A Brief Overview of Studebaker by A C Eck Jnr.

 

114 Years of Vehicle Manufacturing

Founded in 1852 as H&C Studebaker, a South Bend Indiana blacksmith and wagon shop. Studebaker quickly gained a reputation for quality, at one point Studebaker could claim to be the largest manufacturers of wagons and carriages in the World!

The Arrival of the Automobile

Starting in 1902, Studebaker begun selling automobiles. First was an Electric built in thier own shops, followed by an 'assembled' car. (Garford built the chassis, Studebaker built the body) A sales agreement with E-M-F in 1908 soon led to Studebaker buying the company, by 1913 the E-M-F name was dropped.

Building the Corporation

Studebaker focused on building a quality product and grew rapidly into the mid twenties. For 1927 a new low-priced car called the Erskine was introduced, but didn't sell well. In early 1929 Studebaker bought Pierce-Arrow, quickly introducing a new line of Straight Eights that were well received. In October 1929, the Stock Market crashed.

Receivership!

Studebaker's Managment was convinced the depression wouldn't last. Dividends on stock remained high in the face of quickly fading profits. For 1932 a new low-priced car was tried, called the Rockne. It was well built and a great value, but few were willing to try an unknown car.

Studebaker entered into receivership in March 1933.

Pierce-Arrow was sold off and the Rockne was discontinued. The remaining product line was simplified and prices slashed. By 1936 Studebaker made a slim profit.

For 1939 Studebaker tried again to enter the low-priced field with the Champion. Designed to compete head-on with Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth, it caught on quickly. 1939 production was double 1938's total.

The War Years

Studebaker landed contracts to build the Wright Cyclone airplane engines and 6x6 heavy trucks. Civilian production soon took a back seat to the Military contracts, finally ending January 31, 1942. Automobile production wouldn't resume until 1946. During this time Studebaker had Loewy Associates working on a secret project.

First By Far With a Post-War Car

Production of the slightly revised Studebaker Skyway Champion began January 1946. Although it sold well (Indeed at that time all new cars sold well!) it was replaced in the Spring by the new 1947 models, the first all-new design offered by any US Car Company! Sales were strong and production would grow untill it peaked at 334,554 cars and trucks for 1950. It was a record that would never again be challenged.

The Fall

Demand for Automobiles was dropping off by the early Fifties. Studebaker introduced a V8 engine for 1951, and in 1952 the company celebrated 100 years in business.

For 1953 Bob Bourke of Loewy Associates designed a sleek new car in both Coupe and Hard top versions. Originally intended as show cars, it was decided they were too beautiful to not produce. Prototypes shown to the public drew massive orders. The cars were hits!

Then the problems started.

Tooling orders had been rushed and shortcuts were made. When the production line tried to start in Summer 1952, the fenders didn't fit the bodies!

It was January 1953 befor production was underway. Even then, many 1953 Studebakers had poor build quality. Most of the early orders for these cars were cancelled!

Fall of 1953 Henry Ford 11 started what became known as 'The Ford Blitz.' Chevrolet had taken over as the number 1 brand from Ford, and Ford decided he would get back first place or kill the company trying. Ford slashed prices, forcing Chevrolet to do the same. Studebaker and the rest of the Independents were caught in the cross-fire.

In 1954 Packard bought Studebaker and merged the two companies. Sales continued to drop for both lines. Packard's new V8 in 1955 and Studebaker's new Hawk line for 1956 barely made a difference. Packard's Detroit plant closed in '56 and for the next two years cars labelled 'Packard' rolled out of Studebaker's South Bend plant. About the only bright spot was the new Studebaker Scotsman in 1957-'58, a stripped down economy car sold at a bare-bones price.

The Lark!

Something had to be done. The company was dying! There was no money for major redesign, yet the cars were simply not selling as they were!

First the line was simplified. Gone was the Packard, as well as the conventional sedans. The Hawks continued unchanged, the truck line also continued.

What about a new product?

Studebaker-Packard's President, Harold Churchill took the standard sedans of 1958 and trimed as much length as possible off the front and back of the cars! The interior was unchanged in size and was quite roomy. The shortened body saved weight and improved economy. These new cars, designed on a shoe string were called Larks.

They were a hit!

Diversification

It was decided that Studebaker could no longer rely on the automobile business for its survival! It was decided to invest the profit from the Larks in small profitable companies. The first two were CTL and Gering Plastics Inc. In 1960 Clarke Floor Machines, D.W.Onan and Sons and Gravely Tracktors were added.

One Last Try

February 1, 1961, Sherwood Egbert was named President and CEO of Studebaker-Packard. He was expected to diversify the company and phase out the automobile division. Mr Egbert had other ideas.

For 1962 the Lark got a facelift and the Hawk was dramatically restyled. Now called the GT Hawk, it sported a new squared off roof line and cleaner trim, giving the now nine year old design a modern look.

Introduced in mid 1962 as a '63 model was a brand new car, the Avanti. A radically sporty four seat GT designed by Loewy Associates with a body crafted in fibreglass (because of limited production, not weight savings as some have claimed.) It introduced disk brakes as standard equipment, as well as high performance versions of the rugged Studebaker V8.

Disk brakes as well as other high performance features soon were offered on all Studebakers. A mild facelift came for '63 and a more major one for '64 but sales continued to lag.

Then disaster struck once again. President and CEO, Sherwood Egbert was forced to step down due to poor health. He was suffering from cancer.

The End of a Great Automaker

Within weeks of Mr. Egbert's leaving office it was announced that Studebaker would close it's South Bend plant at the end of December 1963.

The smaller but more modern plant in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada would be left as the only factory.

Studebaker's engine plant closed at the end of the 1964 model year, so Chevrolet engines were bought from GM of Canada to power the cars. Gone were the Hawk, Avanti and the truck lines. Gone too were the convertibles and the hard tops. In an era when people looked for excitement from an automobile, somehow Studebaker's slogan for 1965, 'The Common-Sense Car' seems to miss the mark.

Another mild facelift for '66 failed to inspire sales (Though I doubt the Company was trying by then!) And in March 1966, The Hamilton plant was closed, ending 114 years of vehicle manufacturing.

Reprinted here with permission of the Author, Mr. A C Eck Jnr.

 

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