company’s founding, Kaiser-Frazer produced its first cars at the enormous Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, a factory that had constructed bombers during the war. However, several logistical and technical snags then delayed series production for months(3).

Styled by independent external stylist Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin with input from Herb Weissinger and Bob Robillard, and Carl Spencer for the interior, the new Kaiser-Frazer models were the first really new post-war American cars and immediately made the competition look outdated: they were the first to feature the smooth ‘ponton’ bodystyle that would be adopted by many other car manufacturers worldwide in the following years.

Howard Darrin was considered at times headstrong and difficult to work with by Kaiser-Frazer, hence Brooks Stevens was approached to deliver some proposals for facelifts and a possible successor in competition with those of Darrin. Unsurprisingly, this led to tense -not to say explosive- situations between two gifted but very different characters. Accusations and derogatory remarks flew both ways.

Some of Stevens’ design ideas would be adopted in subsequent facelifts, and both he and Darrin developed proposals for the all-new 1951 model. In the preceding period, other designers of note such as Duncan McRae, Alex Tremulis and Buzz Grisinger had joined the company.

Although the presence of the typical ‘Darrin dip’ in the waistline identifies him as the main driving force behind the elegant new look, several aspects of the interior, such as the padded dashboard, the instruments grouped around the steering wheel, and the low inlet ‘mouth’ front bumper plus wide chromed side strips carry a distinct Brooks Stevens flavor. Seven decades after the fact, clouds of mystery still obscure the view of exactly who did what. Incidentally, as pointed out by Duncan McRae years later, the distinctive dips in the top of the
windshield and back window were a result of an error in the design drawings but survived since they looked unique.

Despite its early promise, the end of Kaiser-Frazer came in 1953, less than a decade after its birth. The company failed primarily because it overstretched itself both technically and financially. Henry Kaiser himself was mainly to blame because he did not appreciate the realities of competing against the huge and long-established ‘big three’. Having failed to persuade Kaiser of the risks, Joseph Frazer left the company in 1949. The beautiful 1951 Kaiser would survive in Argentina until 1962 as the locally built ‘Carabela’ but that, as they say, is another story.

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1952 Excalibur J: A life-long aficionado of beautiful, fast sports cars, Brooks Stevens found the American car industry, for all its strong points, badly wanting in that aspect at the start of the 1950s: the Corvette and Thunderbird were still years away and, in any case, it is unlikely that either would likely have qualified as a true sportscar in Stevens’ eyes.

As he was associated with Kaiser-Frazer at the time, Stevens proposed to build a sportscar on an unlikely base: the chassis of the small ‘Henry J’ model, which was having difficulty finding acceptance in the market. Plenty of unfinished chassis were taking up space at Willow Run. Henry Kaiser agreed to supply some of these chassis, but did not want to have his company’s name associated with the car; he already had worries about keeping his company afloat and hatched plans for a sporty vehicle anyway, which would emerge as the fiberglass-bodied ‘Darrin’.

Assisted by Charles Cowdin Jr., Stevens designed the aluminium-bodied ‘Excalibur J’, which displayed no likeness to the Henry J at all and in some aspects resembled the later Lotus Seven. Headlights, bumpers and windscreen were removable in order to enter the car in racing competition. Just three Excalibur Js were built, two with 125 Hp Willys six-cylinder engines and one with an Alfa Romeo 1900 powerplant, which was later replaced with a supercharged 3.8 Litre Jaguar XK engine. In 1958 this car, driven by Hal Ulrich and Carl Haas, won the B modified National Championship.

The Excalibur J was entered in several SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) races, often with Stevens himself behind the wheel, and performed well against the likes of Maserati, Jaguar, Allard, Aston Martin, Frazer Nash and others. Stevens stopped racing in 1958, and the Excalibur J was retired from competition.

Our tour continues in Part Three shortly.

(1) It was also produced in Brazil (Willys Rural, until 1977) and Argentina.

(2) Stevens restyled the Jeepster for Willys do Brasil in 1960 where it became the Jeep Saci; Kaiser-Jeep later launched an updated version, the Jeepster Commando, sold between 1967 and 1973.

(3) The Frazer (with which the Kaiser would share its body) had already been under development at Graham-Paige before the merger, which helped in achieving this feat. As originally planned, the Frazer would be a conventional rear-wheel-drive car, but the Kaiser was to have front-wheel-drive and independent torsion bar suspension on all four wheels.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

4 thoughts on “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Bruno and thank you for part two in the series. What a wide collection of vehicles you brought us today. I didn’t know about the train, tractor, personalized Cord or the Excalibur J. With a supercharged 3.8 XK engine it must have been really fast.

    Somehow I am intrigued by the train. Too bad only few seats could enjoy that view.

  2. Good afternoon Bruno. This is proving to be a great story. What distinguished Stevens from his contemporaries was his versatility. I love the idea of him designing all the fixtures and accessories for the train, giving everything a consistent, unified theme, which is evident in the photos you feature.

    Without scooping the rest of your series, Stevens seemed to have had a particular aptitude for improving and updating others’ designs, which was, I imagine, more demanding than starting with a clean sheet. Looking forward to your future instalments.

  3. The Willys 6-66 / 6-70 does raise the question of whether Willys developing an Americar successor could have potentially played a bigger role in the US Automobile Industry had it happened? Even so Willys would have needed to convert the Go-Devil / Hurricane engines to OHV like Mitsubishi did with the KE31 4-cylinder and KE36 6-cylinder engines (notwithstanding the fact they were also converted to diesel).

  4. Wow! Interesting to see that photo of the yellow Excalibur J, its an exact match of a bubble gum card picture I purchased as a young lad some 70 years ago.

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