30 December 2013

The Studebaker that Woulda-Shoulda-Coulda

Like most independent US automakers in the 1950s, Studebaker -at that point already in business for over 100 years, producer of Conestoga wagons that conquered the American west, and an automobile manufacturer since 1905-
was simply unable to compete with the Big Three's economies of scale, access to capital, and profit-crushing price wars. The result was companies like Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker being forced to seek a merger in order to survive...

So as AMC/Rambler was created out of Nash and Hudson, Studebaker teamed-up with ultra-luxury Packard, consolidated manufacturing, and eliminated redundancies. Yet the new Studebaker-Packard corporation wasn't able to save the Packard nameplate for long, as all they could afford to come up with was a gussied-up Studebaker sedan with a Packard pimp-kit tacked on- the Packard mystique was spent,
and sales
tanked. A recession in '58 twisted the knife, and Packard was gone.

Also in a death-spiral of ebbing consumer confidence and tumbling sales, Studebaker salvaged itself as an automotive brand for awhile with a similar cost-effective niche approach to AMC's: make a medium-large car into a roomy compact by lopping-off some length on both ends and utilize existing powerplants  (who's tooling had long been paid-off). 

Both AMC -with the Rambler- and Studebaker -with the 1959 Lark- beat the Big Three to the compact segment (Corvair, Falcon, Valliant) and posted substantial sales/profits by being first-to-market when many were looking at imports after growing weary of the sheer mass of standard Detroit 'dinosaurs'
(as Romney tagged them).

1965 Studebaker Lark Daytona

With it's nearly full-size interior with seating for six adults, the compact Lark was an instant hit, and Studebaker sales were up 250% in '59 because of it. Soon the company hired an engergetic 'car guy' -Sherwood Egbert- who (along with racing legend Andy Granatelli) continued to improve and cleverly restyle the Lark, which was basically a 1953 platform that remained -albeit annually updated- right up until the end of Studebaker automobile production in March 1966. 

Egbert also brought the world the handsome, innovative, and advanced Studebaker Avanti (designed by genius Raymond Loewy)- and in fact planned a whole family of 'Avanti II' sedans/etc to take advantage of the new, sporty family image. But production problems and persistent cash shortages doomed what was indeed a promising product in the Avanti... alas, this was Studebaker's last shot at remaining a serious player in the auto business.

When 'hot' motors developed for the Avanti -inc. top one with Paxton supercharger- were made available in the Lark, you had what may have been the first factory 'muscle car', even before the famed Pontiac GTO: the Lark Daytona ran a 289hp supercharged V-8 and did 0-60 in 8.9 seconds...
an impressive figure in 1962.

The company went-on selling STP oil treatment, Clarke floor machines, Franklin home appliances, etc up until it was all swallowed-up in yet another merger. By the mid 70s, Studebaker was a $1B/year company.. but the last Studebaker autombiles were 1966-model sedans built in Ontario in 1965, and only ~19,500 where screwed-together in that last year of production. Automotive historians largely blame the company's high price of labor and low (union) productivity for the demise of the huge Studebaker works at South Bend, Indiana.

Yet Studebaker had some very interesting stuff on the drawing board when they withdrew from the automobile business. My favorite would be the Studebaker Sceptre Coupe, which was intended to be a 1966 model. One was made as a non-running prototype to entice the investors that never materialized... this was to be the new Studebaker styling theme that would carry them into the Seventies.

Note that Studebaker at the time was the sole licensed US importer of Mercedes-Benz cars in the late 50s/early 60s, and seeming influenced by Benz, they stressed a new 3-pointed Studebaker star and attached Mercedes-style grilles to some models. The 1962 Sceptre prototype pictured below uses the symbol extensively on the hood, grill, wheels, seats, steering wheel, etc. The car also featured futuristic 'light tubes' front and rear, specially developed by Sylvania-

Featured thin bucket seats (for extra room) and a wild dash 
with individually-adjustable instruments...

Resides in the company museum today

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