Concluding our guided tour through the works of Brooks Stevens.
1964 Excalibur SS: Studebaker needed something special to display at the 1964 New York Motor Show. The cars that had been displayed at the Chicago event earlier in the year were pretty underwhelming, being mainly colour and trim variations on the regular production vehicles. Byers Burlingame, successor to Sherwood Egbert, who had been forced to resign as CEO of Studebaker for health reasons, discussed the matter with Brooks Stevens over the telephone.
Stevens later recalled that he asked Burlingame to ship a Lark Daytona chassis to him. When Burlingame asked what he intended to do with it, Stevens replied crisply that he was “going to build a contemporary classic.” When Burlingame asked “What in the hell is that?” Stevens had to think a few seconds, as the idea was new to him also, and finally replied: “Well, it’s a new old car.” Burlingame just hung up the phone, but the chassis was duly sent over.
Even though his designs in various fields were mostly quite avant garde, Stevens was also a lifelong fan of the great classic cars. His idea, unique at the time but subsequently copied by many others, was to revive a much admired masterpiece by means of a near-replica with up-to-date mechanicals, while retaining the classic looks. Stevens chose the famous 1928-1932 Mercedes-Benz SSK as his inspiration, a choice perhaps influenced by the fact Studebaker was the US importer and distributor for the German automaker at the time.
Designed with the help of his sons, Steve and David, Stevens had the car ready in just eight weeks. Badged Studebaker SS, it was obviously heavily inspired by the SSK, but was not an exact replica as all its dimensions were different. However, not long before the New York show was due to open its doors, Studebaker announced its planned relocation from Indiana to Canada. The SS fell victim to this strategic shift: Burlingame feared that showgoers who spotted the Studebaker SS would assume the company was actually going to make the car following its relocation. He informed Stevens that the SS would not after all be displayed.
The Milwaukee designer knew that there was nothing to stop him from displaying the car under his own name, however, and tapped into his large network of auto industry contacts, which included Gerald Martin, the organiser of the New York Motor Show. Martin was able to find a spot for Stevens’ car, but at such short notice it was in one of the walkways between the exhibition halls, opposite a hotdog stand. This would prove to be a blessing in disguise, as scores of visitors were bound to notice the car while standing in line for a bite and a drink. And it did get get noticed: although a few purists were outraged by this reinterpretation of a sacred classic, almost all onlookers loved it.
Interestingly, the impressive flexible external exhausts proved impossible to find in the US, so Stevens ordered them from the German firm that had made the originals for Mercedes-Benz before the war. Steve Stevens, who manned the modest display stand during the show, was approached by several potential buyers that wanted to know just one thing: how much? The problem was, of course, that the
Studebaker SS by Brooks Stevens, as it was now called, was never intended to be sold to the public, so Steve Stevens gave a ballpark figure of US $6,000. This did not seem to repel very many amongst those interested. Clearly, a definite business opportunity presented itself here, but there was a problem: the Studebaker engine.
There was nothing wrong with the powerplant itself, but Stevens correctly feared that Studebaker’s decidedly shaky propects, with its ledgers awash with red ink, would put potential buyers off, so a different engine supplier would be sought.
Friends of Brooks Stevens in high places within the GM empire helped by agreeing to a supply of 327 cubic inch (5.3-litre) Chevrolet Corvette V8 engines. A new name was also found for the car: it would be called the Excalibur SS, a logical choice given Stevens’ previous sporting specials that carried this name. The hood ornament depicting the epynomous mythical sword within a circle alluded to the three-pointed star, but was just different enough to be allowed by Mercedes-Benz.
An advertisement for the car was placed in the Wall Street Journal, which resulted in twenty-five serious buyers, each putting down a deposit of US $1,000. Stevens secured a bank loan on the strength of these deposits. The elder Stevens would step back soon afterwards, entrusting the enterprise to his sons, as David was an accomplished mechanic and Steve an excellent salesman.
The first Excaliburs were delivered in 1965. The car generally received good reviews for its performance, roadability and construction quality. The fact that more than a few celebrities were among the early clientele was a bonus: Tony Curtis, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher and Rod Stewart were all Excalibur drivers. Competitors with similarly inspired cars would appear on the scene, but few of them ever had the same blend of performance and quality that especially the early Excaliburs possessed.
In its best years, the Excalibur SS sold around 350 cars. Successors in the form of the Excalibur Series II, III, IV and V followed over the years, but the focus gradually drifted away from performance to borderline-chintzy luxury, while the styling evolved from SSK to 540K. Sales declined gradually and Excalibur ceased its activities in the mid-1990s when the business was no longer viable.
1963-64 Studebaker LCMV (Familia): Together with his old friend, Charlie Sorensen(1), Brooks Stevens came up with this concept in December 1963, an inexpensive, lightweight and simple-to-build car that might help Studebaker survive. The Low Cost Molded Vehicle (LCMV), also known as the Familia, was an imaginative approach to cost-saving: it was to have a monocoque body made of fibreglass, molded in two longitudinally split parts. The bonnet and bootlid were identical, the four doors were diagonally interchangeable and only flat glass was used. The existing Studebaker inline-six was mounted transversely in front, the LCMV being front-wheel-drive, a potential first for Studebaker. A few variations on the theme, including some quite radical cab-forward, rear-engined alternatives, were also part of the portfolio.
Sorensen calculated that the Familia sedan could be sold at the low price of US $1,085 and still make a profit. By the time Stevens and Sorensen presented their plans to Burlingame, however, Studebaker had already closed down car production in Indiana and was in the process of relocating to Ontario, so had neither the time nor the money seriously to consider the plan, leaving the LCMV concept stillborn.
1966-1969 Design consultancy for AMC: After the demise of Studebaker, Brooks Stevens took on a design consultancy with American Motors Corporation. His friend, Richard A. Teague, had been in charge of AMC design since the early sixties, having succeeded Edmund Anderson. Stevens and Teague were happy to have the opportunity to work together. Both were of the opinion that, if AMC were to compete effectively against the might of GM, Ford and Chrysler, it needed to make cars that were a little bit different. AMC senior management was, however, not very receptive to experimentation and had embarked on a strategy of meeting the big three head-on by matching their line-ups model-for-model. This was an ambitious, not to say risky, strategy that would not pay off in the end.
Even so, Teague developed, with input by Stevens, ‘Project Four’, which comprised four concepts, the AMX and AMX II, the Vixen and the Cavalier. The last was a compact four-door sedan that displayed a clear similarity in appearance and concept to Brooks Stevens’ earlier Familia; the 175″ (4,445mm) long Cavalier featured an identical bonnet and bootlid, as well as interchangeable front and rear wings and bumpers. Despite appearances, however, the doors were said not to be diagonally interchangeable.
Only the front and rear styling of the Cavalier would appear in somewhat modified production form on the otherwise quite unadventurous looking 1970 AMC Hornet. The concept of cars that were ‘a little bit different’ would be limited to just one production model, the 1970 AMC Gremlin, a truncated Hornet that was the brainchild of Teague.
1969 Lakester: Ah yes, the inevitable car / boat combo. This has been tried a few times, as has its even more challenging cousin, the car / airplane combo, but has invariably resulted in contraptions that artfully intertwined the worst characteristics of both modes of transport. The Lakester by Brooks Stevens remained a one-off concept, so the world will never know if it actually worked. The best that can be said of the Lakester is that it did not attempt to hide its nautical aspirations and managed to look weirdly appealing, as long as one could live with the prominent Evinrude outboard motor hanging out at the back.
The 14 foot (4,267mm) long Lakester was developed in collaboration with an acquaintance of Stevens, Tom Rooney, who was manager of the San Francisco Boat Show. Stevens had been toying with the idea for about a decade and, when Rooney spotted the drawings during a visit to his studio, he agreed to finance the build of a working prototype, as he needed an eye-catching exhibit for his boat shows.
A 50bhp outboard motor provided the vehicle’s land and sea propulsion through a power take-off unit and coupler. This drove a hydrostatic CVT transmission(2) that could be engaged with the differential of the Lakester’s rear axle when switching from boat to car or vise-versa. The steering column of the Lakester ran through the hull of the boat via a stuffing box(3) and engaged with the front-wheel steering mechanism of the chassis. An electric winch separated the inner and outer shells when shifting from car to boat.
A retail price of US $2,500 was rumoured, but that seems modest considering the relative complexity of the vehicle. It was, in any event, academic, as no serious effort was ever made to productionise and market the Lakester.
Brooks Stevens regarded himself as a businessman, engineer and stylist, in that order. A recurring theme in Stevens’ work for the automotive industry seems to be that it was, in most cases, for automakers who were circling the drain or, at the very least, in a tough spot. Whether this was a result of poor timing, bad luck or perhaps even a conscious choice, is anybody’s guess.
Leaving aside his many achievements in the field of general industrial design, Stevens’ defining talent in terms of automotive design was his ability to create a new look that instantly rejuvenated an existing vehicle, while keeping costs low at the same time. It’s relatively easy to create a fine facelift with the backing of a big pile of money, but quite another thing if your allocated budget is a sum that most automakers might spend on a new dashboard alone.
While it is true that not all of Stevens’ car designs will go down in history as enduring classics, the Milwaukee designer left behind an impressive portfolio, and his Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk alone earns him a seat at the table of the greats. Furthermore, he was the first industrial designer ever to be honoured with a one-person museum retrospective. He established his own classic car museum and was a highly respected design teacher at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design for many years after his retirement age.
I leave you with a last quote from Brooks Stevens on the importance of an attractive product appearance: “You can’t see function.” Stevens said. “How can you look at a vacuum cleaner and know it works better? At the point of purchase, the eye appeal or buy appeal, has to be in the product itself.” Amen.
(1) See Part Two of this series.
(2) Some other sources speak of a Volkswagen Beetle gearbox, and even a separate Volkswagen engine, presumably situated at or near the front of the vehicle. Since the Lakester has, unfortunately, sunk without a trace and has never been observed in action, its mechanical composition may forever remain a mystery.
(3) A device that allows a moving part to penetrate a surface, in this case the boat’s hull, without leakage.
Editor’s note: In addition to the more notable designs of Brooks Stevens comprehensively covered by Bruno in this series, two of his more minor works were the facelift of the Volkswagen 411 to produce the 412 and the Briggs & Stratton Hybrid Concept. (DO)