Studebaker’s Shoulda-Coulda-Woulda Sceptre
When Sherwood Harry Egbert arrived at Studebaker’s headquarters in South Bend, Indiana, in February, 1961, he landed like the Marine he was. The handsome, 6’4″ Egbert had been at Studebaker subsidiary McCullough, which made superchargers and chain saws. Studebaker had been on the ropes since 1953, before its merger with Packard. As we’ve seen, the merger with Packard was fatal – for Packard.
The Studebaker-Packard merger in one photo …
By 1958, Studebaker was little more than a leprous corpse. It is not much of an exaggeration to write that they hardly could give their regular production cars away in the 1957 – 1958 recession. In this dark scenario, Studebaker had found a ray of light when they introduced their recession fighter, the Scotsman in 1957.
Sherwood Egbert (r.) and Raymond Loewy (l.) with the 1963 Avanti
The Scotsman was a stripped down – really bare bones – Champion and sold for a patriotic $1776. Continued into the 1958 model year, the Scotsman accounted for 40% of Studebaker’s production. The successful-for-stumbling Studebaker Scotsman pointed the way to the Lark.
Almost completely devoid of chrome at the height of Detroit’s Chrome Age, the ’57 Studebaker Scotsman even had painted hub caps!
Seeing the success American Motors was having with their Rambler, and knowing that the Detroit “Big 3” were working on compact cars, Studebaker pulled off a miracle by developing the Lark very quickly – 7 months – and launching it for the 1959 model year.
The handsome ’59 Lark saved Studebaker – for a time …
The Lark was a handsome car offering full size car comfort in the interior because it was, in fact, the full-size Studebaker body shell in the area of the passenger compartment. They had lopped overhang off the front and rear to make it a compact without sacrificing interior room. For 1959, Studebaker sold 160,826 cars and 10,909 trucks. The last year that Studebaker had sold more than 100,000 units was in 1955.
The respite given Studebaker was short lived.
At the time the Lark arrived, the B-School fad du jour was “conglomerates.” The idea was disparate businesses should join together and when the cycle for one business was down, others might be in an up cycle and earnings would be stable. Or so the theory went.
Studebaker management bought into the conglomerate craze. Instead of investing the money they made in 1959 back into car development (the Lark body shell dated to the 1953 model year … ), they went on an acquisition binge that included:
STP Engine oil additives
Clarke Floor Machines
Onan Engines and Generators
Schaefer Commercial Refrigeration
They also bought a maker of garden hoses and even an airline (!).
A major contributing factor to Studebaker’s decision to “diversify” was to use the tax loss carry-forwards allowed at the time in the tax code. Studebaker was able to charge off the copious losses accumulated since the mid-1950s against its current profits.
With the 1960 launch of Chevrolet’s Corvair, Ford’s Falcon, and Mercury’s Comet, and Chrysler’s Valiant, the air quickly leaked from Studebaker’s sales bubble. More storm clouds were on Studebaker’s horizon with more compact cars coming from Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. AMC had former Packard designer Richard Teague’s beautiful ’63 Rambler in development. Against this backdrop, the Studebaker board wanted to exit the car business.
Harold Churchill had become president of Studebaker in the wake of the Curtiss-Wright “management contract” that saw the shut down of Packard and the departures of James Nance, Paul Hoffman and Harold Vance from Studebaker-Packard.
Churchill had worked on the 1939 Champion, the car that made Studebaker the #1 independent car builder. Harking back to the Champion, Churchill conjured up first the Scotsman and then the Lark. Churchill was almost a lone voice on the Studebaker board speaking up for investment in the cars when the board went on its company buying binge.
After a showdown with the board in September, Churchill was stripped of most of his actual authority. He “accepted” early retirement and a nominal “consulting role” in early 1961. That’s when the board plucked Egbert out of McCullough and told him to wind automotive operations down.
When he arrived in South Bend, Egbert quickly – and in defiance of the board – became a “car guy” – and launched a campaign to save Studebaker’s automobile business. He made his home in the Lodge at the Studebaker Proving Grounds.
Looking for image-making cars that could be introduced quickly – and on a next-to-nothing budget, Egbert commissioned Raymond Loewy to come up with what became the Avanti and Brooks Stevens to do an on-the-cheap restyle of the aging Hawk. Stevens did a stellar job with the Hawk and the Avanti design proved to be over time as enduring as Loewy associate Robert Bourke’s design for the 1953-1954 Starliner/Starlight coupes.
Egbert had Stevens do a series of restyles on the Larks and authorized Stevens to develop an all-new body for the 1964 models. As was so often the case in Studebaker’s last years, the walls were falling in on Egbert as he was pushing to modernize the company. As a result the all-new bodies couldn’t possibly go into production until 1965 at the earliest. In the end, like Packard’s ill-fated shared body program for the 1957 Packards and Studebakers, Stevens’ all-new Studebakers never went into production.
Running prototypes were built in Italy by Sibona-Bassano. There were three cars – an updated Wagonaire (Stevens’ clever sliding roof station wagon), now called Skyview; a Cruiser sedan with interchangeable doors; and a two-door hardtop called Sceptre, intended to replace the Gran Turismo Hawk.
Above and below: existing only as running prototypes built in Italy the would-have-been ’65 Studebaker Cruiser sedan and Skytop station wagon.
Above: Another view of the Sceptre. In this photo, it has been fitted with wire wheels. Below: the rear view of the very handsome Sceptre. Fifty-four years after it was designed, it still looks good.
The Sceptre is unquestionably a beautiful design. An interesting feature is the light bars at the front and rear, replacing regular headlights and taillights. Sylvania had developed the light bar concept, using a fluorescent bulb. Stevens was the first to attempt to use it in a production car. As things worked out, Sylvania’s light bar never saw production. Studebaker and Sylvania would have had a battle on their hands with slow-moving government agencies to get approval to use the light bar in production even had Studebaker found funding to launch the cars.
Interior of the Sceptre. The triangular emblem in the seats was repeated on the hood of the car and on the wheel covers.
Sales of Studebaker cars dropped to 74,201 for 1963, down nearly 20,000 units from 1962. The Avanti, beset by production problems at launch, only sold 4,643 units in two model years.
The 1964 Lark wasn’t looking any more promising despite another Brooks Stevens facelift that made it look rather like a Lancia Fulvia Berlina. Studebaker’s automotive division lost over $25 million in 1963. Even with the profits from the other divisions, it still added up to a $16.9 million net loss.
Sherwood Egbert was by then a very sick man. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and while he tried to work through it, he was repeatedly hospitalized. In November 1963, Studebaker announced that he was on an indefinite medical leave of absence, convalescing in Palm Springs.
In Egbert’s place, the board appointed finance VP Byers Burlingame, a former Packard executive. Burlingame made a last-ditch, but unsuccessful, attempt to obtain financing for the new Stevens designs. Barely a month after Egbert’s departure, Studebaker shut down production in South Bend.
That might have been the end of the line, but Gordon Grundy, head of Studebaker’s Canadian operation, pointed out that the factory in Hamilton, Ontario, which was Studebaker’s most modern plant, could continue to produce an existing design with a break-even level of only 20,000 units per year. Production tooling for the Studebaker Lark was transferred to Hamilton, although the Hawk and Avanti were dropped, as were Studebaker’s trucks. Studebaker engines were retained for the rest of the 1964 model year, but after that, the company opted to purchase sixes and V8s from Chevrolet. Without Studebaker engines in them, many potential buyers viewed the GM-engined cars as imitation Studebakers. The Hamilton plant built almost 20,000 cars for 1965, but for 1966, production fell to less than 9,000 and the company called it quits.
As a replacement for the Gran Turismo Hawk, the Sceptre would have been Studebaker’s Thunderbird fighter – and a most handsome contender it would have been. It’s a pity we didn’t get to see how the Sceptre would have performed for Studebaker.
Studebaker and Land Rover owner “Chris-to-Fear” sent these photos of another Land Rover owners’ loss as a result of the fires in Northern California. First is a photo of it at a “Mendo-Reece” Land Rover Club event. Following that are photos of the fire’s destruction to the Land Rover and other property of the owner, who lived in Santa Rosa.
Can you spot the steering wheel?: