COLLECTIBLE EXCALIBUR ROADSTER SERIES I '65-'69
by Bob Hagin
March 19, 1999
Owning an Excalibur of any vintage is not going to happen to very many auto enthusiasts. During the years that the company produced complete cars, less than 2500 of the original "classic" style Excaliburs were built.
All of which makes Excalibur ownership by Bob Potter so exceptional. Not only has he owned several Excaliburs, but he currently has two of them, including a '72 Series II Phaeton and a '66 Series I Roadster which he has owned three different times. Among other business ventures, Potter is an auto wholesaler/retailer who deals in unusual vehicles, but his all-time favorite, he says, is his spartan and very fast Excalibur Series I Roadster.
The birth of the Excalibur line rose from the ashes of Studebaker, an auto maker that had been around for 114 years until it finally bit the dust in 1966. In a desperate attempt at averting the inevitable, in 1964, Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert called upon Brooks Stevens, a well-known industrial designer and auto stylist, to produce "something" that would draw public attention to the company's display at the New York Auto Show that year. In response, Stevens designed and built an ersatz Mercedes SSK circa 1928 atop a Studebaker Lark Daytona chassis and supercharged 289 cubic-inch V8 engine. The idea had two basis: Stevens had at one time owned an original SSK, a two-seater sports-racer that was classic in its simplicity, and Studebaker was distributing Mercedes cars in the United States in the '60s. It took Stevens and his two sons, Steve and David, just six weeks of day-and-night labor at the family's comprehensive shops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to complete the prototype.
And the resulting roadster was, indeed, evocative of the ancient German racer. Its doorless, narrow body accommodated a driver, a passenger and nothing else. The add-on motorcycle-type fenders barely covered the narrow tires and the V8 engine was covered by a hood that took up a third of the length of the car. Up front were a pair of large, stand-alone teardrop headlamps and a pointed fine-mesh grille that was as close a copy of the original SSK as possible. The short, flat windshield could be folded tightly against the hood, but the piece de resistance were the four four-inch diameter flexible exhaust pipes that protruded from each side of the hood. Both culminated in twin side pipes that ended just ahead of the rear tires.
Needless to say, with 290 horsepower available, the 2100-pound Studebaker SSK was a rocket.
After a few days of fine tuning the car, there was just time for Steve Stevens to truck the car to the New York show in time for the opening. But when he arrived, the Studebaker representative informed him that the company had canceled plans to capitalize on the spectacular sportster and instead would concentrate on the concept of Studebaker building "...a safe and sane car for a family of six." It did, however, allow the Stevens family enterprise to display the car, albeit not on the Studebaker stand.
The car was a sensation and attracted an immense amount of attention. Legend has it that it was aided by the fact that its impromptu display stand was located adjacent to a major food concession booth.
In fact, the car attracted so much attention that a representative of the largest Chevrolet dealership in the country told Stevens that if he could produce the car with a Corvette engine, he'd put in a firm order for 20 units. Within a short time, the Brooks brothers decided to go into the auto-building business and to substitute Corvette engines and Muncie four-speed transmissions for the Studebaker units.
The project also attracted the attention of several other heavy- hitters in the auto retailing business and soon, the two Stevens brothers (father Brooks wasn't a financial party to the ensuing project) had firm orders from distributors in Florida, New York and, of course, Southern California.
The drawbacks that the family enterprise faced were that it had no manufacturing plant, no sources of supply for the necessary parts (the prototype was built of propriety parts accumulated on an as-needed basis) and no experience in mass production. But "SS Automobiles" was soon producing Chevrolet-powered Excalibur Series I Roadsters back home in Milwaukee. The Excalibur name was taken from the several Willys- powered sports-racers the elder Stevens had produced in the early '50s.
It's one of these early Series I Roadsters, produced in '66, that Bob Potter periodically brings out of his garage for an extended tour on sunny summer days. "You can't help attracting attention," Potter explained. "A little too much throttle and the back tires are smoked." And after many short trips with Potter over the years (we've been friends for nearly half a century) I can attest to the fact his Excalibur is as "twitchy" on the road as it is fast.
The Excalibur was produced in various forms for many years and I'm told that the company still exists to supply parts and even an occasional complete car. Later versions grew larger, much more luxurious and much more expensive. Potter's four-seater Phaeton model is one of these and he's reluctant about bringing it out. "It's not as much fun as the Roadster," he flatly states.
And "fun" is what a car like the Excalibur Roadster is all about.