Brooks Stevens 1912-1995
|Stevens, Brooks: known as "the Seer that made Milwaukee Famous", US
designer and coach-builder, did some Cadillac-powered cars [see "Gaylord" and "Valkyrie"]; he was involved with
Willys, Kaiser, Alfa-Romeo, Excalibur, J and SJ, SS, SSK and Series II, Paxton, Jeep Studebaker, Aero-Willys,
Volkswagen and AMC.article MC Autumn 1974, pp.20-29, 33; SIA71, pp.18-23. Mr. Stevens passed away on 4 January 1995
of heart failure. His work is reviewed in SAH No. 151, 7-8/94. See also CC 10/74 and 12/74 for 2-part story of
this US designer. Read his obituary in CC, 5/95.
AKA: CLIFFORD BROOKS STEVENS
Washington coach door line: name coined by US designer Brooks Stevens to designate a curving Coupe door allowing access to rear seats with out disturbing front seat occupants
Brooks Stevens' woodless Willys Jeep station wagon was designed in 1946 and stayed in production until 1963. The all-steel body was efficient to mass-produce, easy to maintain and safer, yet retained styling elements of the real woodies. Brooks Stevens, an internationally acclaimed industrial designer, also created a spectacular one-off 1937 Packard and the Monart Motors woodie wagon conversions during World War II.
A Quadruple-Cowl Kaiser Phaeton was Brooks Stevens’ answer on how to keep nine rambunctious kids happy and occupied on a long drive. Each tot is provided with his own little steering wheel and windshield, and handy step plates were to be installed in the Kaiser’s flanks for convenient entry and exit.
60 Years of Industrial Design
Born on June 7, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Industrial Designer Brooks Stevens was known for an array of innovations that spanned 60 years. Stricken with polio as a child, his father encouraged him to draw while bedridden. He later attended Cornell University in New York from 1929 to 1933. For a brief time he worked for a firm as a package designer, then opened his own design firm in 1934.
Stevens sphere of influence spread quickly until 1952 when estimated annual retail sales of the products designed by him reached one billion dollars. He was one of the last of a generation of product-design pioneers whose creations paved the way for the everyday gadgetry that people now take for granted.
Mr. Stevens continued to teach industrial design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design until his death in 1995. The rich legacy of industrial design continues today by Brooks' sons as Brooks Stevens Design in Wisconsin.
Automobile Design & Collection
Brooks true passion was classic automobiles. Through his early career as an industrial designer- and later, as an automotive designer for such companies as American Motors, Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo and Studebaker, Stevens began a modest hobby of collecting classic cars. The hobby eventually grew into the Brooks Stevens Automobile Collection & Museum in Mequon, Wisconsin. Which closed its doors in 1999.
In addition to racing his cars against other vintage cars, Stevens began to formulate a modern concept car that would combine the safety and dependability of standard components but have a look of the nostalgia of yesterday. He dreamed up the Excalibur, a revival of an earlier era's grand touring car, for Studebaker. When that company went out of business, he and his sons took over the Excalibur's production and formed their own corporation, SS Automobiles Inc., in 1964. There was never a replicar maker until Excalibur and it lasted 24 years.
Brooks Stevens was one of the most important industrial designers of the twentieth century, and the most
influential artistic personality ever to work in Milwaukee. All Americans have been affected by this innovative
thinker and his creations, which range from icons that are immediately recognizable – like the Oscar Meyer
Weinermobile and the Miller Brewing logo – to objects we all take for granted, like the wide-mouthed peanut butter
jar and the rotary lawnmower.
The Forward Control Jeep design was the latest vision from Brooks Stevens, who was probably the foremost industrial designer of the era, and had previously worked for Willys on the design of the Jeep station wagon and the 1948 Jeepster. Also in his portfolio were the 1939 Steam-O-Matic iron, the Miller High Life beer logo, the 1948 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the Excalibur automobile, the Lawn-Boy lawnmower, and the 1956 Evinrude Lark Runabout motorboat. What was perhaps most impressive about Stevens' vision of the Jeep of the future, is that the first version was built on an almost off-the-shelf CJ-5 chassis and drive train, allowing it to be developed quickly and cheaply. Within a couple of years, the axles of the short FC-150 were widened for better stability, and it was joined by the longer FC-170, but the changes were minimal.
The Monart wagon conversions were created by noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens to fill the need for higher capacity automobiles. By spring 1942, U.S. automobile manufacturing ceased as factories converted to production for the war effort. Stevens showed that existing 1941-42 Mercury and Ford sedans could be rebodied for use by the military and civil defense.
When someone says retractable hard top, we immediately think of the late 50's Ford, but there was at least one other retractable.
The 1951 Paxton (Paxton Engineering 1951-54) was designed by none other than Brook Stevens who designed the 1958 Weinermobile. This was another fiberglass project from Stevens innovative mind.
The top was designed to open electrically and it moved back to rest over the trunk. A "torque-box" frame weighing 160 lbs was used, and the wheelbase was 118". Another interesting point, this model was originally considered for a steam engine with most of the design work on it being done by Abner Doble, the creator of the Doble steam cars (1914-31), considered by some to be the most advanced steam cars ever built. Unfortunately, for history, this engine was never used and eventually a rear mounted 1500 Porsche engine was used for the promo model, the only one ever built & recently purchased by Myron Vernis from the estate of Brook Stevens for his personal collection.
As with most under financed automotive projects, design costs finally decreed an end to this possible first in the automotive field,
Brooks Stevens was definitely ahead of Ford on this project and may have served, in part, as inspiration for the later Ford version. The Paxton definately has design influence from some of the Packards he had a hand in designing.
Robert Paxton of Paxton/McCulloch, the firm that supplied superchargers to Studebaker was the mover and shaker behind this vehicle. Although there were few built and apparently only 1 retactable hardtop, I am unable to find production figures for the Paxtons.
Brooks Stevens, who was an industrial designer of many accomplishments himself, did work as a design consultant for Studebaker at the end, hired by Studebaker CEO Sherwood Egbert to work on the mainstream Studebakers, including the Lark and Hawk, while Raymond Loewy and his team worked on the Avanti. Stevens most memorable efforts were a major restyle of the Gran Turismo Hawk for the 1962 model year, with a formal squared-off roofline and rear fender line.
Stevens also was responsible for the European-flavored Lark Daytona, and the innovative Lark Wagonaire Station Wagon for 1963 with a sliding roof above the cargo compartment that could turn it into a sort of impromptu pickup truck when needed
When other commitments prevented Loewy from working on some special design projects for Studebaker. Stevens later quoted Egbert saying: "I can't manage to get Loewy in on this one, you'll have to help me..." The results of that project were a trio of Studebaker Larks: a black and pink convertible known as "Mademoiselle;" a vehicle called "Yachtman," (Stevens was an avid yachsman who competed in the America's Cup); and a "Town Car" featuring central roll-over hoop and a vinyl half-roof. Stevens also dressed up a Hawk Gran Turismo for the Chicago Motor Show, but these cars were essentially design exercises for show purposes and never made it to production.
Sherwood Egbert was stricken with cancer shortly thereafter, and replaced by Byers Burlingame. Stevens went on to develop his Excalibur replicar project on a Lark Daytona chassis, The Excalibur prototype, with a supercharged R2 Avanti 289 CID engine was displayed at the New York Auto Show as a "Studebaker SS," but that was an independent effort financed personally by Stevens after Studebaker decided it would not display a car it would never produce.
Stevens went on to form SS Automobiles, which built the Excalibur SS with 327 CID Chevrolet engines. The Excalibur remained in limited production for 24 years.
The 1958 version, the first built out of fiberglass, might be of some interest to Jeep fans. According to an Interactive History of the Wienermobile, "In 1958, a futuristic, bubble-nosed Wienermobile, designed by the late Brooks Stevens of "Excalibur" fame, added buns for the first time. This was one of the smallest and most unique, as it was built on a Willys Jeep chassis. Stevens' design had a tremendous impact on the Wienermobile. Its influence is visible in the next three generations of vehicles."
The Wienermobile entered the "jet age" in 1958, when a model built by the Gisholt Company of Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets. This design, which was highly influential on the designs of future Wienermobiles, was the brainchild of Brooks Stevens, creator of the distinctive Excalibur automobile and featured a futuristic bubble-nose cockpit. Yet, the chassis was firmly grounded in down-to-earth technology, and was that of a Willys Jeep.
Egbert wanted some new, more exciting products, but Studebaker's resources were meager. Bypassing the in-house studio, he called an old friend, designer Brooks Stevens, responsible for the Willys steel-bodied station wagon and the Excalibur sports car. Stevens elongated the rear quarters, adding prominent round taillights, and substituted a more elegant grille. An upscale Daytona model was added to the top of the line.
A new roofline was designed for 1963, and the interior redesigned to include a clever vanity compartment in the dashboard. Stevens' most innovative stroke, however, was saved for the station wagon. Adapting the manual sunroof technology of the day, he contrived to have the aftermost portion of the wagon's roof slide forward, opening the rear of the cargo bay to the sky. This, in combination with the wind-down tailgate window, provided the perfect environment for hauling upright objects like refrigerators or trees.
The name given to the body style, "Wagonaire," aptly evoked the image of openness. But the Wagonaire was far from trouble-free, as leaky roofs prompted redesign efforts and eventually a fixed-roof option at a $100 savings.
1955 Die Valkyrie, designed by Brooks Stevens
This prototype/concept/dream car was designed not only to be a showcar in the US but also to be a prize winner at various shows. It not only won at the Paris Auto Show, but also took a major trophy at the US auto show at Madison Square Garden. The October 1989 issue of Collectible Automobile reported that in 1952 a Cleveland real estate baron named Metzenbaum wanted a modern car with the spirit of the great early Forties Lincoln Continental and the power of Cadillac's brilliant overhead-valve V-8, first offered for 1949. Famed Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens did the rest. The result was called Die Valkyrie, after Brunhilde and the other mythical "sisters of the wind" immortalized in Wagnerian opera. Per Metzenbaum's wishes, Stevens began with the 125-inch-wheelbase chassis and 331-cubic-inch V-8 of the contemporary Cadillac Series Sixty-Two. Leaving both pretty much alone, he replaced the stock body with a striking four-seat steel convertible shell bearing rakish long-hood/short-deck proportions and both a solid removable roof panel and a skimpy "rag top." The last, Stevens recalled, was only for "getting you home if it started to rain." Die Valkyrie's most radical aspect by far was its huge, sharply vee'd combination bumper/grille, deliberately chosen to emphasize what was under the hood. One wag snidely termed it a "snowplow" (Stevens chuckled at that description), but at least it was different. Small parking lamps were set into the V's wide outriggers, which bisected the headlamps before wrapping around to continue as side moldings. Several elements make Die Valkyrie look a lot newer now than it actually is. Recessed cowled headlamps and a flat hood nearly level with the front fenders forecast Big Three styling by at least three years. In the Sixties, Cadillac itself would adopt taillights much like Die Valkyrie's compact, vertically vee'd units. This was also Steven's first use of the "Washington Coach" door line with it's distinctive upward sweep that not only concealed long door openings (for easier back-seat access) but made a natural two-tone color break-highlighted in the starkest possible way with white forward and black rearward. Fan-motif inner door panels were equally distinctive. The dash was stock 1953 Cadillac. To build Die Valkyrie, Stevens enlisted the Sophn works of Ravensburg, West Germany, mainly for its meticulous craftsmanship. Metzenbaum made noises about backing up 100 copies and the car did cause a minor stir at the 1953 Paris Auto Show, but just six Die Valkyries would ever be built. Stevens believed only three came to the U.S. The number 2 Die Valkyrie was once driven by Mrs. Stevens. It is at the Brooks Stevens Museum in suburban Mequon, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee." (source: Marc, Samskag@aol.com).
By Jonathan A. Stein with Daniel Simkin
Subtle Like A Broad Sword
The mythical sword Excalibur could slice through armor and chain mail and never lose its edge; nor would its bearer lose blood if he wore Excalibur's scabbard. There was nothing timid or ambiguous about that great broad sword of King Arthur. Nor was there anything ambiguous about the early Excalibur SS sports car. Don't laugh; don't chuckle; but most importantly-don't even think of the late Excalibur phaetons. Pull up alongside a 1966 Excalibur SS in your Mustang Cobra or Camaro Z28, and in the time it takes to sneer, you will be left behind with the twin-bank roar of 300 hp of 327 Chevy V-8 and a large measure of the 8.25 x 15 rear tires floating in a thick haze around your car.
Any discussion of Excalibur must start with Brooks Stevens, the prolific American designer, from whose armory came the Excalibur and the first of the genre he dubbed "contemporary classic.” A Wisconsin native, Stevens was born in Milwaukee on June 7, 1911, to William C. and Sally Stevens. Young Brooks was strongly influenced by his father who was Executive Vice President and director of Engineering for Cutler Hammer and who had invented an early preselector transmission. As a boy, while recovering from polio, Stevens spent hours each day sketching automobiles. After graduating from the Milwaukee Country Day School, Brooks studied architecture at Cornell from 1928 to 1933.
Upon leaving Cornell, Stevens began his design career, ultimately taking responsibility for everything from automatic clothes dryers to luggage, lawn mowers, boats, bicycles, trains and a variety of cars like the Willys Jeepster and several Studebakers, including the entire 1964 line (except Avanti) for the failing automaker.
Stevens' first foray into automaking came in 1952 with the Excalibur J, which was a two-seat sports car built on the Henry J. chassis. Initially, two cars were built: one with a modified Willys F-head engine and another with a tuned Henry J L-head power unit. A third example followed. With the tuned Willys engine, the 1,670-pound roadster would reach approximately 125 mph, as it demonstrated many times during its extremely successful three-year competition career.
If the Excalibur J and Stevens' interest in producing an affordable American sports car was deliberate, the birth of the Excalibur SS was almost accidental. By the early Sixties, Studebaker had clearly seen better days. With virtually no development funds, models had to get by with modest facelifts. But as Stevens and company president Sherwood Egbert could attest, minor sheetmetal changes didn't bring customers flocking to showrooms or the nearly deserted Studebaker company stand at the 1964 Chicago Auto Show. Studebaker badly needed a magnet to pull show goers to Studebaker's New York Auto Show stand just a few months later. Clearly three stock Studebakers with special paint and trim just wouldn't do it.
As William C. "Steve" Stevens recalls, "Sherwood Egbert was a very good friend of Dad's. When Egbert was at McCulloch, Dad designed the Paxton car for him. Then when Egbert went to Studebaker, he took Dad with him." Raymond Loewy was already contracted to design the Avanti (see AQ, vol. 37, no. 1) but the senior Stevens was responsible for the mainstream Studebakers, including the Lark and Hawk. In addition to building and selling Studebakers, the South Bend firm also distributed Mercedes-Benz cars throughout the United States (see AQ, vol. 35, no. 1). Stevens was an avid automobile enthusiast and collector who had been smitten by the sight of a Mercedes-Benz SSK on the Cornell campus years earlier. Ever since the beautifully proportioned German sports car had held a firm place in his imagination.
Stevens continued, recalling that his father became excited when talking to Egbert one day and exclaimed, "Gee, wouldn't it be great to create a Mercebaker using the Studebaker chassis and a Mercedes body. We need something to get people into our booth. Wouldn't this be a great way to get attention and start conversation?” The idea was floated in late January 1964, by which time American Studebaker production had ceased and the company had relocated from South Bend to Canada. Almost immediately, Brooks sketched the basic design of what would become the Excalibur SSK on a placemat while having lunch with his two oldest sons, David and Steve. When shown the sketch, Egbert expressed enthusiasm. Stevens replied, “You supply the chassis and I'll get it built."
To build the "Mercebaker," Stevens requested a supercharged Daytona chassis with disc brakes. As it happened, a "dressed chassis" was on display at the Wisconsin State Fair. This was promptly seconded by Brooks Stevens Design and taken to the shop attached to the Brooks Stevens Automotive Museum in Mequon that David used for his race car development work. Before actual work on the car began, Brooks asked Joe Besasie -a young staff designer- to develop a complete set of drawings from which the car would be built. Using Besasie’s drawings, as well as every day and most nights for the next six weeks, the "prototype" was built by Steve Stevens, metal fabricator Jules Mayeur, sheetmetal fabricators Ray Besasie Sr. and Ray Besasie Jr., and a machinist named Frank Neuschwanger. David admits that his biggest contribution to the prototype project was the use of his shop space.
The show chassis featured an R2 289cid Studebaker engine supercharged to generate 290 bhp and was mated to a manual transmission with a floor shift. The front independent suspension was followed by a live rear axle. Turning this naked Studebaker into the Mercebaker required more than simply slapping on a new body. To improve weight distribution, the engine was shifted back a whopping 29 inches, which had the added benefit of recreating the classic long hood and short tail configuration of the original SSK Mercedes.
Read more about the Excalibur in Automobile Quarterly - Volume 38 Number 3
Plankinton Land Yacht 1936
The fluent imagination of industrial designer Brooks Stevens gave form to many things: streamlined trains and toasters, washer-dryers and the long-lasting Jeepster. But nothing that emerged from his Milwaukee studio was more distinctive, or of greater public interest, than the "land yacht" he created for millionaire William Woods Plankinton Jr.
Aerodynamic in shape but thoroughly practical, this two-part rig - a trailer pulled by a teardrop-like cab - slept six. Its lucky occupants had access to a kitchen, bathroom (with shower) and living room. The chauffeur and cook had their own bunks. From 1936 on, the yacht regularly carried its owner and his guests to and from New York and California.
The sweeping lines and sensual curves of Plankinton's wonderful toy exist today only as this 37-inch-long model, which is a highlight of the museum's new gallery of design.
1956 Gaylord Gladiator
The car started off as the dream of the Gaylord brothers, Ed and Jim Gaylord. They wanted to make the finest sports cars in the world, They had the money to do it as they were rich (they were the heirs to a fortune as their dad was the one who invented the bobby pin!) so money aside they were good to go.. and they also knew a great deal about cars and were even personal friends of Ed Cole the big guy at GM.
They even had a legendary engineer Andy Granatelli make a INCREDIABLY FAST Packard some years before (The Granatelli family became rich as well.. they are the ones ! that created Specially Treated Petrolum ..YES! STP!! ) ok well now back to the Gaylord.
The car was ORIGINALLY going to be designed by NONE OTHER then one of the greats Alex Tremulis (famous for many cars including the Tucker) ..but couldn't due to conflicts with his then current employer FORD.. so he suggested another big name in car design Brooks Stevens (he did a number of designs for the Jeep and his own company EXCALIBER cars years later) AMAZING HOW EVERY ONE IS CONNECTED TOGETHER HUMM?
Well now Brooks said sure and he did the design.. it was very clean, nice styling and Brooks was always known for
very classical styling.. such as upright grille, large headlights and use of classical colors.
The cars had 100inch wheel base and a retractable hardtop. The car was first shown at the 1955 Paris Auto Salon after being done by Spohn of Ravensburg, West Germany. The "production" cars had Caddy V8s the prototype had 331-cid Chrysler Hemi, the production had Hydra-Matic trans. The spare slid out from under the trunk on a tray and has a large number of instruments.
Weighing in at 4000lbs. (kinda heavy) it was fast at 120mph and 0-60 mph in 10 seconds. The cars didn't last though as conflicts over the kind of quality (the one brother being VERY much a perfectionist) caused them to hop to a more expensive coachbuilder Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of Freidreichshaven.
Only four were done, one is at or was at the Early American Museum in Orlando Florida, another was last known to be in Germany. A great car that could have been like so many others that just didn't happen to make it.
For more information please read:
Automobile Quarterly Vol 1 No 1
Automobile Quarterly Vol 2 No 4
Automobile Quarterly Vol 3 No 2
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