company ‘H. and C. Studebaker’ begins February 16th 1852, with Henry and
Clem Studebaker buying a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana,
starting out with $68.00 capital and 2 sets of blacksmith tools.
day’s earning was $0.25 for shoeing 1 horse. In their first year,
they produced 2 full sized wagons.
Another Studebaker brother, John Mohler, goes west looking for fortunes
in the gold fields, and makes a small fortune building wheelbarrows for
JM returns to Southbend with $8,000.00 and buys Henry’s share who wants
to go back to farming.
With many awards for craftsmanship and design, export business in
generated resulting in the Studebaker brothers becoming the world’s
largest manufacturer of carriages and wagons.
In the 1870s, two disastrous fires causes major set backs, but with
typical pioneer determination the company recovers and is now equipped
to produce 75,000 wagons annually.
Under the leadership of J.M. (Wheelbarrow Johnny) Studebaker, the
corporation began building the new fandangled automobiles in 1902 with
the Electric powered vehicles.
Electric power is chosen, mainly due to JM Studebaker not liking the
smell, noise, or unreliability of the gasoline powered designs.
The brothers soon realise that gasoline powered vehicles are the future,
and embark on joint ventures introducing the two cylinder, 4 seat tourer
Studebaker-Garford in 1904. The first all
Studebaker gasoline powered vehicle is released in 1913, graduating from
two, then four, then to six cylinder cars in 1917 with the ‘Big
Six’. It was large, powerful, and built rugged for the poor
American roads of the time.
Now under the direction of Company President Albert R.
Erskine, Studebaker made over 100,000 cars
a year in the early 1920’s, crowding the likes of Ford, Dodge Brothers,
and Willys-Overland, the largest makers at the time.
When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the company was severely
over-extended and vulnerable to economic downturn. Saved by bankruptcy
at the eleventh hour, the company re-organised in 1933, rationalising
its market coverage to concentrate on successful models in the high
Famed industrial designer Raymond Lowey
began his long association with Studebaker by re-designing the cars
during the late 1930’s. Keeping abreast styling trends in streamlining,
the attractive cars sold well until 1942, when production of all U.S.
cars ceased in order to concentrate on the war effort.
Studebaker acquitted itself well, building aero engines, bomber
fuselages, Weasel troop carriers, and tough
6x6 wheel drive trucks for the U.S. armed forces. Many of the later were
shipped to the Soviet Union under allied mutual assistance schemes.
After the war, Raymond Loewy’s design team scored a first with their
radical postwar look. Introduced in 1947, the new Studebaker
Commanders featured fenderless, smooth sides and simple, clean
lines. The Starlight Coupe surrounded its
back seat passengers in a half turret of wrap around glass. This gave
rise to all those jokes about ‘which way is it going’ Studebakers. Years
ahead of the competition, these cars kept their edge into 1950, when the
‘bullet-nose’ facelift was applied.
Always an innovator, Studebaker’s engineers developed their own
automatic transmission in 1950, and introduced their first modern V8 in
1951. Self adjusting brakes, automatic overdrive and Hill-Holder (a
brake-clutch system for easy hill starts), all first appeared by
The 1950’s saw Studebaker’s plight as an independent carmaker made
apparent. There was increasing competition from the Big Three (Ford,
General Motors, and Chrysler) with their vast economies of scale. Their
price wars hurt Studebaker and all other U.S. independents. The 1954
merger with the beleaguered luxury carmaker Packard created more
problems than it solved.
The 1953 introduction of the Loewy Studios designed
Starliner hardtop coupe and its pillared
coupe companion, the Starlight, brought much needed showroom traffic and
sales. The Starliner was (and still is) hailed as one of the most
beautiful cars ever made. Later re-styled with a square grille and
soaring fins, it became the Hawk line of
cars in 1956. In keeping with its image as an up-market, family sized
sports car; the Golden Hawk of 1957-58 came
from the factory with a supercharged V8 and 275 horsepower, putting
among the most powerful cars of the time.
The relative success of the Hawks as a niche market product, coupled
with the deep recession of 1958, led Studebaker-Packard into developing
a niche market economy car. Gambling everything of its now meagre
resources on a down sized car, the Lark was born in 1959. An immediate
success, the recession-beater Lark was compact, roomy inside and very
economical. It was available with a six or V8, in body styles including
sedan, wagon, hardtop coupe, or as a convertible.
The Lark was exported to many countries including Australia, where it
was assembled along with the Hawk. Much Australian content went into
locally assembles Studebakers, including heaters, power brakes, and
Unfortunately, by 1960 the Big Three had caught up with their own
compacts: the Plymouth Valiant, Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair, as
well as American Motors small Rambler. As a
result of their larger dealer bodies and flooding of the market,
Studebaker’s market share fell away again.
Dynamic new company President, Sherwood Egbert, decided to spark sales
with a complete makeover of the Studebaker line. He hired industrial
designer Brooks Stevens to freshen styling
on a shoestring budget for 1962. Larks became longer and more
The aging Hawk Lost its fins to gain full length, stainless steel
fender-line mouldings from headlight to taillight.
A fashionably formal,
square, Thunderbird-style roof and a Mercedes-inspired grille completed
the European-American look of the new Gran
Egbert also hired Raymond Loewy in order to design a high-tech , luxury
sports coupe that would be an image leader for the ailing company. The
result was the Avanti. A dramatic departure
from industry norms. With fibreblass body shell, no grille between the
headlights, an integral rollbar and bubble back window, the Avanti was
over a decade ahead of its time. Studebaker set about making a
performance reputation for the Avanti. It broke many U.S. stock car
records on the Bonneville salt flats, including a flying mile at over
170 mph. The supercharged and normally aspirated Avanti engines were
availabe on all Studebakers in 1963. Also that year, the company became
the first American manufacturer to offer disc brakes.
A new, squarer look for the Larks (re-named
Challengers, Daytonas and
Cruisers) for 1964 promised better sales.
But it was not to be. Financially wallowing in red ink, the corporation
was forced to retrench. The South Bend plant, Studebaker’s home for over
a century, was closed down.
The corporation retreated to its remaining plant in Hamilton, Ontario in
Canada. Despite ambitious proposals to save the company, Studebaker
ceased to manufacture vehicles in 1966.
At the time of closing, Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana, was the
oldest manufacturer of wheeled vehicles in the United States of America.
There were survivors however. The Avanti was reborn by former Studebaker
dealer Nate Altman, and was produced as a hand built, exclusive luxury
coupe until quite recently. With minor modifications, its advanced
styling has stood the test of time.
Another survivor is the Excalibur; a
‘neo-classic’ car patterned after Mercedes SSK sports roadsters of the
1930’s. Designed by Brooks Stevens and originally based on a
supercharged Lark chassis, the Excalibur was made by Stevens and his
sons in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is an elegant, luxurious personal car
with the advantages of modern GM based mechanicals and classic 1930’s
the hearts and memories of many owners, club members and enthusiasts
around the world, who appreciate the heritage, the vehicles, and the
significant place in automotive history which began more that 150 years
ago in 1852.
To Henry and Clem, thank you.