Continuing our guided tour of the works of Brooks Stevens.
1954 Cadillac Die Valkyrie: snowplough, cow-catcher(1) and steam iron were just some of the likenesses offered by critics for the controversial frontal appearance of Brooks Stevens’ first design to be displayed at a European Motor Show. The last suggestion was particularly apposite in view of the Milwaukee designer’s successful ‘Steam-O-Matic’ iron of more than a decade earlier. The giant ‘V’ shaped front assembly was, according to Stevens, simply meant to emphasise the large V8 engine that provided the motive force for the car.
The Die Valkyrie was designed after Brooks Stevens became acquainted with Guy Storr, a French public relations specialist based in Monaco. Their meeting was timely as Stevens was eager to make a name for himself outside of the USA, as he was still virtually unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Storr suggested Stevens design a concept car that would showcase his talents and, hopefully, attract foreign automakers to employ his services. Backed financially by Irwyn Metzenbaum, a real estate developer from Cleveland who was passionate about all things automotive, Stevens went ahead.
Based on a Cadillac chassis with a wheelbase of 133″ (3,378mm) and powered by a 331 cubic inch (5.4-litre) 250bhp engine, Stevens’ design was, apart from its polarising face, quite elegant, and his first to feature the ‘Washington coach’ doorline with its upward-curved sweep, which provided a natural break for his signature duo-tone black and off-white colour scheme. Stevens would use this styling feature again on some of his other creations. He entrusted the physical realisation of the car to the venerable Spohn coachworks, a German company established in 1920. Initially, ‘Rapier’ was considered as a suitable name for the car but ultimately ‘Die Valkyrie’ was chosen, in reference to the warrior virgins of Norse mythology.
Doubtless prompted by the efforts of Guy Storr’s public relations network, the French car magazine L’Automobile dedicated a three-page article to Stevens and his accomplishments. This was published to coincide with the debut of the Die Valkyrie at the 1954 Paris Salon. It fêted Stevens as one of the leaders of industrial aesthetics, and crown prince to the king, Raymond Loewy. The Die Valkyrie had done its job and established Brooks Stevens’ name across the pond. At least two Die Valkyries are known to have been built. One was a gift from Stevens to his wife, Alice, which later ended up in the designer’s own museum. Other unverified sources put the number built at between three and six, however.
1954 Paxton Phoenix: The McCulloch Corporation, known for its chainsaws and two-stroke engines, was established and led by talented businessman and engineer Robert Paxton McCulloch. One branch of the corporation was Paxton Automotive, which manufactured the superchargers fitted to certain Kaiser models, for example. McCulloch wanted to take things a few steps further, however: to design and produce his own car. The planned rear-engined automobile with a body made of fibreglass was relatively compact for an American vehicle, with a wheelbase of 115″ (2,922mm).
Brooks Stevens’ styling displayed some European influences, but the Phoenix also featured the unique novelty of a hardtop that slid rearwards and downwards to neatly fit over the similarly profiled boot lid. A pair of steel cables concealed in narrow T-slots running along each side of the boot lid opening moved the top up and down via an electric winch. Because the hardtop and boot lid necessarily had to be almost identical in shape and adequate headroom for the rear passengers had to be provided, this set-up posed quite a challenge for the designer.
The chassis, with independent suspension all around, was constructed by Hoffman Motor Development, an external company with a wealth of experience in fabricating prototypes for major car manufacturers.
To Paxton Automotive fell the task of producing an engine. Since the car was to be rear-engined, a relatively light powerplant was required in order to guarantee good road manners and user-friendly handling. To make the prototype driveable for demonstration purposes, a Porsche 356 engine was fitted. However, McCulloch planned for something a good deal more powerful and unusual for the finished article. One possibility was a supercharged two-stroke six-cylinder engine with opposed pistons and two crankshafts. Another was an ‘Ultimax’ steam powerplant that could burn a variety of liquid fuels with a minimum of modification. This was based on designs by the famed engineer, Abner Doble, who had made some impressive steam-powered cars in earlier times.
Developing a new car, especially one with an unconventional engine, is a dauntingly complex, time-consuming and expensive task and, during 1954, McCulloch started to have second thoughts about the project. The car programme was keeping too many talented McCulloch technicians and engineers away from the bread-and-butter research and development work and he, probably wisely, reasoned that sticking to its core business was the more prudent decision for his company. The sole Paxton Phoenix, still powered by the Porsche 356 engine, was first sold to a private collector, after which it ended up in Brooks Stevens’ museum. Following Stevens’ death, the museum collection was broken up and the Phoenix is now part of American TV personality, comedian and writer Jay Leno’s large collection of cars.
1955 Gaylord Gladiator: The Bobby Pin (kirby grip or hair grip in the UK) is such a ubiquitous item that nobody really thinks twice about it. However, a family-owned company named Gaylord Products Inc. became very wealthy indeed from selling billions of the humble little things. James and Edward Gaylord, heirs to a gigantic family fortune, grew up in luxury and both became car lovers, having been exposed to the Packards, Pierce-Arrows and Duesenbergs that occupied the family garage. The brothers were especially fond of high-performance sportscars, but nothing in the showrooms made by the domestic US carmakers came even close to fulfilling their requirements.
The Gaylord brothers longed for the days when makes like Stutz or Duesenberg built vehicles that were the envy of the world. They had the desire, they had the idea and they had the means: surely there must be a market for such a car? There was only one way to find out. The Gaylords approached designer Alex Tremulis with a request to design a car body to their specifications, but he could not accommodate their request as he now worked exclusively for the Ford Motor Company and was forbidden to do any external styling work. However, he directed the brothers to his friend, Brooks Stevens, who was an independent designer. Stevens accepted the challenge to design a body that was modern, but at the same time featured touches of classic elegance to recall the great American luxury cars of the 1930s. It was to be a convertible, but with a retractable hardtop instead of a canvas top.
With a unique chassis made of chrome molybdenum and a 331 cubic inch (5.4-litre) Chrysler ‘Firepower’ V8(2) mounted up front, the Gladiator was manufactured according to the Gaylords’ specifications. The design proposed by Stevens was eye-catching and provocative: the face consisted of a large vertical grille flanked by two enormous headlights(3) that sought to evoke the classic pre-war prestige cars, but gave the car the mien of an owl to many observers. The open front wings were also a nod to times past, but the fins at the back were clear concessions to current prevailing tastes. Finished in Brooks Stevens’ signature black and off-white, it was certainly distinctive, if nothing else.
A German company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, was chosen to build the car, which had its world premiere as the Gaylord Gladiator at the 1955 Paris Salon. Unfortunately for the Gaylord brothers, a certain French car stole most of the limelight and newspaper headlines on that occasion. Still, the Gladiator attracted its share of attention, not only for its appearance, but also its price tag, an eye-watering US $ 17,500, and its novel electrically retractable hardtop. The Gladiator was beautifully finished, with no expense spared on luxurious quality fittings. Former king of Egypt, Farouk I, and Hollywood star, Dick Powell, were mentioned as having placed orders for the Gladiator. The brothers’ plan was to build a limited number of 25 cars which, if all sold at the quoted price, would make the enterprise profitable.
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin was ordered to build two more Gladiators, both of which were subjected to a few stylistic alterations, possibly in response to public reaction at the Paris Salon.
Things started to unravel at this point, however, as the Gaylord brothers were apparently not happy with the work done by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and started legal proceedings against the German firm. The stress of getting the Gladiator off the ground combined with the legal battle caused James Gaylord to suffer a nervous breakdown, after which his brother convinced him to cancel the whole project. The two brothers had to swallow the financial losses incurred, but it made nary a dent in their fortune.
1957 Citroën DS Américaine: Nothing appears to be known about the why and how of this proposal, which remained just a design rendering. If anything, the outcome only serves to confirm how difficult it was to alter Flaminio Bertoni’s masterpiece, let alone improve on it. Brooks Stevens was not alone in this futile endeavour: fellow countryman Henry de Ségur Lauve would run into the same dead-end some years later(4). It makes the late Robert Opron’s 1967 DS facelift all the more laudable by comparison. One noteworthy aspect, however, is the obvious similarity of the greenhouse aft of the A-pillar to that of the later Ami.
1959 Olin Mathieson Scimitar: The Olin Mathieson Industrial Group(5) was a Missouri-based company specialising in chemicals, explosives, ammunition and aluminium alloys. Brooks Stevens was approached by Olin Mathieson to design a vehicle that would demonstrate the many possibilities of aluminium alloys in volume car construction: although it is lighter than steel and does not rust, aluminium is more expensive, both to purchase and fabricate in auto body construction, as the presses that can stamp aluminium body parts are more costly. Stevens came up with a concept that was, in effect, four cars in one; a four door sedan, a phaeton, a convertible and a station wagon. He achieved this by designing four different roof structures on the same basic lower body.
The new model was christened ‘Scimitar’ in reference to the motif contained within its bodyside creases and highlighted by a duo-tone paint finish. Three Scimitars were built on Chrysler chassis, which were obtained via Stevens’ colleague and friend, Virgil Exner. The cars were constructed at Karosseriewerk Reutter in Stuttgart, Germany. The Scimitars had their public debut at the 1959 Geneva Motor Show and toured the American show circuit after their appearance in Switzerland.
Perhaps because of the somewhat uninspired styling of the Scimitars, which recalled the ill-fated Edsel in the front and the 1958 Chevrolet Impala at the stern, the show cars did not attract any industrial follow-up orders for Olin Mathieson and swiftly disappeared from the public eye. The station wagon concept, however, with its retractable roof section, would make a production appearance in the form of the 1963 Studebaker Wagonaire, also designed by Brooks Stevens, of course.
All three Scimitars have avoided the fate of many old concept cars, a date with the crusher. Two are in private collections, but the Sedan can be viewed by the public in the Reno, Nevada, National Auto Museum.
Brooks Stevens Auto Museum: Opened in September of 1959, initially thirty-four cars were displayed on 12,500 square feet of exhibition space. It may not have been the most glamorous amongst car museums in terms of ambience but, for the connoisseur, there was plenty of eye and brain-candy to savour, including meeting Brooks Stevens himself if you were lucky. Among the cars shown were Stevens’ customised Cord L-29, an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 and 8C 2900B, a 1948 Jeepster, 1938 Talbot Lago, Jaguar SS100, Ferrari 250GT, Mercedes 500K and 540K, Cord 812, 1951 Kaiser, Marmon V12, a 1934 Packard dual cowl phaeton, a 1925 Duesenberg, several Excaliburs, stillborn Studebaker prototypes and more.
Most of these cars were from Stevens’ personal collection, but a few were on loan from his friends in the car collecting world. The collection grew steadily over time and would reach its peak in the late 1970s when it comprised around seventy-five cars. In the 1980s, a restoration workshop was opened to help cover the expense of keeping the museum running. It survived Stevens’ passing but the museum closed in 1999 and the collection was dispersed.
1960 Utopia: This was one of Brooks Stevens’ own pet projects, not one commissioned by an external client. Its premise was similar to that of the Jeep-based “Victory Car”, but updated as a vision for a cost-saving car for the 1970s. Looking at the renderings, a certain similarity with the Chevrolet Corvair is clear, but most striking is the uncompromising symmetry, the reason for this being the potential saving in tooling and pressing costs by increasing the number of interchangeable body parts.
The left-front door used the same stamping as the right-rear door and the right-front and left-rear were similarly interchangeable, as were the boot lid and bonnet, bumpers, wings, windscreen and rear window. Even the car-wide headlamp bar (with a different coloured lens cover, of course) was used at the rear for the tail lights. While it is true that this rigorous symmetry was a compromising factor in the styling of the car, the logic was irrefutable when cost considerations and ease of manufacturing and repair were the prime motivators, as they would be in developing countries, for example.
Stevens also envisioned the use of a fuel-cell power source for Utopia, not least because he liked the extra flexibility this more compact means of propulsion would allow in the design. For the Gondola Terra, an earlier project for a futuristic motorhome, Stevens had elaborated on the fuel cell powerplant in more detail: it would be powered by a bank of fuel cells that provided power to electric motors mounted within the wheel hubs.
So far, no car manufacturer has dared to introduce a car featuring true front-to-rear symmetry. Likewise, none has been introduced featuring side-to-side asymmetry, presumably for the not entirely unfounded fear that too many among the buying public would be put off by such an unorthodox appearance.
Our guided tour continues in Part Four shortly.
(1) A V-shaped device mounted at the front of a locomotive to deflect obstacles on the track that might otherwise damage or derail it.
(2) This was the same engine that powered the mighty Chrysler C-300.
(3) Only the first Gladiator had these unusually large twin headlights; the other two cars have four more conventionally sized units.
(4) For more information on Henry de Ségur Lauve’s concept, see An American in Paris.
(5) Now operating under the name Olin Corporation.