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The Excalibur Story

The story begins in 1963 at Studebaker where Brooks Stevens had been employed as design consultant by the president, Sherwood Egbert. Raymond Loewy also worked for Studebaker at the time and he had just completed his styling work on the Avanti.

One day Egbert telephoned Stevens to ask him to prepare some special automobile projects; these were for exhibiting at the various motor shows to be held over the forthcoming year. Brooks remembered the conversation well, Egbert was saying: “I can’t manage to get Loewy in on this one, you’ll have to help me…” The outcome of this was a trio of Studebaker Larks, a black and pink convertible known as “Mademoiselle”, a vehicle called “Yachtman”, and a “Town Car” featuring central roll-over hoop and a vinyl half-roof. Stevens also dressed up a Hawk Gran Turismo for the display but not one of these cars made any worthwhile impression at the Chicago Motor Show at the start of the season.

The next show was to be the New York in April and for this one it was imperative that he find something a little more explosive. “…to attract people to the stand. Without a real eye-catcher they would walk straight past and not even glance in the right direction”.

Stevens decided that the time had come to create a special automobile. Sadly, it was at this time that Egbert was struck down with cancer and replaced by his sidekick, Byers Burlingame.”Burlingame and I got on very well so I asked him to send me a Daytona chassis- the best chassis around at the time, and one which boasted special suspension. Its front axle was overloaded in the original design but I figured that if I could find a way of moving the engine backwards to a certain extent then the assembly would become better balanced.

So Burlingame sent me a Daytona chassis at Milwaukee and I got to work on my designs, taking a great deal of inspiration from the Mercedes SSK. I loved Mercedes cars and personally owned a 1928 SS Phaeton. My idea was to create a vehicle along similar lines, using contemporary running gear and selling for a very competitive price. I said to Burlingame: ‘I’m going to build you a contemporary classic’, to which he replied: ‘Great…but what exactly is a contemporary classic?’ I replied: ‘Well, it’s a new old car’…and the conversation stopped right there, Burlingame hanging up the receiver in obvious dismay! It had been a brief discussion, but as a result the Excalibur was born!”

The chassis that Stevens received at Milwaukee was from a heavy-duty Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible, with 109 inch wheelbase, assisted disc brakes and the supercharged 289 cu in. (4,750 cc) 290 hp power unit used by Studebaker up until the advent of the Avanti. Although the chassis had nothing particularly modern or innovative about it, it was well suited to the narrow bodywork of the vintage roadster-style car that Stevens had in mind.

William “Steve” Stevens recalled: “I built the first (Excalibur) prototype for Studebaker when I was still at school. David, my elder brother, was still involved in competition with my father at the time, so I built that car up in six weeks with the help of Ray Besasie and another friend. I took care of things mechanical, Ray shaped the aluminum bodywork and the other guy generally assisted us.” Brooks Stevens added: “They moved the engine back by about 29 inches, which put the driver almost in the back seat of the Lark Coupe, so we also had to move the steering and pedals back and modify the suspension geometry and spring and damper rates at the same time.”

The result was a sensation: the “Mercebaker” which was smaller and lighter than the 1928 Mercedes SS which it mimicked, but every bit as fabulous! The flexible exhaust sections had been bought in Germany from Mercedes’s own supplier, the seats were modified Studebaker items, the dashboard instruments were from the Hawk GT and the radiator grille emblem was the famous cross in a circle which Brooks had used on his first competition Excalibur Js. It was christened “Mercebaker” because Studebaker had been a Mercedes distributor for some time, although the chromed badges at either side if the hood/bonnet read Studebaker SS.

The new automobile had hardly left Milwaukee for New York when Studebaker changed their plans…”I received a phone call from the Director of Public Relations three days before the Show’s opening” remembered Brooks Stevens. “He said to me: ‘I am really sorry but we can’t display the car’. I asked him why not and he replied: ‘Well, it’s not Egbert who makes the decisions anymore, and Burlingame says that we can’t make the public think this is the sort of vehicle we’ll be manufacturing in the future – even if we make it clear that it’s only a show car. It’s too risky to show the public a one-of exhibit that’s never going to be mass-produced…it’ll jeopardize our finances’ So I telephoned Jerry Allen, the Show organizer who said: ‘Look bring the car along anyhow…I’ll find some corner for it.’ And indeed he found us a stand on the second floor, right in front of a hot dog stall (which helped get the visitors in) and the Mercebaker was unloaded from the transporter. As we wheeled it in, people made us stop every ten yards or so in order to shoot photos. It was too late to remove the ‘Studebaker SS’ badges so we clearly labelled the car a “Special Project’ of Brooks Stevens Design Associates’.  

It was the star of the show and so many people wanted to buy it, cash, there and then. The designer and his two sons were inundated with enquiries. William “Steve” Stevens recalls that people were asking him the price and he was unashamedly telling them “6,000 dollars”, thereby acknowledging the six weeks he had spent building it and dreaming that $1,000 a week would be a tidy future income. I had obviously forgotten that I’d have to employ people to help me and that I’d have material costs as well… but I was only 21 years old!”he added.

So Jerry Allen was clearly a key person in the foundation of the Excalibur marque, not only because he was the New York Show organizer (without whom Brooks could never have exhibited his car), but also because he was a Chevrolet concessionaire in the Big Apple. Brooks Stevens remembered that: “We engineered sufficient interest at the Show to convince him…we even took twelve firm orders…and we named Allen the sole concessionaire for the East Coast. He sold our first cars like the proverbial hot cakes as he had an absolutely prime location in New York, including a sumptuous showroom right next to the Coliseum. But, he was also rather worried about something which eventually caused the first modification to be carried out to our car. One day he said to us: ‘Listen guys, I don’t give a damn about your Studebaker chassis because nobody can see it and the maker’s name isn’t stamped on it. The problem is that I can’t sell cars powered by Studebaker engines from a showroom that’s on the ground floor of the General Motors building. The director’s office is on the top floor and one day they’re going to stop off at my showroom out of curiosity on their way to lunch and I’m going to have my ass kicked. Couldn’t you put a Chevrolet engine in it?’ Of course we could…and our first Excalibur turned out to be the one and only one with a Studebaker engine; all subsequent machines received Chevrolet power!”

And the news spread like a bush fire. Steve Stevens exhibited the New York Show car a month later in California at a concourse sponsored by “Road & Track” magazine and once more it was a rave success. A few weeks later it was featured in an article in the magazine “Automobile Quarterly” and immediately afterwards the mail started pouring in to Stevens. In July of the same year, Steve, his brother David and their father founded their company.

Steve recalls that “Dad acted as our counsellor to get the thing off to a start; his name was well known in the automobile world and opened a good few doors for us.” Brooks Stevens continued, “In fact I wanted this business to be theirs alone. To be honest with you, I gave them $10,000 as a starting point but they needed considerably more than that to equip a production line. So I arranged finance with a few banks and they eventually started off with, I think, $60,000.”He spoke of his two sons and of what they had accomplished with enormous pride: “They succeeded thanks to their own talent and their respective knowledge in two different but complementary fields: David is a highly competent design engineer while Steve, who has always been the more flamboyant of the two, is a terrific salesman.”

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