I have been a Studebaker fan for some time. I blame my parents. Back in 1996, during a particularly difficult year health-wise, my mom and dad took me to an SDC meet at the Moline Holiday Inn. I was smitten. There were so many cool models! 1950-51 “bullet nose” Champions and Commanders, Golden Hawks, Larks, all kinds of great stuff. But perhaps my favorite model at the show was the Gran Turismo Hawk.
Cleverly restyled by Milwaukee-based industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, this was essentially a 1953 “Loewy coupe” with some cosmetic surgery and a Thunderbird-inspired roofline. Introduced for the 1962 model year, it was a surprisingly modern update for such an old design. Keep in mind, most American cars in the ’50s and ’60s got 2-3 year redesigns, even if it was sitting atop the same old chassis. Studebaker, with the lack of the Big Three’s deep pockets, had to improvise.
I don’t recall which of the 4-6 GT Hawks really reeled me in, but I loved the design. I especially loved that instrument cluster filled with gauges, curved to make them all easily viewable by the owner. Said owner most likely wearing driving gloves and smoking a pipe…
At any rate, the summer of 1996 was the year I really started loving Studebakers, and those Gran Turismo Hawks were a big factor. Later on I got the most excellent Crestline Studebaker book (sadly out of print now). I spent hours looking through it, seeing all the changes between the Conestoga wagon and carriage years to the Classic era and on to streamlined postwar models.
Studebaker’s a heartbreaker. So many amazing cars, but at the same time so many dumb decisions made. For better or worse, Studebaker was about half-past irrelevancy by the 1958 recession, and only the compact Lark’s success bought them a few more years. The Avanti, a cleverly disguised Lark made into an ultra-modern grand tourer, never really sold.
Initial teething problems due to the fiberglass body didn’t help. And even when the car was finally sorted and readily available, many folks demurred. Studebaker appeared to be on the ropes, and despite the appeal, most buyers decided not to gamble.
But throughout the final years of Studebaker’s existence, the breadwinner was the Lark. In fact, if not for the Lark, Studebaker cars might have petered out in 1958, which was a horrible year for the company. In a nutshell, the Lark was a 1958 Studebaker Champion with the nose and tail cut down to shorten it into a “compact.”
Thanks to the unaltered center section, interior room was very good. The Lark first appeared in 1959, and brought some much needed cash to Studebaker’s coffers. It also bought the car division some time.
In 1959, primary competition for the Lark was Rambler, VW, and Renault. Yes, Renault. The tiny four-door Dauphine took sold over 100,000 that year, a huge increase. Unfortunately for Renault the cars had the durability of sugar cubes in the rain, and in the long run, it disappeared. So the Lark was in a pretty good spot.
But it didn’t last. The very next year, Ford, GM and Chrysler released their own compacts, and although sales for Lark in ’60 weren’t bad, it was down. And it would keep going down.
Brooks Stevens redesigned the Lark for ’62, with a decidedly Mercedes-like look. It made sense, as Studebaker-Packard was the official importer for Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. at that time. But it didn’t really help. Despite the redesign, it still looked quite a bit like the original ’59.
The last attempt to keep the Lark current came in model year 1964. An attractive facelift, which squared up most of the Fifties-style curves, was done yet again by Brooks Stevens. And on a shoestring. But sales still lagged. It seemed no one was terribly interested in buying a Studebaker any more. And Studebaker wasn’t terribly interested in building them either.
Just before Christmas of 1963, the historic, amazing, but ancient and inefficient factory complex in South Bend was shut down. Daytona hardtops and convertibles were axed, as were the aforementioned Avanti and Gran Turismo Hawk.
However, the Avanti would get a second life. And so would a part of the South Bend factory, when Nate Altman and Leo Newman, former Studebaker dealers, resumed production of the Avanti-now with a “II” moniker added and Chevrolet 350 V8 power. It’s beyond the Studebaker story, but Avanti IIs lasted well into the late ’80s.
And so was it that the final Studebakers were technically imports. Shipped from Studebaker’s satellite plant in Canada to U.S. dealers, which were growing increasingly thin by that time. But some diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. Only two-door sedans, four-door sedans and station wagons remained in the lineup, in Daytona, Commander and Cruiser trim levels.
In addition, all 1965-66 Studebakers sported Chevrolet V8s (technically McKinnon, as that was the manufacturer in Canada). The Studebaker engine plant–the final operational part of South Bend after 1963–was shuttered for good after the 1964 model year run was finished.
Yet there was still an effort made for 1966, for the swan-song 1966 Studebakers received a minor yet attractive facelift. And the Cruiser sedan remained top of the line, with a very attractively updated interior.
1966 Studebaker seating was far more luxuriously appointed for the year, with upholstery choices being rather Cadillac or Lincoln-like. It makes one wonder what could have happened if Studebaker had held on just a few more years…Lark Broughams, perhaps?
This gold example was the first ’66 Cruiser I’d seen in the metal at the time I took these pictures in the summer of 2013. I was impressed with the junior-Cadillac interior. Just look at those seats! Not bad.
And as previously mentioned, more woodgrain appeared, on both the instrument panel and door panels. The effect was very much that of a luxury car in a miniature scale, though still Studebaker Sensible with wind-up windows, simple armrests and no Automatic Climate Control.
No, no one was going to mistake it for a Fleetwood or Continental. However, it was a nice effort for what was a modestly-priced compact car, sized much like–and priced within a couple hundred dollars of–the contemporary Plymouth Valiant Signet.
Fun fact: The very last Studebaker built was also a Cruiser. I took these pictures while visiting the Studebaker National Museum with Jim Cavanaugh in 2015. It was used as a courtesy car for Studebaker executives when new and was donated to the Museum years back. With the black cloth upholstery and attractive metallic aqua paint, it had a rather upscale look for a car of its size.
Ten years later Ford would sell a similar package in their Mini-Me Ford Granada Ghias, with air conditioning, power windows and even available leather. They sold like dollar beer at a baseball game. It makes one wonder…coulda, shoulda, woulda.
Upholstery aside, 1966 Studebakers would have been very familiar to owners of earlier Larks.he very clean and functional instrument panel introduced for 1963 remained much the same. I love the design, it’s very European. The Cruiser was the second best selling model of the year, but it was a small victory. That only amounted to 2,901 of the top-tier sedans, with a $2,610 base price.
Studebaker’s last champion of the auto division, Sherwood Egbert, had to step down from his position during this time, due to declining health. Shortly after his exit from the company, the remaining corporate drones unanimously decided to kill the car division and focus on STP, Paxton, Gravely Tractors, and other assorted recently-purchased divisions.
I can see why that happened-the car division had been a loser and giant money drain for years. But who can, even today, be sure whether it was for the best or not? Could things have been turned around? Or would it have been throwing good money after bad? Sure, it would have been great to see Studebaker around a few more years, but it has to pay for itself if it’s to survive. Like all businesses of course. All I can do is shake my head and say, Studebaker, you made some damn cool stuff and I’m glad you were around–at least for a time.