Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Milwaukee Famous

Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Milwaukee Famous

Purple prose (or maybe just mauve?)

Awhile back Hem­mings Motor News repost­ed my arti­cle on Brooks Stevens, with a gra­tu­itous opin­ion: “Per­haps Langworth’s ten­den­cy toward pur­ple prose in this pro­file of Brooks Stevens in Spe­cial Inter­est Autos #71, Octo­ber 1982, is appro­pri­ate, giv­en the pic­ture he paints of the leg­endary design­er.” Nice to be remem­bered, but, er, Hem­mings paid only for first rights and is there­fore in copy­right violation.

An old edi­tor at SIA wrote: “Noth­ing purple—it reads like an essay in The New York­er.” (Ah, if only Hem­mings paid New York­er rates!)  Anoth­er col­league wrote: “Not pur­ple, maybe faint mauve.” A third: “Ugh, I can’t read it. The prose is too pur­ple for me. They real­ly think the Excal­ibur J can run with a Jaguar XK120?” But Tony Stevens wrote: “As the cur­rent own­er of the first Excal­ibur J, I can attest that it can run com­pet­i­tive­ly with an XK120. Right, Tony! The XK120 was a great car—but the young­sters have swal­lowed too much pur­ple prose about it.

Here­with I repub­lish my pur­ple-mauve piece on my late friend Brooks Stevens. Read­ers may judge for themselves.

“The judgment of the historian”

“You’ll have to resolve the con­flict between Dutch Dar­rin and Kip Stevens,” I was told after being assigned my first auto­mo­tive arti­cle assign­ment, on Kaiser-Fraz­er, in 1970. The ori­gins of the land­mark 1951 Kaiser were at the time still unclear. Both Dar­rin and Stevens claimed it. (See “Kaiser Capers.”) Nei­ther was com­pli­men­ta­ry in describ­ing the efforts of the oth­er. “It might be best not to press the mat­ter,” a friend warned. The pub­lish­er dis­agreed: “Hear both sides and make the judg­ment of the historian.”

I didn’t know I was a his­to­ri­an! But I wrote to Stevens at his stu­dio near Mil­wau­kee and said in effect, “Tell me every­thing you remem­ber about the 1951 Kaiser.”

The gor­geous 1951 Kaiser. The “full-perime­ter bumper” was Brooks Stevens’ idea dat­ing back to facelift pro­pos­als for the ’48 models.

By return mail came a large white fold­er with gilt let­ter­ing, con­tain­ing a thick pile of pho­tographs and a long, detailed let­ter doc­u­ment­ing Brooks “Kip” Stevens’ role as a design con­sul­tant to Kaiser-Fraz­er. With­in a year we’d met, and our friend­ship with­stood the “judg­ment of the his­to­ri­an,” which appeared in Last Onslaught on Detroit in 1975. (For used copies search on bookfinder.com.)

The judg­ment did not sat­is­fy Kip, and in turn pro­duced anoth­er white and gilt fold­er with fur­ther doc­u­men­ta­tion. On this sub­ject it would be accu­rate to say that we had dif­fer­ences but not mis­un­der­stand­ings. Cor­dial­i­ty nev­er suf­fered, for Stevens was a mas­ter of cordiality.

Stevens as I knew him

He was a tall, good look­ing man who belied his age, whose appear­ance and demeanor reflect­ed what Cole Porter called High Soci­ety. For Stevens there was only one way to fly to Paris: Con­corde. And one way to get to Eng­land: first class on the QE2. His per­son­al tastes reflect­ed sim­i­lar stan­dards, pro­duc­ing an aura of refined ele­gance. He took pains about every­thing. Meet­ing him, peo­ple were impressed but nev­er over­awed, because he was so nat­ur­al, so full of cour­tesy and fun.

It was not hard to gain Kip’s acquain­tance, whether you were a mechan­ic in over­alls or the Pres­i­dent of Gen­er­al Motors. Along with an inborn civil­i­ty and an inter­est in oth­ers went an all-encom­pass­ing love for cars, an ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge, and a streak of nihilism.

Stevens
Excal­ibur SS Series III in rue de Turenne, Paris. (LPLT, Cre­ative Commons)

Stevens once invit­ed my friend Bill Tilden to Wis­con­sin to dri­ve his Hen­ry J-based sports car, the Excal­ibur J, at Elkhart Lake. Brooks him­self drove there in his per­son­al Excal­ibur. This pro­duced a heli­copter-assist­ed road­block of the ram­bunc­tious design­er. It seemed he had vio­lat­ed most Wis­con­sin road ordi­nances plus sev­er­al they hadn’t thought of yet.

Pic­ture Brooks, trail­ing a silk scarf, dri­ving a very loud open sports car with what the British call “assur­ance.” Pic­ture next an army of gen­darmerie, includ­ing air­craft. Fail­ing to catch him in their cruis­ers, they block the road ahead. Now pic­ture the near­est con­sta­ble (sev­en feet tall as they all are). Jerk­ing his thumb at the Excalibur’s sar­to­ri­al­ly splen­did dri­ver, he shouts: YOU—OUT! Kip paid his fine. It was substantial.

A truly lovely man

The world’s last great French­men: René Drey­fus with broth­er Mau­rice at the late, sad­ly lament­ed “Le Chante­clair,” 49th Street, Man­hat­tan. (Don Vorderman)

He had vast gen­eros­i­ty, which did not always func­tion in his favor. One press night at the New York Auto­mo­bile Show, Kip arrived at René and Mau­rice Drey­fus’ famous auto­mo­tive water­ing hole, “Le Chante­clair,” with a large ret­inue of admir­ers. The broth­ers Drey­fus were hard­pressed to seat such a large assem­bly. They even­tu­al­ly did, at a long table with Brooks as cen­ter­piece. Here he held forth for three hours to his impromp­tu court.

Le Chante­clair was nev­er the place for a cheap meal. The bill came, for what I recall was uncom­fort­ably close to a thou­sand 1974 dol­lars. Brooks qui­et­ly laid down his Amer­i­can Express card. Those who had no inten­tion of sock­ing him with that tab sur­rep­ti­tious­ly hand­ed him cash, but a good half the com­pa­ny didn’t both­er. There was no sign that our host was in the least dis­ap­point­ed: the mea­sure of a man who spared no expense for the plea­sure of an evening among friends, pro­vid­ed your descrip­tion of “friends” is fair­ly elastic.

Stevens triumphs

Stevens
1949 Willys Jeep­ster. (Bull-Dos­er at Eng­lish Wikipedia)

I once stole a line from Schlitz and called Brooks, to his great delight, “The Seer Who Made Mil­wau­kee Famous.” He was one of the ten char­ter Fel­lows of the Indus­tri­al Design Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca. To the auto­mo­tive trade he brought impec­ca­ble cre­den­tials. Ulti­mate­ly he would con­tribute designs to over 40 makes of car. One of his ear­li­est asso­ci­a­tions was with Willys-Over­land, dur­ing and after World War II. He con­ceived of Willys’ most inter­est­ing prod­ucts: the the first all-steel sta­tion wag­on (1946); and the 1948-51 Jeep­ster, the world’s last pro­duc­tion tour­ing car.

A con­trib­u­tor to Kaiser-Fraz­er from almost the out­set of that ven­ture, Brooks pro­posed the first prac­ti­cal facelifts for the plug-ugly 1947-48 mod­els, includ­ing wag­ons and hard­tops, which they des­per­ate­ly need­ed but rejected.

Stevens
Kip’s wag­on pro­pos­al for the ear­ly Kaiser (they should have built one). Note wrap­around bumper, vast glass area and padded dash, then nov­el­ties. (Brooks Stevens)

Man­age­ment didn’t take his advice, but assigned him a design com­pe­ti­tion for the new-gen­er­a­tion 1951 Kaiser. It is the con­sen­sus today that the basic shape select­ed was Darrin’s, but the con­test was not win­ner-take-all (see Kaiser pho­to above). Kip was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly busy on a score of accounts in a half dozen coun­tries, with cor­po­ra­tions like Allis-Chalmers, Miller Beer, Brig­gs & Strat­ton, Evin­rude, Lawn-Boy, 3M, Out­board Marine Avi­a­tion, Sears Roe­buck, and Club Xanadu in Cos­ta Rica. At the time of the Kaiser styling con­test he was involved with Alfa Romeo on the 6C 2500. Dar­rin had only the Kaiser project on his plate. Had it been a one-on-one con­test, things might have been different.

Kaiser and beyond

And many of his con­tri­bu­tions were used on Kaiser prod­ucts. After the Kaisers bought Willys in 1953, Stevens designed the Jeep Wag­oneer, a shape that last­ed 30 years. He always referred to this and his oth­er styling projects in the plur­al: “we” did this or that. He sim­ply want­ed to make it clear that Brooks Stevens Asso­ciates was not a one-man company.

Kip also did his own thing on a Kaiser chas­sis. While Dar­rin was plac­ing a pret­ty fiber­glass body over a stock Hen­ry J chas­sis to cre­ate the Kaiser-Dar­rin, Stevens moved in the oppo­site direc­tion with the Excal­ibur J. This was a high­ly mod­i­fied, dual pur­pose, road-and-track sports car. It could pace the vaunt­ed Jaguar XK120, and often did in competition.

Stevens
1963 Stude­bak­er GT Hawk. (Greg Gjerdin­gen. Cre­ative Commons)

In the late Fifties, Stevens cre­at­ed the Excal­ibur-Valkyrie-Scim­i­tar design exer­cise, which showed what could be done with alu­minum. In the 1960s he reskinned the Aero-Willys for Willys-Over­land do Brasil. This facelift per­suad­ed Stude­bak­er Pres­i­dent Sher­wood Egbert to let him mod­ern­ize the aging “Loewy coupes.” The result was the sin­ful­ly beau­ti­ful Gran Tur­si­mo Hawk of 1962-64.

Next Kip applied crisp, mod­ern styling to the dowdy Stude­bak­er Lark, giv­ing it an extra lease on life. He pro­duced the first slid­ing-roof sta­tion wag­on in the Wag­o­naire, and his Stude­bak­er pro­to­types for a new gen­er­a­tion of cars were things of breath­tak­ing beau­ty. (See “Why Stude­bak­er Failed.”)

Faithful but unfortunate

Unhap­pi­ly, most of his auto­mo­tive efforts were for dead or dying com­pa­nies. Had Kip worked for say, Chrysler, they would be more famous. Still, he man­aged to cap his career with an unequiv­o­cal suc­cess. This was the Excal­ibur line of “mod­ern clas­sics” based on a suc­ces­sive series of Mer­cedes-Benz com­menc­ing with the immor­tal SSK. Among “repli­cars” the Excal­ibur was the best sell­ing, best engi­neered, and most care­ful­ly built.

 Stevens
Stevens restored the immor­tal Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B which, dri­ven by Clemente Bion­det­ti, won the 1938 Mille Miglia. The car is now at the Sime­one Foun­da­tion Auto­mo­tive Muse­um in Philadel­phia. (Pho­to: Hurstad, Cre­ative Commons)

Auto­mo­biles were but one facet of a half-cen­tu­ry career, but they were his first love. He estab­lished the Brooks Stevens Auto­mo­tive Muse­um, small and select, includ­ing some of the finest: the Packard Twin Six, Due­sen­berg Indy rac­er, Bres­cia Bugat­ti,  Mer­cedes-Benz 500K and 540K, Cord L29 and 812, Mar­mon V-12. Its fron­tispiece was a stag­ger­ing­ly beau­ti­ful 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B, the world’s fastest pre­war sports car. He added many of his own per­son­al designs, like the Jeep­ster and Brazil­ian Willys, and the Alfa 6C 2500.

Clifford Brooks Stevens (1911-1995)

Stevens
(Pho­to: Brooks Stevens Associates)

Kip did not come in for the uni­ver­sal plau­dits he deserved. Too often, casu­al observers saw only him as hope­less expo­nent of chrome and tail­fins. This is very short­sight­ed, for it fails to take the full mea­sure of the man.

He was one of the sup­port­ing pil­lars of the auto­mo­tive com­mu­ni­ty: man­u­fac­tur­ers and col­lec­tors. His whim­si­cal, bril­liant, imag­i­na­tive, for­mal and rad­i­cal designs were tru­ly unique. His non-auto­mo­tive work served America’s great cor­po­ra­tions. Many of his designs, still around today, gained inter­na­tion­al renown.

He was as well a great com­pan­ion, not at all self-cen­tered (rare among design­ers). Always he drew out the best in his friends—car nuts, fel­low styl­ists, low­ly auto­mo­tive writ­ers. No one escaped his attrac­tion. Every­one became proud and delight­ed to have their work encour­aged by a man of such distinction.

There are many ways to mea­sure wealth, but Kip Stevens banked his great­est trea­sure in the hearts of his friends. We cher­ish his memory.

Further reading

The Great­ness of Alex Tremulis,” Part 2: Tuck­er to Kaiser-Fraz­er,” 2020

Kaiser-Fraz­er and the Mak­ing of Auto­mo­tive His­to­ry,” first of two parts, 2019

All the Luck: Howard A. ‘Dutch’ Dar­rin,” first of three parts, 2017

Joe Fraz­er, Father of the Jeep,” first of three parts, 2011

One thought on “Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Milwaukee Famous

  1. Like I have said before, I real­ly enjoy your car sto­ries and mar­vel at your in depth knowl­edge of that industry.

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