History originally published in AutoWeek, April 6, 1985
All right, let’s have a show of hands. Who thinks that Excalibur is a sports car?
Ha, just as I thought. It’s unanimous, except for that guy with the toupee that ties under the chin.
And in this case it’s the majority that’s right, because lately Excaliburs have been made to do anything but go and handle. The Series IV, made up until this year, was two tons of styling porked around by 155 BHP. The Series I had a frame – the first made specifically for the Excalibur – that weighed 1100 pounds. Even the Series V, new for 1985 and the best Excalibur in years, is based on a Chevy S-10 pickup chassis.*
Very well made, exotic, sure. But sporting? No way, not in the sense of an RX-7 or a 944. Or an MGB, even.
But the first Excalibur SS, the Series I, was something else. Picture a 300-HP front-mid-engine roadster with cycle fenders and cut down sides instead of doors, a classic fiberglass body by one of the best-known stylist in the US and a heritage including SCCA racing in the early ‘50s. Consider times like 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds by Car and Driver test. Road & Track said the prototype’s handling was “virtually neutral” and “very steady at any speed up to 100 mph.”
That ain’t bad. Maybe not a Cobra, but then it wasn’t intended to be.
What it was supposed to be was a show car, something to spice up the Studebaker stand at the 1964 New York Auto Show. Brooks Stevens had been hired as a design consultant for the South Bend firm and had produced a trio of tarted-up Larks and a fancy Hawk for the Chicago show. But with GM exhibiting prototypes for Japanese sci-fi flicks, the Studebaker stand was about as deserted as its showrooms. Stevens knew a more radical approach was in order.
Thus the rationale for what Stephen dubbed a “contemporary classic.” Fan of the Mercedes SSK, Stevens envisioned a car that had the appeal of the classic but practicality of, well, a Studebaker. So he ordered up a Lark Daytona convertible chassis, chosen for sturdiness, upon which to build his show car. An older style frame, the Lark chassis had narrow rails, was generally made it a disaster for anything but a slim roadster. The supercharged Studebaker 289-CID engine could also be set further back, which it was, some 29 inches. Six weeks after the chassis arrived at Stevens’ Milwaukee studios and just in time for the New York show, son “Steve” Stevens had converted it into a downsize replica of the Merc SSK, with an aluminum body and a pointed radiator shell made of brass.
Steve took the car to New York, but Studebaker got cold feet about the whole deal and decided against putting the car on its stand. But show promoter Jerry Allen came up with another booth and the car was displayed as a product of Brooks Stevens Design Associates, although with the “Studebaker SS” script yet affixed. It was Allen, a New York Chevy dealer, whom Brooks Stevens credits with the decision to produce and to use the Chevrolet engine. Allen had lined up a dozen orders but couldn’t envision a Studebaker-engined car in his showroom in the General Motors Building.
Only the prototype had the Stude engine. The Stevens brothers, Steve and David, went to a local Milwaukee Chevy dealer and ordered Corvette engines over the parts counter. This was cottage industry, Wisconsin style. With $10,000 from dad and another $50,000 or so from the bank, Steve, 21 and just out of college, and David, only a couple years older, went into business. The car was renamed Excalibur, after Brooks Stevens’ early ‘50s racers.
More than just the engine was changed from the prototype. The aluminum body became fiberglass and the engine was moved up, but the Lark frame stayed the same, complete with Avanti (Bendix-Dunlop) disc brakes upfront and 10 ½-inch finned drums in the rear. The Lark suspension, double A-arms up front and a live axle in the back, was modified only so as to accommodate the roadster’s curb weight of 2,350 pounds. If a Lark chassis seems a bit prosaic for a genuine sports car, need I list off the veddy proper British and for that matter Italian and German sports cars with sedan origins?
Headlights on the early cars were Marchals, and the fender-mounted turn signals were genuine Lucas parts. Infatuated with the exhaust pipes of the SSK, Brooks Stevens, on one of his trips to Europe, bought the real thing from the original supplier and shipped it to America. “Low and behold,” notes Excalibur authority Corbett Shearon, “that rotted out in a hurry so shortly after that they went to the whole stainless exhaust system.”
The exhaust system, which converts the four ports per side to three side pipes by virtue of a rectangular plenum, created an unusual problem. If the engine were soft-mounted, as is common, the side pipes would tear holes in the aluminum hood and side panels as they rocked. So the engines were solidly mounted. It’s a problem only if the engine is out of tune, in which case you’ll be able to tell how many cylinders are missing by how many fillings have been shaken loose.
The first cars also used a sausage-type Walker muffler inside the three-inch diameter side tubes, but when Walker discontinued production the inner muffler from Corvette side pipes was substituted, though hacksawed down to about 2 feet in length.
The top was in the best English sports car tradition, requiring three Eagle Scouts and a Webelo to erect. The main bow is held by thumbscrews outside either side of the cockpit and the fabric is unfurled over this assembled tubing.
Production got underway in 1965 with 56 roadsters made, a heady figure for a freshman-year auto builder. In 1966, 87 roadsters were built. And, as a portent of things to come, that was also the year that the phaeton, a roadster with a backseat, was introduced. Only three were made that year, but phaeton production jumped to almost half the line in 1967, which came to 38 roadsters and 33 phaetons. It was 37 and 20 in 1968, then crossed over to 41 roadsters and 44 phaetons in 1969, the last year for the Series I. (This trend to phaetons would continue unabated, which defined for Stevens the direction toward which the product should evolve.)
In late 1966 full fenders with running boards were first offered as an option. Cycle fenders offered minimal splash protection, as they didn’t turn with the wheels. The running boards covered up the side pipes. Exposed side pipes are sexier, but they’re also a quick ticket it to an intimate tour of the burn unit of your local hospital.
Dr. Alex Stemer, whose street-driven Lola T-163 we featured on this page in the January 21 issue, owns a ‘67 full-fender Excalibur roadster equipped with the 327-inch, 350-horse engine with the Muncie four-speed and 3.31 limited slip rear axle. It’s an unrestored original with but 10,000 miles on the odometer, so original that it has cracking paint on exposed portions of the frame. The reason for this, opines Shearon, is that to smooth out the visible frame sections, the Stevens used body putty. And with age and flexing, the body putty – and paint – cracks. It wouldn’t be authentic without them.
Doc Stemer sums up the car best in a physician’s understatement: “(it) tends to be somewhat of a handful when accelerated hard in low gear.” Ha. Actually it’s hard to do anything else. Trying for normal departure by bringing the revs up and letting out the clutch will result in a chirp from the tires and incredibly shrinking traffic in the rearview mirror. The only way possible ease away from standing is not to bring the revs up at all: Let the clutch out at idle – the engine won’t stall – and then feed in more gas after the car gets rolling.
Underway, any trepidation one may have about the handling is quickly rewarded. The Excalibur has the same tenuous relationship with the ground as a small airplane going for takeoff on a windy day. You’re aware of the pavement, you can feel the ripples and seams, but there is a lot of pitch and yaw. Especially yaw. It’s an unnerving rubber band feeling. Part of it is the original equipment Power Cushion tires, and it’s part frame-flex and stiff suspension. Long curves are the worst. The Excalibur can’t decide whether it wants to oversteer or understeer, so it spends a little time doing both. Which is not to say that the Excalibur can’t be cornered fast – especially compared to its contemporaries – it’s just that it requires mucho attention to do so.
Which brings us back to our original point: Is the Excalibur a sports car? Well, Doc Stemer and I stayed out driving too long, coming home in the dark and the rain. Being Real Men and not having so much as a Cub Scout along, we didn’t assemble the top, relying on the windshield keep us dry.
Of course, as anyone who has tried this knows, the inside of the windshield was soon wet, making the hard-to-see street markings even more difficult. Then, too, we weren’t really going fast enough for the rain to be deflected over our heads. And, of course, we were stopped at a traffic light. I submit that I haven’t had so much fun being miserable in a long time. The Excalibur – or at least the Series I – must be a sports car.
Just never mind what came later.
After this story was published, I got a phone call from AutoWeek editor Leon Mandel, asking me why a Chevy S-10 pick up frame was in his office. It seems that the Stevens had taken umbrage at the statement that the 1985 Excalibur Series V was built on just that.
Well, I told Leon, I had called hoping to get an interview with Steve or David Brooks. However they declined but gave me the telephone number of an Excalibur enthusiast who could answer any questions I might have. And Leon, I said, I recorded the conversation with the person they referred me to and have the transcript typed out. Can I send you a copy? No, said Leon, that won’t be necessary.
And that was the last I heard of it. To this day, I don’t know what happened to Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck chassis in Leon’s. However, for the record, no Excalibur was ever built on it.