The Excalibur Story

Excalibur Automobile Corp.

Original Home of the Excalibur

Camelot Classics Cars, Inc.

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. " attract people to the stand. Without a real eyecatcher 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'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. Si 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."


The early days of the young firm were difficult ones and the brothers made two initial, important decisions: firstly that the cars would be built slowly and with the greatest care and attention, secondly that they would manufacture as many components as possible themselves to avoid dependence on outside suppliers. David decided to use the Chevrolet V-8 327 cu. inch 300hp engine and to make the body panels from glass fibre rather than aluminum. The radiator grilles would be aluminum castings rather than copper as on the prototype. Meanwhile, Steve Stevens was organizing chassis production in the family workshop in Mequon, Wisconsin. In the first year of production the chassis were transported by truck to Milwaukee, where the bodywork was fabricated and the Excaliburs were assembled. In January of 1966 the firm moved to the West Allis Industrial zone.

The Excalibur SI was initially available only in a two-seater Roadster version as designed by Brooks Stevens. But by mid 1966 the company had built 56 automobiles and introduced two more models: an elaborated Roadster with longer mudguards and running boards, and a convertible four-seater known as the Phaeton. Excalibur built exactly 90 cars during 1966 and production didn't reach 100 units in a year until 1969 - the same year that SI production was stopped.

By 1970, Excalibur were well established but had engendered the birth of numerous imitators who were helping satisfy the demands of a market that the limited Excalibur production alone could not. The Stevens brothers didn't want to increase their production rate for fear it would adversely affect the impeccable build quality that they wanted the public to enjoy. So they launched the Excalibur Series II, an all new car despite the fact that it perpetuated the S1 styling. As the old Studebaker Lark chassis was no longer built, David designed a new ladder chassis which had a 2 inch longer wheelbase. The suspension components ere borrowed from the Corvette, as was the four-disc braking system. Tire size went up and the rubbers were mounted on heels especially designed for the car. The 327 ci. inch (5400 cc) V-8 engine bowed down to the new 350 cu. inch (5700 cc) unit which, with its anti-pollution equipment still managed to develop a healthy 300 hp. The "Muncie" four-speed manual transmission became standard, with a Turbo- Hydramatic three-speed unit available as an option.

From a price of $6000-$7250 for the S1, the Excalibur SII went up to $12,000 -$13,000 but justified that extra cost with its supplementary equipment. This included air conditioning, variable ratio power steering, adjustable steering column, servoed brakes, "Positraction" differential, chromed wire wheels, stereo radio, two spare tires mounted in the front fenders, driving lamps, air horns and constant level rear shock absorbers.

Despite the added mass of this luxurious equipment, the Excalibur Series II was capable of really sporting performance: 0-60 mph in under 7 seconds and a top speed of 149 mph! Unfortunately the production figures showed a steep decline at first with only 37 cars in 1970 and none whatsoever in 1971. What happened next is quite inexplicable, for from a production of zero in 1971, the figure rose to 122 the next year. Today the Excalibur Series II remains the rarest of all Excaliburs, with a total production number of only 342 against the Series I's 359.

The reason; David and Steve decided to retool the chassis and install a new engine. The first few series II cars built in 1970 had a box type rear frame section with a Chevrolet Camero front frame stub bolted on. Then in 1972 the chassis was a new one, although still a laddertype affair, reinforced by a central 'X'-shaped member and featuring a removable bolt-on front section. Wheelbase had once more been stretched to 112 inches and the whole new chassis assembly housed an equally new engine...a Chevy Mk IV 454 cu. inch (7500 cc) big-block V8 which, were being used in the corvettes at the time. They offered the power to go with the looks. This was used through 1974.

Starting in 1975 despite its generous cylinder capacity, the 454 was essentially now a truck engine and produced only a humble 215 hp SAE due to the stifling anti-pollution equipment fitted. Cruise control was now standard.

Today, the 1970 Excalibur Series II remains the rarest of all Excaliburs, with a total production number of only 37 cars 11 Roadsters and 26 phaetons.

It was the Excalibur Series III, introduced in 1975, that really caused the production figures to shoot up and the selling price also. This was fundamentally a Series II car that had been odified to conform with new homologation requirements and thus it retained the traditional style but featured more enveloping fenders/wings.

The chassis was a new one, although still a ladder-type affair, reinforced by a central 'X'- shaped member and featuring a removable bolt-on front section. Wheelbase had once more been stretched to 112 inches and the whole new chassis assembly housed an equally new engine...a Chevy Mk IV 454 cu. inch (7500 cc) big-block V8 which, despite its generous cylinder capacity, produced only a humble 215 hp SAE due to the stifling antipollution equipment fitted. The "Phaeton" version continued to sell in greater numbers than the "Roadster", as had indeed been the case since 1969, and even though production did remain restricted (even by a specialist manufacturer's standards) Excalibur broke a new sales record in 1977 with 237 units, followed by an encouraging increase of from 263 cars in 1978 to 367 in 1979. This impressive figure related to a production rate of more than one automobile per working day and Steve Stevens remembers this stage of production in these terms: "We were building one car every six hours on average, and at such a rate we couldn't maintain the standards of build quality that we wanted to. We had to abandon this infernal production rate and come back to a more reasonable figure of 4.5 cars per week."

1980 saw the arrival of the Excalibur Series IV, the car that brought about the first real change in appearance of the marque's products. It was also the first Excalibur to have glass side windows, a trunk/boot integrated within the bodywork and an electrically operated soft-top for Roadster as well as Phaeton models. The chassis, especially unchanged relative to the SIII's, was nonetheless (and yet again) stretched, this time by 13 inches; now the Roadster had become a four-seater with rear electrically operated rumble-seat. The styling had also evolved a little. It still undeniably evoked vintage Mercedes, but this time emulated the 500/540K series rather than the SS/SSK. The series IV was obliged (by even more rigorous anti-pollution regulators) to take on yet another engine, a GM 5.0-liter (305 cu. in.) equipped with automatic transmission and a locking torque converter. Once more the performance suffered, although the buying public seemed to be resigned to this and appeared more concerned with comfort and appointments than out-and-out dynamics.

David Stevens remarked, "With the galloping inflation that was right at the start of the 80's, we had got to the point where we were building seven cars a week but not showing any profits for it. There are only two solutions available to such a problem, and the first is that you either make more automobiles and sell them for the same price, or you sell the same number of cars, but at a higher price. If you sell the car for a higher price then there has to be something apparent on the car to justify the increase to the public. Although your costs per unit mustn't go up. We took the latter path and upped the price and the spec.- the new Series IV equipment now comprised electric windows, central locking, cruise control, electrically operated front seats, Blaupunk AM/FM stereo radio/cassettes and a removable hardtop".

To celebrate its 20th birthday, Excalibur built a limited edition Series IV of which 50 examples were built. Painted white and grey, these cars have a chromed waistline trim strip which separates the two colors, a small plaque bearing the Stevens brother's signatures, and the Series number of the car. The interior is harmonized with the bodywork colors and these are the first Excalibur models to be trimmed with Connolly hide.

In order to respect the tradition of changing models every five years, Excalibur introduced its Series V in 1985, a yet more luxurious vehicle offering a choice of more powerful engines for the European market, the most potent one developing over 300hp SAE. They only managed to sell 78 cars in that year and 37 in 1986 (the year of our visit), although four Excalibur Royales were also completed as well as the new fixed-head coupe- the first (and last) fixed roof Excalibur. A sign of the times maybe...or just an ill-omen?