Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Sometimes, you have to give up something good to get something good.
Marshfield, Wis., car buff Guy Carpenter has shuffled cars plenty of times over the years. He’s always been a hard-core performance Chevrolet enthusiast and collector. The list of cars that have passed through his garages over the years is mighty impressive – none more than the original “Holy Grail” 1969 ZR-1 Corvette he ordered new from the factory when he was just 20 years old and stored it in pristine condition for many years.
In 2014, Carpenter had to reluctantly sell another car he loved to make room for a new baby in his man cave. Carpenter had been smitten with early Excaliburs from a young age, and he finally figured he was destined to own one after a really nice example fell into his lap. That meant he had to clear out some floor space. “I parted ways with a ’62 Impala sport sedan, 327, four-barrel, air-conditioning, dual exhausts. It had an over-the-top restoration,” Carpenter says. “It was a really nice car, but I thought this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
That opportunity was a 1968 Series I Excalibur SSK roadster — a neo-classic brainchild of famed designer Brooks Stevens. Boutique, retro-style cars produced by the Milwaukee, Wis.-based company probably weren’t high on the wish lists of most American muscle car fanatics, but Carpenter was fascinated by Excaliburs long before he ever saw one. When the time finally seemed right to own one, he was determined to make it happen.
"My first exposure was the early magazine articles that were done about the first prototype, when Brooks Stevens had done the car for Studebaker I believe it was,” Carpenter recalls. “Road and Track did the first article on it, that would have been in the summer or fall of ’64 I think. I read every car magazine there was at that time and I’d never heard of an Excalibur. Then some other magazines did articles on them and I just thought they were really cool. That was about the same time that Glen Prey did the Cord, too.
"I frequented Road America [race track in Wisconsin] a lot after I got out of high school and Excalibur would have their owners convention and party at the factory once a year and on a race weekend at Road America. On day two of the convention a fleet of Excaliburs would roll in. They’d all line up and park together. You’d walk through them and it was like, ‘Wow!‘ They were so unique.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and the Corvette-loving Carpenter was back in the Milwaukee area checking out a ‘Vette that was part of a well-known collection owned by car dealer Frank Boucher. Carpenter liked the ‘Vette, but he liked the Excalibur he spotted in the building even more.
“I expressed that I always admired Excaliburs, especially the early ones, and truthfully it was one of the few early cars that I had ever seen. There are so few of them. Only 349 Series 1 cars were built,” Carpenter noted. “The second time I was in that building I said if that car ever became available, I’d be interested in it. I did some research on it, and two years later I get a phone call and there was a message on the machine … The Excalibur was available. Frank was making some room for something else and if I’m interested in the car, I need to react. I told my wife about it, we headed down there and looked at the car, drove the car and when I slid behind the wheel to take it for a test drive; the odometer showed 19,280 some miles on it. It was quite believable, when I looked at the safety sticker on the windshield from the State of New York, I believe it was from May of ’96, and on the back side of the sticker it said 19,171 miles… We ended up buying the car.”
Carpenter chuckles at the thought that his test drive that day was the first time he had ever ridden in an Excalibur. It didn’t disappoint him, but it quickly made it clear how different the cars are from other machines he had owned.
"It was absolutely the first time I had been in one, and I’ll tell you, it’s a completely different sensation from anything else I had ever driven because of the proportions of the car,” he says. “It’s quite light. Very nimble. Power steering wasn’t even an option, and yet it’s an easy car to steer. It was kind of the sensation of a steam locomotive, because of how the engineer has that vastness out in front of him. When you maneuver the car, you just see this big font end sticking out in front of you. It was an extremely cool thing and the research I did told me this was an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day. Do something or forever hold your peace! You’re not going to get many chances to buy this automobile, and in this condition.”
BROOKS’ BIG IDEA
Industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who was associated with Studebaker during its last years at South Bend, Ind., conceived the idea of building a modern car in the image of a sports classic of the past. The result was a car resembling the 1928 Mercedes-Benz. It was based on the Studebaker convertible chassis and was to be Studebaker-powered. However, Studebaker's decision to halt all American production caused Stevens to use Chevrolet Corvette engines.
The Stevens prototype first burst onto the scene at the New York Auto Show in 1964, using a Studebaker Daytona chassis and Studebaker supercharged 289 V-8 for propulsion. Before the idea got much further, Studebaker went belly-up and stopped building cars.
Stevens’ idea didn’t die, however. They had enough customers from the auto show interested that they began taking orders and produced 56 cars based on the SSK prototype. They called their sassy, fiberglass-bodied retro roadster the SS, and charged customers $7,250 to own one. The cars featured the Chevy Corvette 327-cid V-8 with 300hp and a standard four-speed manual transmission. Buyers could also get a three-speed. Production grew to a modest 90 cars the following year, when the deluxe roadster model was added. It had long, sloping fenders, running boards and larger rear fenders than the SS version. For 1967, a two-door, four-passenger phaeton was added as production for the model year totaled 71 cars.
For the 1968 model year, production was 57 cars, including Carpenter’s SSK, which was built in November of 1967, given serial no. 1135 and apparently used as a factory demonstrator by the company. Series I production carried on for one more year before Series II production began for the 1970 model year. The Series II cars looked much the same as their predecessors, with the biggest change being a new chassis with a slightly longer wheelbase.
Another generation started in 1975 with the Series III cars that carried Chevy’s 454 V-8. The Series IV Excalibur debuted for 1980 and resembled a luxury cruiser more than a sports car.
Eventually, a lousy economy and lousy sales forced the company, still run by the Stevens family, to declare bankruptcy. A second ownership group came in and tried to keep things going, but was only able to last until 1990, when production halted again. A third venture was started in 1991 and lasted a year before it, too, had to call it quits.
In 2003, the company name and assets were bought out by Alice Preston, one of Stevens’ original employees with the company from the 1960s. Preston and her Camelot Classic Cars business do restorations and supply parts for all eras of Excaliburs, as well as serving as keepers of the company’s history and legacy.
After apparently being used for a time by the factory, Carpenter’s roadster was sold to a man named Henry Dormann in New York in the spring of 1969. Dormann’s family owned the car until 1998, when a group from Wisconsin bought it. Boucher added it to his collection in 2007 before Carpenter got the title in 2014. The deal included a bunch of original literature and paperwork from 1960s. The mileage at the time Carpenter took the keys was just 19,886.
The SSK features the 3-speed Borg-Warner transmission and Hurst dual-gate shifter, which were both optional. “It’s got the optional doors. They made no-door models, where you just climbed in an out,” Carpenter notes. “The steps [below the doors] are an option. There is a tonneau cover. The side curtains and a hardtop roof were standard with t he car for weather protection. The red line tires were an option, and you could get whitewalls, too…. The wind wings are option. The radio was an option — this car has a radio, and one speaker! [laughs]. It has one speaker on the passenger side. The wire wheels were standard equipment with knock-offs. I haven’t seen painted wheels, so I assume the chrome was standard. And it’s got power brakes.”
"It’s really fun to drive. The shipping weight is only about 2,150 lbs. so with the fuel and driver it’s probably about 2,500 lbs. It’s got plenty of power, sure. It’s a little challenging, at that weight, when you really get on it.”
Carpenter doesn’t put a lot of miles on his Excalibur these days, but he tries to take it out for regular exercise on sunny summer days. In 2017, he had the car at the Iola Car Show in Iola, Wis., as part of a new class of second-generation collector cars. It’s a trend he hopes continues at shows where Excalibur owners might not otherwise show up. “The Europeans are crazy about these cars,” he says. “Alice Preston said that if Americans don’t’ smarten up, all the Excaliburs will be in Europe. I bought it because I wanted to enjoy the uniqueness of it, drive it, show it, take care of it. I looked at it as an opportunity. I know it’s a great investment for the simple reason that a lot of people would love to own an Excalibur, but there wasn’t many of them built.”
When Carpenter ever gets seller’s remorse thinking about his departed ’62 Impala, he can take his Excalibur for a spin and get cheered up in a hurry. “My daughter told me one time, ‘Dad, you’ve had a lot of interesting cars, but this one has the most visual impact out of all of them. You just can’t help but look at it.’
“I though, well, that’s one of the big reasons I was attracted to it in the first place.”
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