Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

Studebaker - the history of an American company

Studebaker-icon.jpg

Back in America’s horse and buggy days, Studebaker Brothers Company was the largest manufacturer of vehicles in the world. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral carriage bore the brand as did many of the “prairie schooners” that carted hardy pioneers across dusty prairies to the American west.

Studebaker jumped into the exciting new world of automobile manufacturing with an electric sedan in 1902. The following decades saw the brand prosper as it transitioned to internal combustion cars and enjoyed a solid success, defying the odds of a fiercely Darwinist early auto industry.  

Looking to jazz up their plain cars, Studebaker hired legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy in 1938 to give their cars a fresh, modern look that garnered much praise and increased sales.

Famed Chrysler designer Virgil Exner was a principal designer at Loewy’s firm when they were commissioned to design the radical, groundbreaking 1947 Studebakers that beat Detroit’s “big three” manufacturers’ postwar cars to the market by two years. The striking new Starlight Coupe featured a radical, 180 degree wrap-around rear window. But that was just the warm up. 

1947 Studebaker Starlight .png

The company’s next all-new design was a stunner that has a permanent spot on lists of America’s most beautiful cars. The classic low-slung 1953 hardtop Starliner coupe looks as fresh today as it did when it rolled out of South Bend, Indiana to stun the country. 

Desperate to compete in an increasingly competitive market, but lacking funds for new designs and the tooling needed to produce them, Studebaker commissioned Loewy to refashion his ’53 coupe design into an exciting sports/luxury job they called the Hawk. The Hawk was innovative, a sporty four passenger “family sports car” that predicted the personal luxury car craze that lit up Detroit several years later. Late 1950s Studebakers started to show the company’s financial desperation when they added awkward fender bulges to accommodate the fashionable new four-headlight look, and tacked-on fiberglass fins to keep up with the times.

Studebaker pushed ahead of the times once again when they beat GM, Ford, and Chrysler to market with the Lark compact in 1959. The squarish little bulldog sedan sold like hotcakes until the Big Three debuted their compact Corvairs, Falcons, and Valiants in 1960. The Big Three’s compacts were all-new from the ground up, while Studebaker’s Lark had to make do with an outdated chassis and a central body section dating from 1953. 

Studebaker’s venerable Loewy Starlight coupe was reworked yet again in 1962 as the Gran Turismo Hawk, this time noted stylist Brook Stevens graced it with a formal Thunderbird roofline and chrome outlined fenderlines, magically updating the nearly ten year old design on a shoestring budget. 

Hot to introduce a radical personal sports/luxury “halo” coupe to rev up interest in the company, Studebaker’s energetic new CEO Sherwood Egbert commissioned Raymond Loewy to work his magic once again, this time in an impossibly short forty days. Loewy assembled a crew of three and installed them in a rented house near his own in Palm Springs. Forty days later they’d created the striking Studebaker Avanti coupe, a design classic so appealing in stayed in production largely unchanged for over thirty years. 

Unfortunately, though the company contracted to produce the Avanti’s fiberglass body had no trouble turning out all the Corvette bodies Chevrolet required, they were unable to meet Studebaker’s needs and many sales were lost as the company delayed deliveries and was forced to move body production in-house, killing the new car’s momentum. The car itself generated plenty of momentum with its optional supercharger making the Avanti the fastest production car in the world. A near-stock, supercharged Avanti hit 168 MPH at Bonneville Salt Flats, while a specially prepared version screamed through the traps at 196 MPH. Both cars shattered many records. 

Studebaker - the cars, the company, the story - 1963 Studebaker

Plucky independent Studebaker innovated again by introducing the Wagonaire in 1963, a station wagon with a sliding rear roof to allow for tall cargo. It received noticeable publicity, but the roofs leaked and inspired limited sales. 

Excited about keeping Studebaker alive, Brooks Stevens had a futuristic prototype coupe called the Sceptre built as a Hawk replacement. It was a promising design, but the company’s sad fate was fast becoming clear and no funding was allotted to develop the car. Loewy also pitched in with Avanti-styled design proposals for sedans, but it was all too little, too late.

Like the sad fates of once proud automotive brands Hudson and Nash, it became increasingly clear that small, independent Studebaker couldn’t elbow past the mighty muscle of Detroit’s big three carmakers to achieve sufficient market penetration. 

In a sad case of two drowning firms clinging to each other, Packard bought Studebaker in 1954. It soon became clear that Studebaker’s balance sheet was not in the rosy shape they’d been led to believe. Desperate attempt to keep the brand alive, Packard’s 1957 and ’58 cars were little more than rebadged Studebakers that fooled no one; sales plummeted and a  prestigious American brand faded into history.

Studebaker’s sporty Hawk and Avanti models were discontinued when manufacturing of the company’s last remaining model, an updated evolution of the Lark, was moved to Canada in 1964. Chevrolet drivetrains were utilized for the last two years of dwindling sales. Finally, the company’s board pulled the plug on car production after the 1966 model year, ending the long, innovative run of America’s oldest vehicle manufacturer. 

Other Studebaker Stories on the Curbside

Written by Jim Cherry