The Milwaukee Magician (Part Four)

Continuing our guided tour of the works of Brooks Stevens.

Image: cartype.com

1962 and 1964 Studebaker Lark facelifts: In 1956, Studebaker parted ways with Raymond Loewy, the designer responsible (in name at least) for the creation of most of the Indiana company’s cars of the preceding decades. The reason was not so much dissatisfaction with Loewy’s services, but a lack of money: Studebaker’s sales were in the doldrums and the company simply could not afford him anymore. Styling responsibilities would henceforth lie with its in-house design team, led by Randall Faurot and Duncan McRae.

The compact Lark(1) was McRae and his colleagues’ first design. They ingeniously re-used the rather dated central body section of the company’s existing large Champion model, which had been introduced in 1953. Initially, the Lark sold very well and was wholly responsible for saving Studebaker from bankruptcy, at least for the time being. Sherwood Egbert became CEO of the troubled company at the end of 1960. Having previously worked for the McCulloch company, Egbert had already met Brooks Stevens on a few occasions, so it was to the Milwaukee designer that Egbert would turn to modernise the Lark and Hawk,  sales of which were now in freefall.

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Stevens had his work cut out for him: there was not much time, as Egbert wanted the facelifted car ready for the 1962 model year, and even less money. Considering those limitations, Stevens delivered a facelift that was quite effective: the Lark’s wheelbase was lengthened to make it appear less stubby, the rear styling was entirely revised and, at the front, a Mercedes-Benz style grille flanked by dual headlights formed a new face. For the following model year, Stevens gave the Lark a new, squarer roofline plus slimmer pillars to increase the glass area. He also designed the Wagonaire derivative, with a unique sliding rear roof section. Sales briefly recovered but, ominously, slipped again within a year.

By the end of 1963, Studebaker had dropped to twelfth place amongst American car manufacturers, only just ahead of luxury car builders Lincoln and Imperial. Production of its cars was also transferred from the outdated South Bend, Indiana plant to a more modern factory in Hamilton, Ontario. It was hoped that more efficient methods of manufacture at the Canadian plant would lower the break-even point in terms of numbers of cars sold.

Despite the dire times Studebaker was experiencing, Stevens was once again tasked with modernising the Lark. Notwithstanding  an undoubtedly very limited budget, he skilfully managed to restyle the car in such a way that no visible traces of the 1953-vintage main body section remained. The faux Mercedes-Benz grille was gone, replaced by a wider horizontal item that filled in the gap between the two dual headlight pods. New C-pillars featured an interesting chamfered edge that faintly echoed the similar but bolder treatment later seen in Stevens’ rejected concept for an all-new 1966 model. The rear end of the car was also subject to alterations, and was now more square and linear in appearance.

The result was a contemporary looking car, but public confidence in Studebaker’s survival prospects was evaporating rapidly and this put the company into a vicious circle from which it would not recover: in March 1966, the very last Studebaker rolled off the assembly lines in Canada.

Images: motorcarclassics.com

1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk: The axiom that facelifts cannot better the original design, since that was the way its designer(s) intended it to look in the first place, often rings true. However, there are exceptions to the rule, and the 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk is one of them. This masterful transformation must be counted amongst Stevens’ best work and rank as one of the most accomplished facelifts in automotive history.

Faced with the same budgetary restrictions as the Lark facelift, Stevens nevertheless updated the original 1953 Loewy / Bourke design (which had become increasingly cluttered with needless chrome and fins over the years) so effectively that it looked like a whole new car. The Ford Thunderbird-inspired roof played a major part in the visual change of course, but the deletion of the scallops in the doors, the Mercedes-Benz style grille and the squaring up of the rear aspect also contributed to the totally new look.

Sales more than doubled compared to 1961, but nosedived in 1963 and 1964, the final year for the model. This had more to do with the public’s loss of confidence in Studebaker’s chances of survival than the qualities of the car itself. Reportedly, upon spotting Stevens’ Gran Turismo Hawk at the Paris Salon in the autumn of 1961, an offended Raymond Loewy rushed to the nearest telephone and called South Bend to express his displeasure. However, after the adrenaline rush of fury had subsided, even Loewy must have appreciated the quality and effectiveness of the restyling work done.

Image: motoimg.com

1963 Excalibur Hawk: This was the successor to the Excalibur J, but even though it was powered by a supercharged ‘R2′ Studebaker engine and recorded a top speed of 165mph, it did not enjoy the same success in racing. Designed with input from Stevens’ son, David, it  was an aggressive looking sports car in the vein of the Bill Thomas Cheetah or the Shelby Cobra Coupé.

Image: Steve Brown

1963 Prototypes for 1966 Studebakers: Brooks Stevens first started working for Studebaker in 1961, when the automaker was already in too much financial  distress to mount any serious challenge to the might of GM, Ford and Chrysler. However, the feisty company was not prepared to go down without a fight and enlisted Stevens to design proposals for a new generation of Studebakers for a planned 1966 debut.

Stevens presented three vehicles to Studebaker’s management in April 1963. These were built in Milan at the small Italian coachworks, Sibona & Basano, who were known to produce excellent work for a comparatively modest outlay(2). They comprised the Sceptre coupé, the Cruiser four-door sedan and the Wagonaire station wagon. Cleanly styled and slab-sided, there was more than a hint of a scaled-down Lincoln Continental to the Cruiser in side view. Studebaker’s management was impressed.

Images: mam.org and motoimg.com

They were also enthralled by the Sceptre, a personal luxury coupé that might have stood a better chance of competing against cars like the Ford Thunderbird and Buick Riviera than the smaller and more overtly sporty Avanti. Like its four-door and station wagon siblings, the look was clean, slab-sided and resolutely modern, but especially so in the case of the Sceptre. The futuristic headlight bar developed in cooperation with lighting specialist, Sylvania, was an idea far ahead of its time. The distinctive transparent C-pillars with their brown-tinted plexiglass inserts would be cribbed by Bertone for the Citroën BX some twenty years later.

Speaking of the French automaker, the Sceptre’s dashboard radiated a certain Citroënesque style with its height-adjustable speedometer and soft, compound curves. Judging by the large and well equipped flip-up glove compartment / vanity case with its generously sized mirror, the front passenger was clearly assumed to be female. Alas, by this time, Studebaker’s situation had deteriorated so much that the company had to close its South Bend factory by the end of 1963 and retreat to Canada: there was simply no possibility of developing any of these concepts into production vehicles, even if Studebaker had wanted to.

Images: forocoches.com and hemmings.com

1963 Willys do Brasil Aero 2600: The compact and frugal Aero-Willys of 1952 was born too soon: if introduced a decade or so later, it might have been more successful but, by that time, Willys had already ceased activities in the United States. Willys-Overland merged with Kaiser in 1953 and a car factory was established in Sao Paolo, Brazil to build Jeeps. At the end of the 1950s, the tooling for the discontinued Aero(3) was installed in the factory and soon new Aeros, virtually indistinguishable from their American counterparts, began rolling off the production line. Because of the Brazilian ban on most foreign car imports, the Aero sold quite well, even though it was an archaic design.

Sometime in 1961, Brooks Stevens was approached to facelift the Aero, and the new Aero 2600 that resulted was almost unrecognisable. Stevens had performed the same trick he had used with the Gran Turismo Hawk, exchanging the rounded roofline for the in vogue Thunderbird-style top. The new front end featured distinctive hooded headlights and a split grille that made the car look wider and also provided a marque identity: the Willys Rural wagon and pickup had already received a similar front end treatment. A squarer rear end featuring vertical tail lights went together quite nicely with the new roofline. From the rear three-quarter view, there was a definite similarity to the Peugeot 404 and BMC Farina saloons.

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The facelifted Aero made its public debut at the 1962 Paris Salon and was the first South American car to be exhibited there. It would prove to be a popular car in Brazil, siring a more luxurious variant in 1967 called the Itamaraty. The car was discontinued in 1972 after around 117,000 had been produced. By that time, it had become the Ford Aero / Itamaraty, as Ford do Brasil had taken over Willys do Brasil in 1969.

Images: gramho.com, netcarshow.com and pinterest.com

1963 Jeep Wagoneer: Under the project name ‘J-100’, the development of what would later be recognised as the first true SUV was initiated in the late 1950s. The first full-size prototype, named Malibu, already possessed many of the design characteristics that would be seen in the eventual production vehicle, but its front end styling was deemed too weak and un-Jeep like(4). Another design concept was quite different, being more utilitarian and displaying strong Jeep styling overtones. Brooks Stevens reconciled both concepts in a 1961 proposal that, with only minor alterations, would become the production Jeep Wagoneer.

The 4×4 Wagoneer offered the comfort, amenities and much of the performance and refinement of a regular American sedan, but added enhanced security in treacherous weather conditions on normal roads, plus the capability to go off-road. At the time of its launch, the Wagoneer had no real competition, although rivals like the Ford Bronco, Chevrolet Blazer and the Range Rover would appear within a few years. The more upmarket Super Wagoneer was introduced in 1966. With its powerful 270 horsepower V8 engine and generous equipment that included a tilt steering wheel, air-conditioning, power steering, automatic transmission, it set the template that is still followed by many of its successors today.

Despite an ever-growing number of competitors, the Jeep Wagoneer remained a capable and popular choice and became one of the longest-lived American cars on its domestic market. First introduced in 1963, it would not be until 1991 that a totally new Wagoneer would succeed it. During its long life, it survived three different corporate owners: Kaiser Jeep, American Motors Corporation and Chrysler Corporation.

Our guided tour will conclude in Part Five shortly.

(1) The story of the Studebaker Lark will be covered in more detail  shortly.

(2) Sibona & Basano’s bill came to roughly US $16,000 per car.

(3) It was taken out of production on its home market in 1955.

(4) Ironically, in the latter half of the 1960s, a very similar visage would adorn the Jeep Wagoneer.

Author: brrrruno

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

11 thoughts on “The Milwaukee Magician (Part Four)”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. Thank you for this article. I didn’t know about the Sceptre, but I am intrigued by it. Here’s a shot of the dash and the vanity mirror. An interesting design for sure:

    As is the gauge cluster

    I am not a fan of SUV’s but always had a soft spot for the Wagoneer. I didn’t know about the Malibu prototype, so thanks for sharing it here. Interesting to see how the prototype became the second version of the production model.

  2. Good morning, Bruno, and thanks for another instalment of this fascinating history. The 1959 Malibu prototype was remarkably forward looking, clean and linear at a time when chrome and tailfins were still very much in vogue. What a shame that Willys made the 1963 production version look more clunky and old fashioned. At least Stevens got to see his original design make production in 1967.

    The 1963 Studebaker prototypes for 1966 were also remarkably modern. Had they made production, they could have had a long life, like the Wagoneer, and might have kept Studebaker in business. Thanks, Frerk, for posting those images of the interior. Is the speedometer the earliest example of a head-up display?

    One wonders how Stevens might have fared if he had the opportunity to work for one of the US ‘Big Three’ automakers. Perhaps he might have been stifled by their innate conservatism?

    1. Stevens’ Sceptre dash was unique, but not far outside the zeitgeist. Most designs feature some sort of hood over the instruments, so the sun doesn’t glare off the protective glass, but perhaps the semi-spherical glass and height adjustable speedo might have mitigated this issue.

      1958 Edsel – Steering wheel hub gear selector. Compass style speedometer.

      1964 Thunderbird – Swing away steering column. Thermometer style speedometer. Aircraft theme.

      The conservatism arose later on, starting with safety regulations, declining interest in aerospace and futurism, and emergent BMW-Mercedes-Jaguar-Rolls envy.

      Speaking of Rolls, I think one of the curious aspects of the Camargue was its aircraft inspired instrument surrounds, which were not at all consistent with the prevailing zeitgeist, and referenced an aviation business that it had just split from.

      Back to the Sceptre’s dash, it seems like Stevens was inspired directly by the Edsel and by the DS. Also by way of mentioning Citroën, some Chryslers from the early 1960s had their shifter buttons located on what could arguably be described as emergent lunulles, regrettably washed completely into history by subsequent waves of conservatism.

    2. Juke box hero.

      Quartic wheel, now there’s an idea. Unauthorized lunulles.

    3. There is a lot of reflection of the instruments in the windscreen of the Sceptre. That might get very annoying, I reckon.

  3. Hello Gooddog,
    Thanks for those beautiful dashboards; the last photo certainly shows a pair of Citroën-esque protrusions. The third photo of the early sixties Chrysler instrument panel shows one of my favourites; it was also the first I believe with electroluminiscent lighting- dropped by Chrysler after 1962 but making a brief return in the 1966-67 Dodge Charger:

    The movable speedometer of the Sceptre prototype reminded me of a very original solution used in the 1960 and 1961 Buick- the “Mirrormagic” dashboard where you looked at the speedometer via an adjustable mirror. It has never been used by anyone after this as far as I know so perhaps it did not work as well as I think it would:

    1. Thank you. Now I really want a 1966-67 Dodge Charger. Not something I expected to say. 😉

      Seriously: These old futuristic dashboards are fabulous.

    2. They are fabulous, moreso because there’s not a touchscreen in sight!

  4. Bright red dashboards! I know I’d be seeing spots driving one of those cars in full sunlight.

  5. Bruno, thanks for your efforts in highlighting my grandfather’s design legacy. I will need to correct you on one point with regards to the Excalibur J racecars. Only 3 chassis were constructed, however the third one was re-powered as you suggest. The first version had an Alfa motor and it was later powered with the supercharger Jaguar motor. In 1958 it won the B modified National Championship driven by Hal Ulrich and Carl Haas.

    1. Good morning Tony and thank you for your comment. I have amended the text in Part Two accordingly. We are very pleased to be able to record and celebrate your grandfather’s extraordinary number and variety of automotive projects. The final part of this series will be published on Friday.

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