How Excalibur Cars Work


The 1964 Studebaker SS, such as the roadster shown here, was an early prototype for Excalibur.

Noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens has given us a number of interesting cars, none more exciting than his own Excalibur. The first was actually a series of light race-and-ride roadsters built in 1951 with "vintage-modern" bodywork on a 100-inch-wheelbase Henry J chassis.

Though strictly a private effort, these "Excalibur Js" did well enough in competition for Stevens to hope that Kaiser-Frazer might build his design for sale to the public. But K-F had just failed with its fiberglass-bodied Darrin two-seater and would flee the U.S. market after 1955, leaving unfilled Stevens' dream of a new car with classic '30s styling.

The dream got another chance in 1963 at Studebaker, where Stevens had been a design consultant for four years. Having completed clever, low-cost facelifts on the compact Lark and sporty Hawk coupe, he was asked by company president Sherwood Egbert to devise some 1964 show cars that would bolster Studebaker's public image in the face of steadily declining sales. The firm had just closed its century-old South Bend, Indiana, plant, canceled both the Hawk and Egbert's radical Avanti, and retreated with a reduced Lark line to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. With things looking so terminal, Egbert hoped Stevens' specials would convince people that Studebaker still had a future.

Stevens did his best, but time permitted only a trio of dolled-up Larks that didn't make much of an impression at Chicago in February 1964. But for the next major event, the annual New York Auto Show in April, Stevens was determined to have something that would "get people to come to that damn booth." Though Egbert had departed (stricken by cancer), his successor, Byers Burlingame, agreed to cooperate.

The idea was a "contemporary classic," a new car that looked like the Mercedes SSK that Stevens once owned. "I wanted this to be a replica [for those] who could not play in the collector's market even then [and for those who wanted] a "two-way classic,' something that you can be sure will get you back home..." Stevens duly rendered a dashing neoclassic roadster body, and a Lark Daytona convertible chassis was delivered to his Milwaukee studios with power front-disc brakes and supercharged, 290-horsepower Studebaker 289 V-8. The result, labeled "Studebaker SS," was completed in just six weeks by Stevens and his sons, David and William.

No sooner did it reach New York than Studebaker backed out. A "contemporary classic," said company officials, conflicted with their newly embraced image of the "common-sense car." Undeterred, Stevens arranged to exhibit the SS in a separate space. Luckily, he wound up across from a hot-dog stand, but the cycle-fendered two-seater would have drawn crowds anyway. It was, in fact, a sensation, and dozens of inquiries from would-be owners prompted the Stevens sons to form SS Automobiles in August. By 1966, they had built 56 copies of a mildly modified version bearing the Stevens-registered name Excalibur and also called SS.

Studebaker, meanwhile, had ceased building cars at last, thus ending the availability of its 289 V-8, but General Motors friends Ed Cole and "Bunkie" Knudsen agreed to provide the Stevens family with Chevrolet 327s in 300-bhp Corvette tune. This change made the lithe 2100-pound Excalibur a blistering performer. Even with standard 3.31:1 rear axle, 0-60 mph took less than five seconds, a big improvement over the Studey-powered car's seven seconds. And projected top speed was 160 mph!

Though undeniably old, the 109-inch-wheelbase Studebaker chassis had several advantages for a "contemporary classic." Unlike newer torque-box designs, it was quite narrow and thus a perfect fit for the slim, '30s-style Excalibur body; and as a convertible platform, it was firmly X-braced. Still, it required considerable reworking to ensure safe handling with such a high power-to-weight ratio.

That task, and many others, fell to David Stevens. The vintage-style cowl, for example, forced a lower steering column and pedals. He also had to decrease spring rates and alter caster and camber, but the result was a car as fast on curves as it was on straights. This modified chassis continued under all "Series I" Excaliburs built through 1969.

Brooks Stevens, of course, was responsible for the styling, which was deliberately planned as an evocative but not line-for-line rendition of the 1928 Mercedes SSK. Interestingly, though, initial sales literature was done in prewar Mercedes style.

Quality was uncompromising from the start, and would continue to distinguish Excalibur from the motley group of "replicars" it inspired. As just one example, Brooks Stevens turned to Mercedes-Benz's original German supplier for the simulated outside exhaust pipes and used French-built freestanding headlamps closely resembling original SSK equipment.

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Early Excalibur Models

The 1966-69 Series I SS phaeton won fans with a roomy interior and superior handling on both curves and straightaways.

The earliest Excaliburs were bodied in hand-hammered aluminum, but fiberglass was soon substituted. Also for reasons of cost and practicality, the prototype's sheet-brass radiator was exchanged for a cast-aluminum affair. Atop it was Brooks' "sword-in-circle" mascot that simulated, but didn't infringe upon, M-B's jealously guarded three-pointed star. Dominating the cockpit was a full set of white-on-black Stewart-Warner gauges in a vintage-style dash with engine-turned metal appliqué. Seats were modified Studebaker buckets covered in vinyl. With all this, the Excalibur's announced price looked unbelievably low: $7250 for a hand-built car with one of the most-competent chassis in the business.

Encouraged by intense initial interest in the SS -- and ready buyers -- the Stevens family added two companion models in 1966: a more-elaborate roadster with full fenders and running boards, and, late in the year, a four-place "phaeton" convertible. The latter was surprisingly roomy. David Stevens proudly pointed to top-up headroom within an inch of a Cadillac Eldorado's and legroom that was actually greater. Also in '66, the firm changed its name to Excalibur Automobile Corporation.

Prices inevitably escalated, reaching a $10,000 minimum by '69, but Excaliburs remained a remarkable value. Not until 1976 would they become $20,000 automobiles, and then only because of inflation and the cost of federally mandated safety and emissions equipment. At least the hikes were made less painful by progressively upgraded materials and features. By 1969, no-cost features had expanded to include air conditioning, heater/defroster, variable-ratio power steering with tilt wheel, power front-disc brakes, steel-belted radial tires on chrome-plated wire wheels, the same as twin sidemount spares, luggage rack, AM/FM stereo, leather seats, air horns, driving lights, rear air shocks, "Positraction" limited-slip differential, and self-shift Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission (the last two from GM, of course).

Excalibur production would never be high, but was never intended to be. This was, after all, a labor of love, a gift from the Stevens family to enthusiasts of traditional motoring in the grand Classic manner. After the 56 SS roadsters of 1965 came 90 Series I models in 1966, but production never topped 100 per year through 1972.

Announced in 1970 were Series II Excaliburs with new 111-inch wheelbase and the Corvette's latest 350 V-8. The original roadster was dropped, but the other two models returned at higher $12,000 starting prices. A notable advance was a modern new box-section chassis purpose-designed by David Stevens around Corvette suspension components, thus ousting the old Lark frame (Excalibur's inventory had run out anyway). Turbo Hydra-Matic moved to the options list in favor of a GM "Muncie" four-speed manual gearbox. Independent rear suspension and standard all-disc power brakes combined with Goodyear Polyglass tires on specially designed wire wheels to provide a fine blend of ride comfort and adroit handling. Acceleration was a bit slower despite unchanged ­horsepower -- but not much: A Series II could scale 0-60 in six seconds and reach a genuine 150 mph.

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Excalibur Series I, Excalibur Series II, Excalibur Series III, Excalibur Series IV

Prices for 1975-79 SS Excalibur roadsters increased to nearly $30,000 by the end of the series in 1979.

Prices and production began taking off with the Series III, which arrived in 1975 (Excalibur has never adhered to strict model years). This was basically the Series II design modified for tightening safety/emissions rules, but not so much as to compromise styling or roadability that were, by now, Excalibur hallmarks.

Besides "shock mounted solid aluminum alloy [bumpers that] meet government standards for absorbing impact," Series IIIs boasted fuller clamshell-type fenders and standard high-back bucket seats covered in leather and made -- like most of the car -- by Excalibur itself.

The main mechanical alteration was switching to Chevy's big-block 454 V-8, which could be emissions-tuned with less loss of power and torque than the small-block 350. Both roadster and phaeton carried identical 1975 starting prices of $18,900, more than double the original figure of a decade before. And prices would go much higher, reaching $28,600 by the end of this series in 1979.

By any standard, Excalibur was still a tiny automaker, but the Stevens brothers would not be rushed. Nor did they want to dilute their market with too much of a good thing. As it had since 1969, the more-practical four-place phaeton continued outselling the two-seat roadster, but total volume remained minuscule even for a specialty maker. The Series III saw but 1141 over five years, versus 342 for the Series II and 359 for the original Series I.

Excalibur had traveled far since David and William C. "Steve" Stevens built their first cars (the latter even worked on the assembly line until 1968). Striking evidence of their progress arrived in 1980 with an elegant new Series IV. More luxury tourer than lightweight sports machine, it was the most radically changed Excalibur in history. Wheelbase was stretched to a limousine-like 125 inches, and there were more standard accoutrements than any previous Excalibur. Styling, now by David Stevens, remained firmly "Classic," but was smoother and sleeker in the way that the late-'30s Mercedes 500/540K was evolved from the SS/SSK. The phaeton acquired a lift-off hardtop plus fully powered soft-top; the roadster gained a rakish rumble seat.

Most engineering changes came per federal edicts. The most notable was a vastly smaller Chevy V-8, the well-known 5.0-liter/305-cid unit, linked to four-speed overdrive automatic as the sole transmission choice. Excalibur feared a larger engine would have lowered fuel mileage to the point of having to pay fines under Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules, something the tiny firm just couldn't afford. As a result, customers were saddled with a much bigger and heavier Excalibur that was far from exciting on either straights or curves.

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Excalibur Consumer Sales and Performance

1985 Series IV roadster was one of the last vehicles created under Excalibur's original ownership.

With the bigger and heavier Excalibur performing below customers’ expectations, plus the start of a severe recession and lofty new inflation-fueled prices -- initially near $40,000 -- Excalibur sales nosedived. It couldn't have happened at a worse time for the Stevens family, who faced burdensome new overhead costs from a heavy revamping of their suburban Milwaukee plant (to improve quality).

The result was a steadily worsening situation that forced the brothers to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-1986. Ironically, this came just after Excalibur marked its 20th anniversary with its first commemoratives: 50 roadsters and 50 phaetons bearing two-tone exteriors with chrome sweep­spears and pewter plaques, plus interiors trimmed in walnut and Connolly leather.

But then came help in the form of Henry Warner, president of Acquisition Company of Wisconsin, who bought the Stevens family's interests and reorganized the firm as Excalibur Marketing Corporation.

By early 1987, Series IV roadsters and phaetons were again trickling out of Milwaukee as Series V models. Their main difference was a more-potent 350 Chevy V-8 option that partly redressed the weak performance of the standard 305.

At midyear, EMC revealed a whopping four-door Touring Sedan on a 144-inch-wheelbase chassis (essentially a 20-inch stretch of the phaeton's square-tube ladder frame). Measuring 224 inches long and weighing 4400 pounds, the Touring Sedan was optimistically priced at the same $65,650 figure applied to both open Series Vs, with which it shared frontal styling. Interiors were opulent. A front bench replaced the phaeton's buckets, and the long wheelbase made for a rear compartment worthy of a '30s Cadillac Sixteen. Also announced was an even-more-extravagant 204-inch-wheelbase "grand limousine." David Stevens had earlier conceived both these closed models as sales-building "line extensions."

But none of this served to boost sales and thus attract needed capital to offset mounting debts in an economy again gone slack. Nor did a three-year, $9-million lease deal with a Chicago concern involving some 150 cars. As a result, Excalibur went bankrupt again, production ceasing in June 1990.

But Excalibur wasn't quite dead. In November 1991, German Michael Timmer bought the firm for $1.33 million amid charges that the Warner regime engaged in odometer fraud, installed some used parts, failed to meet federal passive-restraint rules, and generally did its best to "kill" the company. Timmer seemed bent on saving it, putting $1 million toward plant improvements with an eye to resuming production by April 1992. There would be four models: Series V roadster, phaeton and sedan, plus, surprisingly, a revived Series III roadster. Prices were targeted for the $50,000-$75,000 range.

Unfortunately, Timmer ran out of money before he could build any cars, so Excalibur was again bankrupt by early '92. But it was still alive, thanks to a new rescue by the German father-and-son team of Udo and Jens Geitlinger, who'd made a fortune in real estate. With help from production boss Scott Dennison and some 33 other employees still hanging on from prior regimes, Jens picked up where Timmer left off, issuing an updated Series III roadster called the "Limited Edition 100."

Besides design changes for all the latest safety and emissions standards, including a driver-side air bag, the Geitlinger Series III carried the new 300-bhp Corvette LT1 V-8 teamed with four-speed automatic or optional six-speed ZF manual. Price was set at $89,842. At the same time, the big limo was to get a new dash and GM suspension to sell for a staggering $124,774. The other Series V cars weren't forgotten, being muscled up to L98 Corvette power and starting prices of $74,986 for the roadster and $77,691 for the phaeton. The Geitlingers eyed total first-year production of 60-80 units, and Dennison predicted 120 Excaliburs per year starting in 1993, with some two-thirds earmarked for export.

But the world market had also changed dramatically, and Excalibur could no longer do business as usual. Accordingly, the firm diversified in 1993, first by adding a replica Shelby-Cobra with some interesting deviations from the original, then by becoming a contract supplier of various "accessories" like luggage racks and "aero" cab extensions for trucks. Motorcycle trailers were also built. Car production ended in 1997, but accessory production continued until the early 2000s when Excalibur once again went into receivership.

In 2003, Alice Preston, who had worked with Brooks Stevens since 1963, purchased the assets of Excalibur Automobile Corp. The company continues selling parts and performing restorations on the 3200 Excaliburs produced. Excalibur hopes to someday resume auto production using its former body styles.

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