One of a Kind
John Gunnell - May 16, 2014 08:32 AM
The Paxton car’s front end styling has an unmistakable European flair to it. From the side, you can also see aspects of contemporary Lincoln and Packard design motifs.John Gunnell
The car came to the 2011 Masterpiece Concours d’ Elegance in Milwaukee.John Gunnell
Collector Myron Vernis owns a prototype created by Wisconsin industrial designer Brooks Stevens. The 1954 Paxton was a dream of Robert Paxton McCulloch, founder of McCulloch Motors Corp. and Paxton Superchargers.
Stevens designed the car’s body. Its chassis was made by Hoffman Motor Development Company of Detroit. The project took four years and reportedly cost $1 million. The Paxton features an aircraft-type “torque box” frame and retractable power-operated hardtop. Its fiberglass body was “leading edge” in the era that it was built, although some production cars used fiberglass.
The car has power windows, power door locks, a leather interior, a padded dash and a full array of instruments. It includes a fully independent suspension system and a dual-battery electric system. McCulloch considered several drivetrains for the car, including a steam engine. It wound up with a high-performance German-made Porsche “boxer” engine and a Porsche transaxle.
Paxton put John C. Thompson in charge. Chassis design was jobbed out to Roscoe C. Hoffman, who had done a front-driver in the 1930s. Brooks Stevens Associates got the styling assignment and Paxton Division started work on the mechanicals. By late 1951, Stevens did a full-size clay as well as a more finished plaster model. Then, a rare Midwestern earthquake occurred and the plaster model got cracked. Body molds were ready by August 1952 and the Paxton was finally assembled in 1953. It was very advanced with its low overall height of 52 in. and a retractable hardtop.
The top was latched at the front like a cloth convertible top. When the latches were undone, small steel cables that were concealed in narrow slots along each side of the trunk lid pulled the top back over the rear deck through the action of an electric winch. If the top was the same color as the deck lid, it would hardly be noticed sitting on top of it.
Hoffman’s aircraft style “torque box” chassis worked and tested well. The Porsche-style double trailing arm front suspension included two torsion bars and an anti-roll bar. With time constraints, Hoffman settled on a diagonal-axle rear suspension with concentric torsion bars (instead of the originally-planned leaf spring set up). Many other changes from plan had to be made, including lengthening the wheelbase and dropping a deDion type rear axle.
A unique four-belt automatic transmission was developed with the help of Gates Rubber Co. The resulting unit was housed in an aluminum casing and weighed about half as much as a typical automatic transmission of the day.
With plans for a rear-mounted engine, the Paxton planners knew that they needed a lighter powertrain than conventional cars. A two-cycle engine was originally envisioned. This soon morphed into a two-cycle, three-cylinder engine with opposed pistons and two crankshafts. As the design evolved, the plans changed to four cylinders and eight pistons and the engine location was modified, too. Also considered were an air-cooled four and a four-cycle V-8.
Paxton did build one car, which is the one Myron Vernis owns today. It has a 118-inch wheelbase and was fitted with a 1953 Porsche Super four-cylinder engine. In 1954, for a variety of reasons, McCulloch Motors shelved the Paxton project and Robert McCulloch kept the one car that had been made.
In 1977, after McCullough died, his company held an auction and sold the car in it. Collector Vasken Minasian was the high bidder. In 1992, after Minasian had passed away, his sons Ari and Raffi cleaned the car up. They had the engine rebuilt by Steve Schmidtt of the Porsche 356 Registry. The body and suspension got attention from Paul Day and Vintage Racing Services, but the paint and upholstery were in top shape and left untouched. In 1993, the 610-mile car was shown for the first time.
Before his death on January 4, 1995, Brooks Stevens purchased the Paxton car and brought it back to Milwaukee. It was the startling centerpiece for an exhibit of his work at the Milwaukee Design School. It was also kept at the Brooks Stevens Automotive Museum in Mequon, Wisconsin, for a while. The accompanying photographs were taken there. By 1998, the Brooks Stevens Museum was closed and the cars were sold off. Myron Vernis had the opportunity to purchase the Paxton and has preserved it since.
(Author’s notes: This car is sometimes referred to as a 1951 model, a 1953 model and a 1954 model. Various sources state the mileage as 615 miles and others say 620. According to Myron Vernis, the car had 610 miles on the odometer when he bought it. He put about 10 miles on it in the first 10 years he owned it, but he then put almost 120 miles on it during the 2008 Monterey weekend, including the Pebble Beach Road Tour. So it now has 735 original miles. It is sometimes called the “Phoenix”.)