Historiography: The Great Wagon Maker of Automobiles

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1963 Studebaker Avanti – All Photos by Randy Stern

Depending on your point of view, one could agree that the westward expansion of the North America continent was forged by the presence of the covered wagon.

Whether that presence was seen as progress or not, the fact that people from the established states of the USA and of the eastern part of the Dominion of Canada wanted to settle somewhere less congested (in relative terms, of course). What you might not know was the fact that one of the most enduring nameplates in early American automotive history came from the building of these covered wagons.

The actual truth was that the primary business of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company – established in 1852 in South Bend, Indiana – was wagon making. Their primary customers were farmers, miners and the military. Horse-teamed wagons were the fastest form of transportation aside from the railroad, which had to endure dirt tracks – or no established trails – to get the job done.

The Studebaker business grew to the point where it became the largest enterprise in making wagons and carriages by 1875. Their business turned to more passenger transport, with a choice of open and closed horse-drawn carriages that yielded top dollar for each one. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison ordered a Studebaker carriage to be his transport in office. The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company bought a modified beer-carrying Studebaker wagon in 1900, which is still being used for the Budweiser Clydesdales.

Meanwhile, the world began to change as the 19th Century raced to its close. The automobile was born with self-propelled models running on various forms of propulsion. After a huge global economic setback in 1893, the idea of the automobile began to be considered at Studebaker's vast production facility in South Bend.

The first Studebaker automobile was battery powered. In 1902, the company began its own production of these electric vehicles, while it sought a partnership to make gasoline-fueled, internal combustion vehicles with another company. Garford and E-M-F went into partnership with Studebaker to make these gasoline automobiles starting in 1904. Eventually, E-M-F would be purchased by Studebaker in 1910, while Garford ended their partnership in 1911.

1930s Studebaker

At that time, Studebaker began to firm up their automobile production plans, with the E-M-F plants added to the South Bend-based enterprise. Studebaker stopped making battery-propulsion automobiles and concentrated on gasoline-fueled products. The idea was to set the standard among mainstream (for lack of a better term in the 1910s) automobiles as being "rugged," "designed for life." They had to be, since most of the roads in this country were still unpaved. Even as a national highway system was established, most motorists were trying to use unmaintained and uncharted routes to get to where they wanted to go. Therefore, Studebaker began to make strong automobiles to prove their advertising claims with their six-cylinder engines and two main series – Big and Standard.

Through World War I, Studebaker showed their engineering prowess. The six-cylinder engine was one of the first made with a monobloc cast. This made for better engine design and manufacture, as it simplified the engine block design – leaning towards engineering durability and reliability. This six-cylinder engine was the nucleus of Studebaker’s success of their automotive products in 1918. This advance and success enabled the company to drop the manufacture of horse-drawn wagons and carriages in 1919.

Studebaker was on a roll through the 1920s, with its Little, Special and Big Six models. Although Ford and Chevrolet ruled the automotive landscape in this country, Studebaker was up there with the big two. The market became diversified with differentiation for brands to their customers. Studebaker competed in both the value and mid-priced segments – as they would through the 1950s. Not a lot of automotive brands were able to do that, especially when they are faced against the likes of General Motors. GM brands were offered across all market segments in the 1920s, while Studebaker had no interest in going after the upper ends of the market.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. Studebaker's roll through the 1920s sustained the company enough for it to introduce a value priced car called the Rockne. Named after the famed football hero, the Rockne was designed to bring in the Chevrolet/Ford customer with a low price. However, the Great Depression hurt the value-priced car market.

Yet, Studebaker's President Albert R. Erskine banked on the Rockne, which resulted in great returns for the company in 1930 and 1931. These returns turned into a 95% acquisition of the White Motor Company. It turned out to be a bad move, as Studebaker owned the banks $6 million. The board of directors blamed Erskine for putting the company in a terrible economic position. They fired Erskine, who took his own life in 1933.

MN C&C June 2016

After the brief fiscal blip, Studebaker went back to work. The company held strong through the Great Depression, even with help from the banks and a reorganization plan that would keep the company going through the rest of the 1930s. As the world plunged into World War II, Studebaker switched to building trucks and other vehicles for the Allied forces.

Coming out of the war, Studebaker went back to building cars and trucks for consumers. Laden with G.I. Bill money and the want of starting a new life, manufacturers raced to develop modern automobiles that broke away from pre-war design. Studebaker had a jump on creating a postwar car. A year after production restarted, the 1947 Studebaker rolled off of the assembly line. They created a car that truly looked like the future for the time.

Raymond Loewy and Virgil Exner penned a car that featured a more integrated style. The fenders were folded closer into the body. Though it looked sleek, it was as tall as most of its competitors. The crowning piece of the 1947 Studebaker was the Starlight coupe. The entire B/C pillar featured wrap-around glass area that was separated into four pieces. A Business Coupe was featured with only a flat pane of glass in the rear.

The sad fact about this design were the two men involved. While Exner put the finishing touches on the 1947 Studebaker, Loewy took the credit for the design. This is interesting, since Loewy fired Exner from his design firm in 1944. In turn, Studebaker directly hired Exner, who stayed with the company until 1949.

At the same time, Studebaker unleashed a major update to their postwar design. It addressed a comical criticism of the car. When you saw one on the street, one wondered whether it was coming…or going. As a solution, the 1950 Studebaker was given the "bullet nose." It gave the Studebaker the look of an old fighter plane, with the "bullet" leaning out above the front bumper. The "bullet" was complimented by two deep grilles wedged into the lower part of the front fascia. Granted, we saw this kind of front end before in the 1948 Tucker, except the middle part was actually a third headlamp that turned with the steering wheel. The 1950 model gave Studebaker more notice, even as the rest of the industry was about to see a huge change in the way it did business.

Studebaker

By the 1950s, anyone who was not GM and Ford were threatened by a major price war that would further thin the automotive field in North America. Chrysler was able to keep a steady hold through the early 1950s as they were protected well against the "price war." Smaller automakers, including Studebaker, began to lose ground with sales diminishing and profits evaporating. The only way for these smaller automakers to survive was to combine into a competitive enterprise. It began as an initial overture to former luxury car marker Packard by Studebaker. Soon afterwards, Nash came into play, along with Hudson, to seek an even greater collaboration. The idea was for a merger of all four smaller automakers to ultimately form American Motors. As negotiations went on, the deal for all four automakers to merge fell apart. Nash and Hudson went on to form American Motors, while Studebaker and Packard finalized their merger in 1954.

The merger could have solved their fiscal problems. It did not. The combined company went into bankruptcy in 1956. One solution was to give aircraft producer Curtiss-Wright management rights to run Studebaker-Packard. Another initiative gave combined dealers additional product to sell – from West Germany. Studebaker-Packard began importing Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union and DKW models for American buyers.

By 1957, the typical Studebaker-Packard showroom was not a happy place to be. Packards became Studebakers with their own front and rear ends. These were sold alongside the Ponton Mercedes-Benz and some interesting looking forerunners to the modern Audi. These products were clearly overshadowed by the flash and style of the Big Three. Customers wanted fins, power and style. Studebaker and Packard tried to do the same, but they were considered rather dowdy and conservative against the popular GM, Ford and Chrysler Corporation models.

The 1958 recession wedged a deeper cut into Studebaker’s heart. At the end of the 1958 model year, Packard was eliminated. Studebaker also stopped production of its larger models. The Golden Hawk coupe remained, but it would be joined by a smaller model that had its sights on the future – again.

The 1959 Lark was given the monumental task of saving Studebaker. It began with a chunk of the older, larger Studebaker/Packard models, yet with trimmer front and rear ends. The car clearly signaled the start of an all-new market for car buyers, which resulted in a huge sales increase for the company. The additional sales came were Studebaker were sold alongside any of the Big Three and American Motors. The Lark was the compact that these dealerships never had available – until the following year.

MN C&C June 2016

Studebaker concentrated on the compact Lark and the Hawk personal luxury coupe through the first part of the 1960s. Unlike most the other new compacts from GM, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors, Larks received V8 engines. Studebaker saw that they can play the power game, even in its smallest offering. Incidentally, this V8 was shared with the Hawk and its pickup truck lineup.

Studebaker was on the wane. Yet, they had one more vehicle they were working on. Loewy and three of his associates showed the Studebaker board an idea for a four-seat personal luxury coupe. It would be, again, seen as futuristic, with a large rear glass area and a grille-less front end. Underneath it were a bunch of old parts – a Lark chassis with the Hawk’s V8 engine. If anything, the 1963 Avanti did capture the attention of the American motoring public. Sadly, it did not translate into sales with only a few thousand sold by the end of 1963.

The failure of the Avanti was truly the end of Studebaker. In 1965, all USA production was shut down. This left the Hamilton, Ontario plant to build the final 1966 models until its closure in March of that year. On March 16, 1966, Studebaker exited the automotive business for good.

One hundred and fourteen years of work grinded to an unceremonious conclusion. In the aftermath of Studebaker’s ceasing of operations, two former Studebaker dealers worked on building the Avanti II in small quantities for well-heeled customers in South Bend. The city is also home of the Studebaker National Museum, celebrating the company that once was.

Why should we remember Studebaker? Not a lot of automotive entities had the breadth of history it offers, even before self-propelled vehicles began to seep into global consciousness. It takes connecting the dots: The Avanti, the Budweiser Clydesdales, a few remaining vehicles here and there. Yet, it remained in business as long as it did because they always found customers that believed in their products. This is a core reasoning that explains why companies rise, retain relevance in the marketplace, survive economic downturns on both a company and a global scale. It is also a measuring stick as why these companies fall and close up shop for good.

Back To The 50s 2015

However, the measure of a lost company and its products is how much we remember those years after the company was shuttered. If you have forgotten about Studebaker, a trip to South Bend might be in order. You can still kneel to the plinth of the Four Horsemen and witness the scale of Touchdown Jesus, but if you happen to find yourself on South Chapin Street – stop by the Studebaker National Museum. There you can learn about this company endured as long as it did from making horse-drawn wagons to the 1966 Wagonaire.

Consider all of this the next time you see the Budweiser Clydesdales parade down the street. Remember, that is a Studebaker, too!

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