My recent column about classic race car driver David Porter prompted our friend Bob Zielsdorf to send a photo of his newest 4-wheeled acquisition, an Excalibur. As a native Detroiter, I know something about boys and their enthusiasm for toys. But why an Excalibur?
Bob’s answer opened up a new vein of knowledge for yours truly. I’m nuts about design, from architecture to furnishings to home goods and fashion. But I have little knowledge of industrial design. Thanks to Bob, I now have a bit more.
Since childhood, Bob’s been a fan of industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Bob’s father ran a company that made portable air compressors and jackhammers for breaking up cement. He hired Stevens to redesign and modernize the products of his Milwaukee-based company. In the late 1950s, then in high school, Bob was assigned to write a paper on a profession and to interview someone in that profession.
“I was stuck,” Bob says. “I couldn’t come up with an idea.”
His dad suggested he talk to Brooks Stevens about industrial design. Bob called. “He was happy to meet with me,” Bob says. “I rode my bike to his office in a beautiful setting with glass walls overlooking the woods. I remember what a gentleman he was, and full of information.”
In 1963, Stevens went on to design a prototype of the Excalibur. Styled after the 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK, Stevens’ design was fitted on a Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk chassis. When Studebaker stopped producing engines, Stevens procured them through his friends, GM execs Ed Cole and Bunkie Knudsen.
(I got a kick out of the later sourcing. In the late ‘60s, I was a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily. I became friendly with Dollie Cole and Florence Knudsen, wives of Ed and Bunkie and both lovely gals. Burton was just starting out in real estate; we were broke but needed a car. Dollie hooked us up with a Chevy and an executive discount.)
Brooks Stevens and his sons started a company in Milwaukee, WI, hand-building Excaliburs. They made over 3500 cars. Comedian Phyllis Diller owned four of them. Production continued until 1990. Stevens also designed the Jeep Wagoneer, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Skytop Lounge observation train cars, outboard motors, kitchen appliances and much more.
Fast forward to 2020. Compliments of Covid, Bob Zielsdorf had time on his hands. Time to look back. He reminisced about his youth and his admiration for Brooks Stevens.
“When I met Brooks Stevens, the Excalibur didn’t exist,” Bob says. “But now it did. The idea of owning one got stuck in my brain. The Excalibur is a dream car for kids who like the look of antique cars. Plus I felt nostalgia for the creator.”
Bob spent the summer in South Bend, IN, researching Excaliburs. When he got back to Vero Beach, FL, where he and wife Fran spend winters, Bob discovered a candy apple red Excalibur was up for auction in Kissimmee, FL. A friend drove Bob there; he checked out the car and offered a winning bid. Unable to properly install the side curtains, with temps in the 60s, by the end of the two-hour drive home Bob was chilled but still thrilled.
Back in Vero Beach, Bob tried to remove the canvas top and heavy folding steel frame. The operation required some neighborly help. Bob and wife Fran drove their new wheels to nearby Publix. “Strangers honked and leaned out of their windows to comment,” Bob says. They’ve since driven their new convertible conquest often. They plan to exhibit it at an antique car and boat show in April.
Bob and Fran will celebrate their 56th anniversary in June. We became friends through an international couples forum, part of a business group to which we belonged. Now retired, Bob ran a company that made industrial bakery machines. He and Fran were high school and college pen pals. In 2014, Bob published their correspondence in a charming, historically informative book Sealed with a Kiss; An American Love Story in Letters. Interested in genealogy, Bob hired a researcher to trace his family history and discovered roots reaching back to the mid-1700s. That family story was published as Finding Our Roots: the Zuhlsdorff Family History.
Fran has suffered health setbacks in recent years, including a serious spinal cord injury, but their challenges have not kept this irrepressible couple down. Bob sums up their philosophy: “Enjoy the life you have and share the gifts you’re given.”
Thanks, Bob and Fran, for sharing your latest love story, the love of a candy apple red Excalibur. In the legend of Camelot, only young Arthur was able to pull the Excalibur sword out of a rock and thus become king. Enjoy your new wheels. And may you be kings of the road.