During the latter half of the 20th Century in America, your daily life was quite likely enhanced or influenced by Brooks Stevens. As one of only a handful of people who invented and defined Industrial Design, Mr. Stevens was a follower of, and a contemporary of, such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Loewy, and Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. In fact, Stevens and de Sakhnoffsky became personal friends and the latter spent a great deal of time at the Brooks Stevens Auto Museum during the 1950s. For his part, Stevens’ deep appreciation of de Sakhnoffsky’s 1930 Cord L-29, best known among collectors as the ‘Hayes Coupe’, spurred his drive to purchase this immensely successful show car for his own collection.
Brooks Stevens’ career and business grew exponentially following the close of WW II, with his many design credits including the first civilian Jeep models and mass-production automobile designs for Willys-Overland and Kaiser-Frazer. An avid fan of motor racing and the brilliant designs honed in competition, Stevens also designed and built a series of racing cars dubbed Excalibur and used the name for his striking neo-classic automobiles of the 1960s. He also yearned a return to designing opulent, bespoke cars, resulting in the sleek ‘Diana’ designed and built in 1945 for Diana Lewis Powell, wife of actor William Powell of “The Thin Man” fame. However, the time, expense, and unfavorable economics of such ventures were daunting.
Stevens’ eventual hiring of French public relations representative Guy Storr was pivotal, with Storr’s suggestion that Stevens should raise his European profile by designing a show car for display at the 1954 Paris Salon. Die Valkyrie was Stevens’ inspired reply to Storr’s creative challenge, said to be the right mix of French design sensibilities with a decidedly American presence on an American chassis – supplied by Cadillac – and clothed by Hermann Spohn, one of Germany’s best-regarded custom coach builders.
Low, long, and wide, measuring nearly 22 feet overall, the commanding presence of Die Valkyrie certainly suited the name, which was drawn from the stirring music from Wagner’s monumental opera, Die Walküre. American heritage and V-8 power were emphasized by a bold, V-shaped frontal motif including a large, unique chrome bumper and forward-slanted headlamp housings. The hood was the longest of any prototype car at almost 8 feet, and other design cues included the raked panoramic windshield, large removable hardtop, clean, fin-less rear fenders, a generous rear deck, upright, blade-style tail lamps, and a wrap-around rear bumper.
Innovations were many, including extra-wide doors allowing ease of entry and exit – even for rear-seat passengers, unique power-operated side windows with a large central pane between two vent windows per side, and a modernistic, Brooks Stevens signature black and white two-tone paint scheme, Stevens’ favorite color combination. Other advanced features included illuminated Plexiglas turn signals atop the front fenders and Plexiglas headlight cross pieces to concentrate the headlight beams yet reduce (by 50 per cent) the potential glare faced by oncoming drivers. The spacious interior featured plush upholstery matching the car’s luxurious persona.
The visually striking body was built by Hermann Spohn in Ravensburg, Germany, the highly admired coachbuilder whose work usually graced Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz chassis. Financial backing for the project came from Irwyn Metzenbaum, a Cleveland city councilor, and auto enthusiast. Following completion, Die Valkyrie was shown at the Paris Salon, where it created a sensation for its fascinating body design and demonstrated the stylistic possibilities afforded by its compact V-8 engine and sophisticated chassis, in contrast to the inline fours, sixes, and straight eights long favored by most of the era’s European manufacturers.
Next, Die Valkyrie toured Europe’s auto-show circuit and then it was displayed at the 1955 New York Auto Show held at Madison Square Garden, where it received the “Excellence of Design and Engineering” award. According to Mr. Bortz, an expert in the realm of concept cars, Die Valkyrie is believed to be the only such vehicle to have been awarded a U.S. Patent for its unique design. Clearly, many of its cutting-edge features have appeared, in one form or another, on many later production cars.
Next, Die Valkyrie was purchased by Brooks Stevens for his wife, Alice, and then from 1958, it formed part of the renowned Brooks Stevens Auto Museum collection. Following the passing of Mr. Stevens in 1995, this vehicle was purchased directly in 1997 from his estate by the Bortz Auto Collection in the Chicago area, where it has remained ever since. During 2003, Die Valkyrie returned to Milwaukee as a feature for a celebration of the life and work of Brooks Stevens at the Milwaukee Art Museum, entitled “Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World.” Fittingly, the banners along the streets to the Museum heralding the show featured the striking frontal design of Die Valkyrie.
Subsequent exhibitions included the 2012 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and the June 2014 CCCA Grand Experience on the grounds of the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. Blessed with unbroken provenance from new, Die Valkyrie is rightly considered one of the 10 most desirable prototypes still in existence from the 1950s and 1960s. Designed by Brooks Stevens, one of the most influential of all American automotive and industrial designers, Die Valkyrie continues to amaze all who experience it. Soon, you will have the chance to experience it for yourself, at Worldwide Auctioneers’ 10th Annual Auburn Auction on Saturday, September 2nd at the National Automobile and Truck Museum!