For most of us including yours truly, the Thrill of Driving (ToD) apart from being the name of this blog, refers to exactly that, i.e. the wonderful feeling you get from driving, say a manual 911 Turbo up a twisty mountain road, for example here in Switzerland. Then again, what really constitutes the thrill varies, also as we get older. Some people will think of it as maximum straightline speed, as in a Tesla Plaid. For others it’s hearing the screaming sound of a 12-cylinder from Sant’Agata. And then again for some, it’s more about the Thrill of Being Seen than the driving itself. And whereas a Lamborghini works pretty well also for this purpose, there used to be a brand out there that was only about turning a maximum number of heads. This week we’ll look at the almost forgotten creations from Excalibur, the craziest thing to ever come out of Milwaukee!
Brooks Stevens was an American industrial designer, specialized in cars and bikes, who worked at Studebaker where he had been commissioned by CEO Sherwood Egbert (yep, really) to design a spectacular car to put on the company’s exhibition stand at the NY motor show in 1964. He came up with the idea of creating a car with modern running gear, but in the style of the pre-war Mercedes-Benz SSK. The chassis came from a Studebaker Lark Daytona, over which a fiberglass body draped. The car was called the Studebaker SS and it was a great success with dozens of orders placed during, and after the motor show.
Unfortunately Brooks’ creation wasn’t enough to save Studebaker that went broke the same year. Stevens was however determined to bring his car to market and did so by setting up his own company together with his sons. They called it SS Automobiles and the car they launched, very reminiscent of the Studebaker SS, was given the name Excalibur. Equipped with a 300 hp, small block Chevy V8 from the Corvette, production of the Excalibur started in 1965. The car’s low weight of about a ton gave it spectacular acceleration for the time, needing less than six seconds to 100 km/h with a 200 km/h top speed. The car was a success and in 1968, the roadster was complemented by an even more spectacular four-seater, the Phaeton.
With two oil crises in less than 10 years, the 70’s was certainly not the decade for V8’s on paper, but it didn’t hinder Excalibur from introducing an even bigger V8 and continue to do well without much of design updates. The general design was of course why clients bought the car in the first place, and given all cars were hand-built, a lot of smaller wishes could still be accomodated, as seen from the multitude of Excalibur models. Still, the company was also slightly schizoophrenic, choosing for example to sacrifice basic things such as roll-down windows (rather than just sidescreens) all the way into the 80’s. The Roadster was by then in its fourth series, but the engine had been heavily capped to a smaller V8 with only 155 hp – not even an Excalibur could completely avoid the oil crisis. The problem was that over the years the weight had almost doubled to close to two tons, meaning this by now was very far from being a performance car. It was also far from being a good deal with the price having increased about as much as the weight, to around USD 170′ in today’s money…
As spectacular as the Excalibur was, buyers no longer found this a very interesting proposition, Stevens had to file for the company’s first bankruptcy in 1986, and this woud be the start of a long line of owners over the coming years who all tried to revive the business, and who all failed. Henry Warner took over Excalibur in 1987, created the Excalibur Marketing Corporation with a plan to sell the Excalibur Series V. The engine was back to the original V8, but prices were roughly the same as before and success wasn’t much bigger. Warner sold far too few cars and had to throw in the towel only three years later, in 1990. A certain Michael Timmer then bought the rights to Excalibur, but he went bust before he’d made any cars at all. The last in the tragic row was Udo Geitlinger who acquired the rights to build Excaliburs in 1991 and relaunched the brand three years later with the Roadster Series VI. They would sell a few dozen cars but towards the end of the 90’s, the Excalibur lights went out for good.
There is still an Excalibur Motor Corporation today, but that is one focused on restoring and maintaining as many of the existing cars as possible, both the Sportster and the Phaeton, with no plans for any new cars. In total, around 3500 Excaliburs were built through the years, all in the company’s home town of Milwaukee. How many have survived to this day isn’t clear, and it also seems to be matter of debate whether you like Excaliburs to have survived at all – no one is indifferent. But in a very uniform car world, isn’t it a breeze of fresh air when someone sets out on an arguably crazy project such as this one, and still manages to build a few thousand cars? Personally though, I don’t have any special feelings for the Excalibur. I’ve never driven one but knowing it’s a 60’s US car with a big V8, lots of power, a steering wheel tilted like a bus and initially radial tires, something tells me it’s more at home in a straight line than on a twisty mountain road. And it’s certainly not a car for the shy!
One thought on “The most bling-bling of them all!”
Fabulous ride.. would fit in my environment,