Excalibur SSKL and SS Phaeton

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1963 - 1990
Straight 6 or V8
owner decision
4/5 spd. MT
Top Speed:
160 mph +
Number Built:
4 star
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4

The Growing Popularity of Vintage and Veteran Automobiles

Vintage and veteran cars began to become popular in the 1950s and 1960s, collectors scouring the world looking for un-discovered cars. Soon most of the available cars were in the hands of collectors and prices began to escalate dramatically, so much so that the less wealthy enthusiast was unable to even to contemplate buying a vintage car. Many owners simply put their cars away as investments in just the same way as paintings and other antiques.

With fewer vintage cars coming on to the market, several enterprising people decided to build replicas of famous vintage cars. Some attempted to pass off their replicas as originals, but the more knowledgeable realised that there was a market for vintage-looking cars with modern mechanical components, for there were a number of enthusiasts who had neither the time nor the inclination to minister to the foibles of tired old cars.

SS Automobiles Inc

The credit for creating the trend in the USA went to American, David Stevens, who started SS Automobiles Inc in Milwaukee to build replica cars. Previously, in 1952, David Stevens' father, Brooks, the noted car stylist, had designed a body for a car based on a Henry J chassis and engine; the car was called the Excalibur J, but, after a few prototypes had been made, the project was abandoned. The idea of a replica remained in the Stevens family's collective mind and, in 1964, they decided to commence building replicas on a professional basis.

They resurrected the Excalibur name, which is of course taken from King Arthur's sword. It was decided to use the Mercedes SS and SSK models of the 1920s as the basis of their replica, partly because they looked brutally fast and partly because the few real ones in existence are very seldom on the market. Initially, it was decided for convenience sake to use a Studebaker Lark chassis and running gear, and the replica Mercedes body was simply placed over that. Since the Studebaker factory had just gone out of business, there were a number of cheap chassis available which seemed suitable for the job.

The prototype was exhibited at the New York Motor Show, receiving a good reception and a number of firm orders. Several were sold with the Lark chassis, but this was not really stiff enough for the job. It also became apparent that the main buyers were wealthy men who wanted automatic transmission, power steering, full weather equipment and so on. This was more than the Studebaker chassis could offer so the Stevens family decided to build their own chassis.

This new chassis was a square-section steel type, offering a good deal more torsional rigidity than the Studebaker, and it was specifically designed to take Chevrolet running gear. The front suspension was by double wishbones with coil spring/dampers and an anti-roll bar, while the independent rear suspension was taken straight from the Corvette Stingray; it used lower wishbones, with the drive shafts acting as the upper locating medium. Springing was of the trans-verse-leaf type, and telescopic dampers were used.

It was not possible to duplicate many of the original components on the Mercedes such as the huge ribbed brake drums, narrow wheels, rigid front axle etc, but the Stevens did not claim that it was an exact replica so the car had four wheel disc brakes, modern wire wheels with low profile 15 in tyres and the double wishbone suspension. However, the external chromed exhaust pipes of the original were copied to keep the appearance reasonably authentic.


Mercedes SSKL and SS Phaeton Replicars

Two main body styles were originally offered: the SSKL two-seater, with cycle wings and the spare wheel stowed externally on top of the bodywork, and the SS Phaeton, a four-seater with a different rear treatment, having full length wings and running boards, the spare wheel being mounted adjacent to the scuttle. However, individual customers could order almost any combination of components as long as they would fit; so, if a buyer of a four-seater tourer wanted cycle wings, these could easily have been fitted.

The two models remained in production largely unchanged externally during their time, but the mechanical components were updated along with changes in the Chevrolet range. The original engine was a 5.4-litre unit, but engines up to 7.4 litres could be accommodated; buyers had the option of a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic gearbox, power steering and air conditioning.

Many owners apparently preferred to erect the hood and sidescreens then switch on the air conditioning to keep out the heat. Excalibur even offered a McCulloch supercharger in the late 1960s, but it was troublesome and caused problems under the USA's pollution regulations. The 1976 onward Excaliburs passed all the necessary pollution and safety tests.

Brooks Stevens

The Stevens family had also been involved with other replicas since 1964. Brooks Stevens designed a replica Bugatti, using Opel components, but this project was handed over to a Frenchman who built a few before going out of business. Brooks Stevens also designed a replica 4.5-litre Bentley tourer for Bill Ruger, but it never went into full production.

Many other people tried to copy the Excalibur concept over the years, but few of them stayed the course in the same way as the Stevens family, who built over 600 cars in their first ten years of production. Naturally, the car was not cheap; the first models cost no more than US$7500 dollars, but the 1970 versions were between US$12,000 and US$15,000 dollars depending on specification.

Even so, there was no shortage of orders for the Mercedes replica, which, with a claimed top speed of 160 mph, was considerably faster and more civilised than the German original. At the time, and as you would expect, many so-called purists scorned the cars that Excalibur built. Excalibur themselves made no pretences that their car was an exact reproduction of the Mercedes original but, anyway, imitation is supposedly the highest form of flattery and Excalibur did make very flattering cars.
SS Phaeton Excalibur
The brutish SS Phaeton Excalibur has the rugged good looks of the Mercedes yet all the creature comforts expected from an American car.

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