Camelot for Excaliburs
Milwaukee company repairs, restores classy Brooks Stevens cars
Posted: Nov. 11, 2004
Even after 40 years, Alice Preston still vividly recalls her introduction to well-known industrial designer Brooks Stevens.
It's hard to forget that special moment when your future mentor mistakes you for a guy.
It was 1964, and the 18-year-old Preston was adjusting the valves of a station wagon. It was a job-application test at a Mequon auto shop that counted Stevens among its biggest customers.
Stevens was passing through when he glanced at Preston, whose ponytailed head was bent down under the car's hood, and said to the shop operator, "Tell that guy to get a haircut."
"She's not a guy," came the response. "And she's going to be working here."
Awkward introduction aside, Stevens later mentored Preston as she rose from mechanic to a manager at the West Allis factory that made the Stevens-designed Excalibur automobile. Production of the pricey sports car largely ended in 1986. But its cultlike following remains so strong that Preston in 1999 launched Camelot Classic Cars Inc., which specializes in repair and restoration of Excaliburs.
Preston has since assembled the molds to build new Excaliburs from scratch - if anyone is willing to plunk down the $200,000 that such a car would cost. She considers it a way to honor Stevens, known for creating the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Miller Brewing Co.'s logo and other corporate icons.
"He was never like most guys," Preston said of Stevens, who died in 1995. "He was never chauvinistic. He was skeptical. But once he saw you could do the work, he respected you."
Camelot is a lean operation. Preston does much of the restoration herself and also hires former Excalibur factory workers. Along with doing maintenance and supplying parts for Excaliburs, Camelot finds the cars for wealthy buyers who pay big bucks for their restoration.
Camelot's annual revenue has averaged between $150,000 and $200,000 over the past five years, Preston said. She said revenue this year has been growing as more Excalibur owners discover her operation through word of mouth and the firm's Internet site, excaliburclassics.com.
Stevens was long a fan of classic cars when he designed the Excalibur and then started a company in 1964 with his sons, David and William, to build the automobile.
Just over 3,200 Excalibur cars were made by the the original company, Preston said. Excalibur prices currently start at around $25,000, but the cars typically require restoration work averaging $45,000, she said.
With its body reminiscent of a late 1920s Mercedes-Benz, the Excalibur is a showy toy. Its name comes from the sword used by King Arthur, whose legendary exploits have been the subject of many tales and books, as well as the stage musical and movie "Camelot."
The handmade Excalibur's reputation for high quality makes it "the equivalent of an American Rolls-Royce," said car collector Bob Nisbet of Huntsville, Ala.
Nisbet, an engineer, earlier this year sold his 1981 Excalibur after getting a generous offer from a Russian buyer. He's now shopping for another.
"The person who purchases a car like that has to enjoy owning something that other people don't have," Nisbet said.
The Excalibur and Preston have lived parallel lives.
Preston, 58, learned about fixing cars from her father, an auto mechanic and machinist. She was working at a Milwaukee gas station in 1964 when she met Ronnie Paetow, who operated the Mequon auto shop that worked on Stevens' auto collection.
"He said, 'If you want to work on a lot of cool cars, come out to my shop,' " recalled Preston. "I went out there and felt like I was in heaven."
Excalibur Automobile Corp. got its start that same year. The Excalibur's classic style drew attention from car enthusiasts, and the Stevens brothers increased production at their West Allis assembly plant, where Preston began working in 1974. Within four years, Preston was in charge of overseeing the entire fabrication process, as well as research and development.
Preston was a skilled mechanic and an effective manager, said David Stevens, Brooks' son, then president of Excalibur Automobile.
But by 1981, with a recession cutting demand for Excalibur cars, Preston was laid off. Shortly thereafter, Excalibur Automobile went into bankruptcy, was sold by the Stevens family and eventually sputtered to a dead stop.
Preston, after operating a home-remodeling business, was hired in 1987 by David Stevens to help update the Wienermobile for Madison-based Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. One year later, Brooks Stevens hired Preston as curator of his Mequon auto museum, a collection of more than 80 classic cars.
After Brooks Stevens died in 1995, the family sold off the collection, closing the museum in 1999. That same year, Preston launched Camelot Classic Cars. She focused on providing restoration and maintenance for Excaliburs.
She now has more than 500 throughout the world, including some in Europe and Australia who buy Excaliburs that Preston has restored.
With her business on solid ground, Preston is buying the 9,550-square-foot building that Camelot has been leasing for five years. The $205,000 purchase is being financed through loans from the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. and Tri-City National Bank.
Last year, Preston bought out of receivership Excalibur Automobile's remaining assets, including the trademark and logo.
"I bought it because I didn't want somebody else to buy it and build a piece of crap and call it an Excalibur," Preston said.
She also bought the molds for making Excalibur parts, setting up the possibility that the car could once again be assembled from scratch.
"It would be nice to see the car make a comeback," Preston said.
From the Nov. 12, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.