Purple Prose: Brooks Stevens

Purple Prose: Brooks Stevens

"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.


“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.

One thought on “Purple Prose: Brooks Stevens

  1. 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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