A “Contemporary Classic:” Brooks Stevens’ Excalibur

Z. Taylor Vinson had the opportunity to meet and correspond with a number of automotive designers and manufacturers during his career as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of these well-known personalities was noted American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, who created over 3,000 products throughout his career, including home furnishings, cookware, and farm machinery, as well as automobiles and automotive equipment.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In the early 1960s, Stevens worked as a design consultant for Studebaker. Company executives asked Stevens to design an eye-catching car for an upcoming series of automobile shows. Brooks decided to create what he referred to as a “contemporary classic” for Studebaker. He designed a sports car from contemporary automotive parts and a Studebaker chassis, but his new car had the aesthetics of a classic Mercedes SSK from the 1930s. Stevens named his new car, “Excalibur,” after his sports car racing career in the 1950s.

Although Studebaker was not interested in Stevens’ prototype, the Excalibur attracted the attention of attendees at the 1964 New York Auto Show. Stevens immediately began taking orders for his new sports car, and he sold the Excalibur exclusively through a New York City Chevrolet dealer for $6,795. An advertisement for the Excalibur placed in the December 16, 1964 issue of the New York Times declared, “It has the classic beauty of the original S.S.K. coupled with the power and the reliability of the 1965 Sting Ray.” By marketing the Excalibur as a custom-built, luxury sports car, Stevens and his newly formed company, S.S. Automobiles Incorporated, pioneered the market for reproduction classic cars.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In 1975, Mr. Vinson met with Brooks Stevens to discuss motor vehicle safety regulations pertaining to the Excalibur. Limited production automobile manufacturers like S.S. Automobiles worked extensively with the Department of Transportation after the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Throughout this period, S.S. Automobiles struggled to meet the passive restraint requirements for passenger cars because of the projected expense of having to incorporate air bags and seat belts into their pre-existing design for the Excalibur.

Stevens wrote a letter of appreciation to Vinson after their meeting and expressed how happy he was to learn that Mr. Vinson was also an automobile enthusiast and collector. Similar to Z. Taylor Vinson, Stevens had developed a love of automobiles during his childhood, while accompanying his father to various automobile shows. In his thank-you note, Stevens included a photograph album of Excalibur Series I-III automobiles from the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Vinson preserved the photograph album presented to him by Brooks Stevens in his professional papers from the Department of Transportation. This album, as well as the correspondence between the two men, remains available to researchers as part of Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection now housed at the Hagley Library.

Sources

“Brooks Stevens,” Wisconsin Historical Society

“Classified Ad 20,” New York Times (December 13, 1964): S15.

“Excalibur: 1975-1995,” Temporary Exemption Petitions, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Excalibur History

“Excalibur- Photograph Albums,” Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 512-513.

Preston, Alice. “Excalibur: The Story”

Alison Kreitzer is the graduate assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at the Hagley Museum and Library.

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