Gear Head Tuesday – The End Comes to Studebaker in South Bend

Gear Head

Adapted from two posts at Hemmings

Studebaker-South_Bend

Appropriately, the flag is flying at half-staff in the photo above taken by the Guard House at Gate 1 of the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana on a cold and snowy day: 9 December, 1963. It was the day that Studebaker management announced that Studebaker production in South Bend would end and a pared-back product line would continue to be produced in Studebaker’s Hamilton, Ontario plant.

Studebaker management had been wanting to exit the car business for some time. The compact Lark, introduced for the 1959 model year, had given the all-but-moribund automaker a new lease on life, but in the face of now compact car competition from Detroit’s “Big Three,” Studebaker’s sales were falling. The cash generated by the success of the Lark was not spent on product, but in buying up other companies. The B-School Rage du Jour at the time was for companies to become conglomerates, the theory being that owning businesses in different industries would spread business cycles – when one was down, another would be up.

The Lark was a smart reworking of the 1953 body shell – which in turn had inner components dating back to the 1947 Studebakers. Studebaker’s troubles had begun in 1953 when they badly botched the introduction of stylist Robert Bourke’s 1953 line. Management took penny-pinching short cuts in the product launch that wound up causing mortal wounds to the company. That sad tale is told HERE. Next came the merger with Packard, a move that proved fatal to Packard. The Lark breathed new life into the company – but instead of launching a new car with the cash generated, they bought Paxton superchargers, a tractor maker, Onan generators, STP Oil Treatment, a garden hose maker, Clarke floor equipment – and they even bought an air line!

From Paxton, they got Sherwood Egbert, who was tasked with shutting the auto operations down. Not a “car guy” when he arrived at Studbaker, Egbert quickly became one. Instead of shutting the auto operations down, he inspired the staff to work miracles to revitalize the auto line. He partnered Studebaker with Raymond Loewy to develop the Avanti and with Brooks Stevens to design an entirely new line of cars. Stevens also worked magic on the current Studebaker line, especially the tired old Hawk.

65studebaker_sceptre_02

Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda: the still-born 1965 Studebaker Sceptre designed by Brooks Stevens. This running prototype survives.

Then Egbert was forced to leave Studebaker when he was diagnosed with cancer. In his place came Byers Burlingame – who had come from Packard. Burlingame did what Egbert wouldn’t, and pulled the plug on Studebaker operations in South Bend. Management callously did the deed shortly before Christmas of 1963, and they did it in such a way that Studebaker retirees were shortchanged on their pensions. The video “Less Than They Promised” recounts the impact of the closure of Studebaker in South Bend on the community.

Studebaker-South_Bend_guard_house

With Studebaker closed in South Bend, most of the buildings housing the plant were torn down and the property redeveloped over the years. The Guard House at Gate One was dismantled brick by brick and stored. Detailed drawings of it were made. The article in Hemmings tells of how the Guard House is to be re-assembled, a monument to the thousands of people who built Studebaker cars and trucks over the years. As the story in Hemmings states – it was the people passing through this gate who built the Studebakers.

64 Studebaker GT Super Hawk

One of the last cars built in South Bend was this R-2 Super Hawk, one of only 46 1964 model year Hawks built with the R-2 supercharged Avanti engine package. It was built on 19 December, 1963. The plant closed the next day. While the body shell dates to the 1953 Starliner/Starlight coupes, this Hawk shows what Brooks Stevens did with almost no money to modernize Robert Bourke’s design for 1953. That it came off so well is a tribute to the soundness of Bourke’s original design. This rare Hawk was offered for sale recently on Hemmings. We hope that it has gone to a home that will appreciate and preserve it.

2 Comments

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  1. We kids of the 40-50s remember the car that you couldn’t tell the ‘front from the back’, The designs took a lot of ribbing, but so much innovation was in the little car. The thing I remember most was the roominess inside. with a set back dash.
    I tried to out run the 50 model in my ’48 chevy in 1955. Couldn’t quite do it. HAHA
    We did truly enjoy the Stude Museum in South Bend.

    Liked by 1 person

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