Purple Prose: Brooks Stevens

by Richard Langworth on 18 June 2010

"Kip" Stevens with his 1951 Excalibur J

The blogsite of Hemmings Motor News sees fit to post my  1982 article on Brooks Stevens, along with a gratuitous opinion: “Perhaps Richard 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.” Aside from the fact that Hemmings paid only for first rights and is therefore in copyright violation, it’s nice to be remembered.

Reactions: A onetime editor of SIA wrote: “I see nothing purple—it reads like an essay in The New Yorker.” (Ah, if only Hemmings paid New Yorker rates!)  A Packard Club colleague wrote: “Naah, not purple, maybe faint mauve.” A blog reader wrote: “Ugh, I can’t read it. The prose is too purple for me, and the Excalibur J can run with the Jaguar XK120?” Of course it can, replied Tony Stevens: “As the current owner of the first 1951/2 Excalibur J race car, I can personally attest that it can run competitively with an XK120, even more so on a smaller, technical road course.” Right you are Tony. The XK120 was a great car—but the youngsters have swallowed too much purple prose about it.

Herewith I post my (updated) piece on my late friend Kip. Readers may judge for themselves.

BROOKS STEVENS: THE SEER WHO MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS © 1982, 2003

“You’ll have to resolve the conflict between Dutch Darrin and Kip Stevens,” I was told after being assigned my first automotive article ever, on Kaiser-Frazer, in 1969. The origins of the landmark 1951 Kaiser were at the time still unclear: both Darrin and Stevens claimed it, and neither was particularly complimentary in describing the efforts of the other. A colleague had warned me that the differences were probably too great to resolve and that it might be best not to press the matter. But my editor said, “Hear both sides and make the judgment of the historian.” I didn’t know I was supposed to be a historian, but I wrote to Brooks 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 I had met him, and the friendship that resulted withstood the trauma of tracking the 1951 Kaiser’s design, the full story of which appeared in my book Last Onslaught on Detroit in 1975.

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

He was a tall, good looking man who belied his age, whose appearance and demeanor reflected accreditation to what Cole Porter would have called High Society. He was, indeed, cast in “Colie’s” image. For Stevens there was only one way to fly to Paris—Concorde—and one way to get to England in the summertime—first class on the QE2. His personal tastes reflected similar standards, producing an effect of refined elegance. He was one of those who took pains about everything. His designer’s background permeated every aspect down to and including those elegant folders (I have quite a collection now) in which he sent his heavier mail. In his presence people were impressed but not overawed, because he was so completely natural and so full of courtesy and fun.

It was never hard to gain Brooks Stevens’ acquaintance, whether one was a coverall-clad mechanic or the President of General Motors. Along with an inborn civility and an interest in others went an all-encompassing enthusiasm and love for everything connected with cars, an encyclopedic firsthand knowledge of the industry, and a streak of nihilism.

1982 Excalibur

Kip once invited my friend Bill Tilden to Wisconsin to drive some demonstration laps at Elkhart Lake in the Excalibur J, his Henry J-based sports car. Brooks phoned me afterward to chat about this adventure. The story involved the helicopter-assisted arrest of the rambunctious Stevens as he charged toward Elkhart Lake in his personal Excalibur, violating most Wisconsin road ordinances plus several they hadn’t thought of yet.

Picture Stevens, trailing a silk scarf, driving a very loud open sports car with what the British call “assurance,” tracked by an army of gendarmerie, including aircraft. After failing to run him to earth in the ordinary way they block the road. Picture next the nearest policeman, seven feet tall as they all are, jerking his thumb at the Excalibur’s sartorially splendid driver and shouting: YOU—OUT! It was a vision. Kip paid his fine. It was substantial.

The world's last great Frenchman: René Dreyfus with brother Maurice at the late, sadly lamented "Le Chanteclair," 49th Street, Manhattan.

He had great generosity, which did not always function in his favor. I remember one press night at the New York Automobile Show, when Kip arrived at René and Maurice Dreyfus’ famous automotive watering hole, “Le Chanteclair,” with a very large retinue of admirers. The brothers Dreyfus were hardpressed to seat such a large assembly, but they eventually did, at a long table with Brooks as centerpiece. Le Chanteclair was never the place for a cheap meal. When the bill came, for what I recall was uncomfortably close to one thousand 1974 dollars, Brooks quietly laid down his American Express card. Those who had no intention of socking him with that bill surreptitiously handed him rolls of bills, but a good half the company didn’t bother. There was no sign that our host was in the least disappointed: a measure of a man who felt no expense unwarranted for the pleasure of an evening among friends, provided your description of “friends” is fairly elastic.

1951 Willys Jeepster

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 at just the right time. Ultimately he would contribute designs to over forty 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 1946 Jeep, the first all-steel station wagon; and the 1948 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 facelift for the plug-ugly 1947-48 production cars; management didn’t take his advice, but assigned him to the famous three-way competition for the 1951 Kaiser, against Darrin and the in-house styling team. It is the prevailing judgement today that the basic shape selected was Darrin’s, but it should be emphasized that this was not a direct contest. 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 6C 2500 designs. Darrin had only one project on his plate. Had it been a one-on-one contest, things might have been different.

Alfa Romeo 6C 2500

And many of his contributions were used on Kaiser products. After K-F bought Jeep in 1953, it was a Stevens design which became the Wagoneer, a concept so timeless that the shape has survived thirty years. He always referred to this and his other styling project in the plural: “we” did this or that. This was only because he wanted to make it clear that Brooks Stevens Associates was not a one-man company.

Kip did find time to do a little personal brainstorming 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 aforementioned Excalibur J—a highly modified dual purpose, road/track sports car not dissimilar in looks or concept to the later Lotus 7. This first Excalibur could pace the vaunted Jaguar XK-120s, and often did in SCCA competition.

In the late Fifties Stevens created the Excalibur-Valkyrie-Scimitar design exercise, which among other things showed what could be done with aluminum. In the early 1960s he revived the Aero-Willys through a reskin for Willys-Overland do Brasil. This facelift persuaded Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert to let him modernize the aging “Loewy coupes,” and the result was the sinfully beautiful Gran Tursimo Hawk of 1962-64. Brooks was even able to apply 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” on this site.)

Unhappily most of his automotive efforts were for dead or dying companies. Had they been offered at the time to, say, Chrysler, they would be more famous today. Still, he managed to cap his career with an unequivocal success, 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. Its performance was demonstrated by the successful racing version run by Ecurie Excalibur, the team that Kip and his sons ran in the Seventies and Eighties.

Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Mille Miglia

Pintacuda's Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Mille Miglia (now Ralph Lauren Collection)

Automobiles were but one facet of a remarkable, half-century career, but they were certainly his first love. At his offices in Wisconsin he established the Brooks Stevens Automotive Museum, small and select, including some of the finest cars ever to set rubber to road: a Packard Twin Six, a 1925 Duesenberg Indy race car, a Brescia Bugatti, the Mercedes-Benz 500K and 540K, the Cord L29 and 812, the Marmon V-12. His frontispiece was a staggeringly beautiful 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B, Pintcadua’s car from the Mille Miglia, the world’s fastest prewar production sports car. He added many of his own personal designs, like the Jeepster and Brazilian Willys, and the Alfa 6C 2500. The collection was broken up after his death, but those privileged to know it in its prime will never forget  it.

Brooks did not come in for the universal plaudits he deserved. Too often, casual observers saw only his more radical departures and pronounced him a hopeless exponent of chrome and tailfins. This is very short shrift, for it fails to take the total measure of the man.

He was one of the supporting pillars of the automotive community, both manufacturers and collectors. His designs—whimsical, brilliant, imaginative, formal and radical—will live on. His non-automotive designs were created for some of America’s great corporations. More than a few gained international renown.

He was as well a great companion, not at all self-centred (rare among designers). Always he seemed to draw out the best in his friends, be they car nuts who invited him to their gatherings, fellow stylists, or lowly automotive writers. No one escaped his attraction. Everyone became proud and delighted to have their own work so generously encouraged by a man of distinction.

There are many ways to measure wealth, but Kip Stevens banked his greatest treasure in the hearts of his friends. And we will treasure his memory till our time is come.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thomas D. Behnke June 18, 2010 at 13:14

Brooks Stevens was a true gentleman and deserved all the praise received and more that wasn’t. He made one feel special. I was privileged to have known him. Many years ago he brought his Mercedes-Benz 540K and Austin Healey Le Mans to Indy and I drove both. While lapping the track in the 540K he said, “won’t this thing go any faster?” so I bumped it up a bit—but driving a $250,000 car (at that time) I took it easy. Then when I got behind the wheel of the Healey I asked him how I could drive it and his reply was “the way it’s supposed to be driven,” so I did, turning laps way above 100 mph. This is just one small example of how this great man acted toward one and all. It’s easy to remenber really nice people! Cheers!

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