Display includes both his production and experimental cars
The situation, as Glenn Adamson wrote, was desperate and quixotic. Brooks Stevens needed contracts to help keep his industrial design firm afloat, but more than anything, he wanted to prove himself as a bold and visionary auto designer, capable of handling an entire carmaker’s styling needs. Meanwhile, the carmaker he chose, Studebaker, had one foot in the grave and the other on an oil slick. Anybody on the coasts or in Detroit would dismiss Stevens’s quest as a waste of resources, but it typified his dedication to Studebaker and to brands outside of the mainstream, a dedication that the Studebaker Museum highlights in its new exhibit focused on Stevens.
“It’s a nice combination of traditional Studebaker history and of seeing that story through the lens of this industrial designer,” said Kyle Sater, the museum’s curator.
Though he initially pursued architecture, Stevens’s love of automobiles and product design led him to start his own Milwaukee-based firm in the mid-Thirties and thus to enter the then-nascent industrial design field, populated by people like Walter Darwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, and Raymond Loewy. One of his earliest designs, the International-based Zephyr Land Yacht built for William Woods Plankinton Jr., made use of a litany of gadgets and foreshadowed the blimp-like styling of the executive vans and motorhomes that Stevens would design several years later
His path to designing production cars started during World War II, when he envisioned a number of postwar designs, including one that reconfigured the wartime jeep into a compact all-wheel-drive civilian “Victory Car.” That got him in front of Willys-Overland executives, who ultimately dismissed Stevens’s initial idea of a sedan, but approved his subsequent ideas for a simple all-steel station wagon and for the convertible Jeepster. Consultancy work with Kaiser-Frazer followed, as did the South American localization of Kaiser-Willys products and a number of one-offs and low-production vehicles like the Scimitar and Stevens’s Henry J-based Excalibur race cars (not to mention his 1958 redesign of the Oscar Meyers Weinermobile), but his work with Studebaker wouldn’t begin until 1961.
Stevens had already established a relationship with Sherwood Egbert when the latter worked at Milwaukee-based McCulloch, so when Studebaker brought on Egbert, he naturally turned to Stevens for design help. “The two agreed that the company’s present lineup was, as Stevens later put it, ‘a mish-mash multiple panic facelift of 1952,'” Adamson wrote in “Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World,” his 2003 biography of Stevens. And yet, Studebaker barely had two cents to rub together at the time, meaning a complete redesign and restyle of the Studebaker lineup was out of the question.
“On the face of it, the job was impossible,” Stevens said. “We had $7 million for tooling both cars – normally about enough to tool a Plymouth door handle! We also had only six months before 1962 introduction time. But Sherwood wasn’t an automotive man. He didn’t know it was impossible.”
Stevens thus proposed a number of changes that had high visual impact but would cost very little. For the Lark, he recycled a formal roofline that he initially proposed for the Kaiser-Willys localization program and even added a sliding station wagon roof from his previous Utopia series for the new Lark Wagonaire. The personal-luxury Hawk became the Gran Turismo Hawk with its own formal roofline, minimal chrome trim, and prouder Mercedes-inspired grille shell.
“His changes were bold, and Studebaker liked that,” Sater said. “They were pretty drastic changes that extended the life of the models, and if Stevens had his choice, he’d stick around at Studebaker.”
Indeed, while the facelifts on the Lark and Hawk – not to mention the publicity from Loewy’s halo car, the Avanti – bought the company a little more time, by 1963 the writing was on the wall for Studebaker as a carmaker. That didn’t seem to matter for Stevens, who figured that Studebaker needed more than just tarted-up versions of its sedans, it needed entirely new cars that broke with the past and embraced the future.