Curbside Classic: 1975 Excalibur Series III Phaeton, 1989 Touring Sedan and 1990 Limousine – How A Semi-Tasteful Beginning Became The Epitome Of Kitsch

1963 is a milestone year in design history, and I’m not talking about the new Corvette Sting Ray, Riviera or Grand Prix. For some curious reason, two of America’s best known designers both decided that what the world really needed was neo-classical cars. Former Chrysler VP of Design Virgil Exner was commissioned by Esquire magazine to show where the future direction of automobile design was headed, and the result was a series of four drawings of a Mercer, Stutz, Duesenberg and Packard Revival. That resulted in several of them being the basis of efforts to produce them, most notably the Duesenberg. These drawings and their offshoots are given major credit in the turn towards neo-classical design trends and the resultant Great Brougham Epoch.

In that same year, Studebaker design consultant Brooks Stevens was asked to build something exciting for the New York Auto Show. He came up with a neo-retro take on the classic 1920’s Mercedes SSK, called the Excalibur (was it coincidence that its name was so similar to Exner’s?). Although Studebaker changed its mind at the last minute, Stevens showed it anyway, and was swamped with interest and even orders. It resulted in a long line of Excaliburs that started out relatively tasteful but all too soon morphed into something truly hideous and tasteless. This Series III Phaeton from the mid-late ’70s marks something of the beginning of that long decline. And the Touring Sedan and Limousine mark the ghastly end.

The idea of the Excalibur was rooted firmly in the genre of genuine sports cars. In 1951-1952, when Stevens was a design consultant to Kaiser-Frazer and contributed to the new 1951 Kaiser, he built some three sports cars based on the Henry J chassis that he dubbed “Excalibur J”, and created a racing team that competed quite effectively against some of the top sports cars of the time. It was claimed (by Stevens) to be faster than a Jaguar XK-120, despite the souped up little Kaiser six (one did get a Jaguar engine).

I’m not sure if this is the original as shown at the NY Auto Show or one of the first ones built thereafter, but it’s dated from 1964 and shows what Stevens wrought with his take on the legendary Mercedes SSK.

Here’s the original 1927 version, in case you’re not familiar with it, one of Ferdinand Porsche’s finer creations. It was a shortened, lightened and supercharged version of the Model S, itself a “Sport” version of the rather ponderous Mercedes Type 630. It became a legend in its time, and for those enthusiasts weaned during its long period of influence, it was something equivalent to the Lamborghini Miura or Countach for those of a later era. If kids had had posters of cars on their walls in the late ’20s, ’30s and even the ’40s, this is what would have been on them.

A significant rationale of Stevens for the Excalibur was that it would be cheaper to buy than to restore a genuine SSK. That says something about the price of SSK’s in 1963, as they are of course worth millions today. As to the specifics, when Stevens was commissioned, he had Studebaker ship him a Daytona chassis, the stiffest and best at the time, along with a supercharged 289 Stude V8.

The body was of course a custom fabrication, and after he was showered with interest at the show, he set up his two young sons, Steven and David, with a new company, SS Motors, to build them, for some $6,000 ($50k adjusted).

It took a couple of years to get them rolling out of a small factory, but by 1966, some 56 had been made, and the model range extended to include a four-passenger Phaeton.

Here’s the ever-dashingly dressed Stevens in one of the early SI Phaetons. Although the show car had the Studebaker V8, they realized that it was not an attractive commodity anymore, and from the first production car, a 300hp 327 Chevy V8 was substituted. But it still sat on a Studebaker frame and chassis. Performance was excellent, given its light weight. Production was around 100 units annually through 1969, the end of the Series I.

The Series II arrived in 1970, with a new bespoke frame that was 2″ longer in wheelbase, and used Corvette suspension and disc brakes front and rear. The engine became the ubiquitous 350 Chevy V8, backed by either a four speed manual or the three-speed THM 350. And it’s rather (and painfully) obvious that the first descent into styling hell was already evident, what with the grossly elongated front frame members, multiple horns, VW turn signals front and back, and other changes to the body as well as various details. No one was going to buy this because it was cheaper than restoring a genuine SSK. The ’70s Super Fly era was in full bloom, and the era of pimp and kitsch-mobiles had started.

This Excalibur, which I inexplicably found in my neighborhood a few years back, is a Series III, which arrived in 1975 along with an upsurge in sales (and selling price).

The frame was lengthened to a 112″ wheelbase, and to counter the droop in power due to emission controls, it sported a 215 (net) hp 454 big block Chevy V8. The front fenders were now less authentic than ever, with their partially filled undersides.

The VW Beetle “elephant foot” tail lights are obvious, although on this one there’s a piece of polished aluminum or such covering its top.

The cockpit is obviously snug, and one wonders just how many folks have ever sat in the back seat.

Here’s a look into the driver’s compartment. The steering wheel looks to be a cheap off-the-shelf unit.

And I rather expected a genuine wood dash “board”.  Curiously, the driver seems to have left it in Drive.

Presumably still a stock Chevy suspension. I didn’t look under the rear to see if the series III still had the Corvette IRS. I really doubt the buyers of these could have cared less. These were now paraded on certain streets in certain cities where its demographic lived. Any sporting pretensions were long gone.

Despite the wire safety covers over the auxiliary head lights.

1980 brought the Series IV, and now the Excalibur had jumped the shark into full-on kitschdom. Power for the larger and heavier car was now a modest 305 cubic inch Chevy V8, but who cared, as long as it got you down to the yacht club or wherever folks who bought these drove them.

1985 brought the Series V, presumably with enough changes to warrant a new name. But things were not hunky-dory; sales and finances were both sliding downhill, and the first bankruptcy took place in 1987. But the vaunted name would mean numerous revivals of the revival. New owners just couldn’t stay away, like moths to the flame, to be burned over and over. Suckers each.

Perhaps even more inexplicable than finding the Series III in my back yard, a year or two earlier I found these…monstrosities in a used car lot in Eugene. How utterly unlikely. And given that I never saw them again, I suspect they, um, didn’t find buyers, and went somewhere more suitable, like Las Vegas.

The “shorter” one is the four door Touring Sedan, introduced under the ownership of the then current owner, Excalibur Marketing Company (“EMC”). It used a stretched 144″ wb version of the frame and suitable coachwork. It measures 224″ overall length and weighs 4400 lbs.

Here’s a view into its delightful interior, with another steering wheel that looks like it came straight off a kit car. Well, this was something of a kit car.

The rear compartment.

It was available at the time for a mere $49,900. I’m sure it’s appreciated substantially since then. Shoulda bought it.

“This 4-door Coupe is a wonderful and very collectable piece”. Don’t let T87 see that!  And a new engine too!

Isn’t this an impressive sight? I was deeply moved. Stunned, actually.

Especially by the horns that have covers, to improve the cars’ aerodynamics, undoubtedly.

Dr. Porsche would be spinning in his grave…

But let’s check out the “Grosser” Excalibur.

A glimpse at its capacious rear compartment, thanks to a 204″ wheelbase. And of course the obligatory crystal glasses and decanters.

This bad boy was on offer for a mere $110k. Eugeneians! Can’t you see a steal of a deal when you see one? Time to ditch those 20 year old Corollas and get with it, maybe 20 years late. But that’s Eugene for you; always behind the times.

Note: “This is one of the originals and not a stretch”.  Just a stretch of an original. Or something like that. And for $110k you get a brand “new 350/4-barrell” engine to boot! “One of two made!” Wow; how did we deserve to have this in our midst?

That “350-4-barrell” engine undoubtedly makes wonderful rumbling noises through its fully functional external exhaust pipes.

No wonder there were only two of the limos built: Excalibur went bankrupt again in 1990. This time a German by the name of Michael Timmer bought the company with ambitious plans to rejuvenate the plant and put the roadster back into production too. But it all came to nothing, as he ran out of money before a single car was built.

But another duo of Germans, the father-and-son team of Udo and Jens Geitlinger, who’d made a fortune in real estate, bought the remains in 1992. 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.”

But it all came to mostly naught, once again. They diversified by building Shelby Cobra replicas and a few Excalibur spin-offs, but by 1997 only various truck accessories were being made and by 2000, it was once again bankrupt.

But in 2003, Alice Preston, a former associate of 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. Which “former” body styles is not exactly known.

May I suggest to Ms. Preston that perhaps the Excalibur—like all things—has had its day, or decades even, and perhaps is best left to our memories, for better or for worse?