Studebaker – an Historical Retrospective 1852-1966

By Bill Rothermel, SAH

The Studebaker brothers Henry and Clem established a blacksmith and wagon shop in South Bend, Indiana in 1852 with a total capital of just $68.00. Within two years brother John Mohler returned from California and joined the business investing money he earned building wheelbarrows for the miners of the Gold Rush. This infusion of cash along with migration to the western territories, the Indian Wars, and orders from settlers and the U.S. Army for covered wagons brought them great success; the company was grossing $350,000.00 annually by 1867. By 1875, Studebaker was the “largest vehicle house in the world” and just two years later, sales exceeded $1 million. Joined by two other brothers, the company offered its first electric vehicle in 1902, building 20 units that year. One of the first purchasers of a vehicle was Thomas A. Edison.

While Studebaker manufactured its own electric vehicles until 1911, it entered into manufacturing and distribution agreements with two makers of gasoline-powered vehicles; Garford of Elyria, Ohio in 1904, and Everett-Metzger-Flanders (E-M-F) of Detroit, Michigan in 1908. Beginning in 1904, Studebaker began making gasoline-powered automobiles.  Garford-built chassis and engines would be mated with Studebaker-built bodies and sold under the name of Studebaker-Garford.  E-M-F, on the other hand, built automobiles which Studebaker distributed through its wagon dealers.  The E-M-F cars proved to be troublesome and unreliable so Studebaker in 1910 purchased the company renaming itself the Studebaker Corporation in 1911.  Garford would be left to go it alone, until it was purchased by John North Willys in 1913.

The company introduced a two-car line in 1914 comprised of four- and six-cylinder models.  That same year Studebaker, in cooperation with Commercial Investment Trust, became the first automobile manufacturer to offer wholesale and retail financing.  The company flourished during the Teens as it supplied wagons to England, France, Russia, and the United States during World War I along with developing a reputation for quality-built, durable automobiles.  By 1920, four-cylinder engines were discontinued in favor of a new Light Six.  At the same time, a new Big Six became available alongside the previous six introduced in 1914, now renamed the Special Six.  Studebaker also introduced its first eight-cylinder car, the President, in 1928, renaming the smaller sixes Dictator and Commander.  Studebaker produced its last wagons in 1919 adding a 6-cylinder truck line to replace the horse-drawn vehicles. 

In 1926 Studebaker became the first automobile manufacturer in the United States to open a proving ground.  That same year, a new small car, the Erskine Six, was launched in Paris.  Termed “the Little Aristocrat,” it sold well in Europe, but failed to catch on in the United States.  Two years later, Studebaker acquired Buffalo, New York luxury car manufacturer Pierce-Arrow in an attempt to broaden its market penetration and offer something for everyone, ala General Motors – Erskine at the low end, Studebaker in the middle, and Pierce-Arrow at the top.  No one however, was prepared for the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.  Production and sales at Studebaker had been booming, but like its competitors, the company was suddenly faced with a collapsing market which led to wage cuts and worker lay-offs combined with huge financial losses.  After the 1930 model year, the Erskine was discontinued. 

In an effort to broaden its market appeal and counter the negative effects of the Depression, Studebaker introduced a smaller companion car called the Rockne.  It was named after Knute Rockne, Notre Dame University’s winning football coach who had been appointed sales promotion manager of Studebaker Corporation by then Studebaker President, Albert Erskine (for whom the Erskine had been named previously).  This was Studebaker’s second attempt to crack the low-price field, but times were tough and even inexpensive cars were not selling. Rocknes were produced for just two years with 23,201 built in 1932-33. 

In October 1932, Studebaker teetered on the verge of bankruptcy following a failed merger with the White Motor Company.  Receivership followed in early 1933 as did a massive reorganization which included the sale of Pierce-Arrow, dropping the President 8-cylinder line, discontinuation of the Rockne and launching new six-cylinder models; all helping to return the company to viability.  Famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy was hired in 1936 as the company styling consultant.  He would continue to have a profound effect on the look of Studebakers until the company’s final days.  Through most of the 1930’s Studebaker continued with three models in its lineup – Dictator, Commander, and President.  In 1939, to no one’s surprise, the Dictator name would be replaced by the Champion nameplate, thanks to the negative connotations courtesy of both Mussolini and Hitler.  Sales in 1940 and 1941 would exceed 100,000 units before World War II interrupted production and Studebaker, like all other automobile manufacturers, would concentrate on military contracts building both the US6 truck and the M29 Weasel cargo and personnel carrier.   The company also had the exclusive contract to build all Curtiss-Wright Cyclone aircraft engines for B-17 bombers, one of the most reliable bombers the U.S. used in WWII.

Following the War, Studebaker would be the first manufacturer to offer a newly styled model, the 1947 Starlight Coupe.  “First By Far With a Post-War Car” touted the Virgil Exner/Lowey-designed cars which featured a turret-like roofline, wrap-around rear window, and flatback trunk which harmoniously blended into the body; prompting a running joke that one could not tell if the car was coming or going. Life Magazine published a 10-page article about the new car. A 1950 styling update would give the car its famous bullet-nose. 

In 1951 Studebaker would jump into the post-war race for power with the introduction of its first V-8 a 233cid/120hp unit.  One year later, in honor of its 100th anniversary, a Studebaker convertible paced the Indianapolis 500.  And for 1953, the South Bend company introduced what is arguably the most significant car in its history, the streamlined Commander Regal Starliner Coupe.  The beautifully-styled vehicle is credited to Robert E. Bourke of the Loewy Studios.  Its purity of style would ultimately be affected by the fin craze of the 50’s.  Studebaker re-skinned the car giving it a new grille while grafting fins onto the rear flanks and renaming it the Hawk for 1956.    

Yet, all was not well, once again, at Studebaker.  The company proudly declared that it never had an official UAW labor strike.  On the other hand, Studebaker employees and retirees were the highest paid in the industry.  Miscellaneous quality control issues plagued its products, and a new car sales war along with price-cutting between Ford and GM wreaked havoc on Studebaker’s (and other Independent’s) balance sheet.  Merger talk proceeded between Nash-Kelvinator, Hudson, Packard and Studebaker to create one entity and thus the “Big Three” would become the “Big Four.”  In the end, Nash-Kelvinator merged with Hudson to become American Motors.  Studebaker negotiated a takeover of smaller, but less financially stressed Packard to become the Studebaker-Packard Corporation on October 1, 1954.  Studebaker’s financial position was much worse than initially disclosed to Packard and once again, it found itself nearly bankrupt.  Packard built its last cars for 1957; the 1958 models, the final to bear the Packard name, were essentially re-badged Studebakers which today are nicknamed “Packardbakers” by auto aficionados. 

In an attempt to improve its finances, Studebaker entered into a three-year management contract with aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright as well as divesting itself of under-utilized and unused facilities.  C-W got the use of Studebaker manufacturing plants helping to provide tax relief on profits while Studebaker gained working capital.  It also entered into an agreement to become the exclusive U. S. distributor of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in 1958; later adding Auto Union and DKW to the mix.  All this was needed until the company introduced what it felt would be the next big savior – the fall 1958 introduction of the compact Lark.  It was ingeniously based on existing components including its chassis, center body section and drivetrain. Styled by Duncan McRae and readied for production in just ten months, Studebaker sold over 130,000 units in the 1959 model year netting the company an unexpected $28.6 million profit.  But Lark sales began to drop precipitously after the Big Three introduced new compacts for 1960 – the Corvair, Falcon, and Valiant.  Good fortune did not last long and Studebaker quickly found itself back in financial difficulties. 

The Lark line was expanded and famous designer Brooks Stevens was hired to the update the 1953 Starliner Coupe/1956 Hawk design yet another time.  He gave the car a “Thunderbird”-style roof and finless rear deck for the 1962 model year.  Despite an uptick in sales, media reports began to circulate that Studebaker was about to leave the automobile business.  It became a self-fulfilling prophecy as buyers shied away from the company’s products for fear of being stuck with an orphan. 

Studebaker President Sherwood Egbert in an effort to inject some excitement into Studebaker, once again called upon famed designer Raymond Loewy to design a luxury sports coupe based on a shortened Lark convertible chassis.  The design team, holed up in a Palm Springs, California home, managed to design the fiberglass-bodied car going from nothing to a clay mockup in just 40 days!  It featured an aircraft-inspired cockpit and 4-seat interior with integral roll bar.  The car was named Avanti which in Italian translates to “forward.”  It was introduced to the public in 1962 at the New York Auto Show but was delayed by production problems.  It was even scheduled to pace the 1962 Indy 500 on Memorial Day.  However, the car was not ready and Studebaker had to replace the car with a Lark Convertible missing a great publicity opportunity.  Very lavish by 1963 standards, the Avanti was the first American car to have standard front wheel disc brakes and was available with a powerful Paxton supercharger.  The supercharged version of the car dubbed R-2 went on to break many speed records.  Andy Granatelli drove one at Bonneville Salt Flats shattering 29 U.S. speed records in just12 hours in 1962.  In total twelve Avantis broke 337 USAC records in six classes while an R-3 set a flying mile record of 170.78mph giving it the claim of the World’s Fastest Production Car.  All of this was too much too late.  Just 3,834 were built for 1963 with another 809 for the 1964 model year before production ceased. 

Truck production continued through the final months of 1963 and the final car rolled off the South Bend, Indian production line on December 20, 1963.  Production was shifted to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada with projections that the break-even point was just 20,000 units.  While 1965 production was just short of that number, the company’s directors felt that the nominal profits were not enough to justify the continued investment.  The last car, a turquoise and white 1966 Cruiser, rolled off the assembly line on March 16, 1966, one of just 8,947 produced that year.  Studebaker as an automobile manufacturer was gone forever and along with it the Garford, E-M-F, Erskine, Rockne, and Packard names relegated to the history books.