Raymond Loewy and the ’53 Studebaker Commander Starliner
French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a profound and lasting influence on Studebaker. Already well-known as a U.S. industrial designer, Loewy’s fame grew when he contracted to work for Studebaker in 1936. Loewy’s name helped Studebaker differentiate itself from other manufacturers for many years.
Andy Beckman, the archivist for the Studebaker National Museum wrote:
“For all of Studebaker’s issues that led to their demise, styling was nowhere near the top of their problems,” he said. “Their investment in Loewy paid them back many times over.”
Loewy, already an internationally recognized industrial designer who had done some work for Hupmobile, took on Studebaker as a client on the request of Studebaker President Paul Hoffman, a fan of Loewy’s work. “He was pretty much given carte blanche,” Beckman said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Loewy himself worked on Studebaker designs. Loewy instead employed a stable of designers and, according to Peter Grist’s Virgil Exner: Visioneer, Loewy raided GM’s designer pool once he landed the Studebaker account, luring away Clare Hodgeman, Paul Zimmerman, and Exner, the latter assigned to oversee Studebaker. After opening a satellite office in South Bend in 1941, Exner then brought on more designers and clay modelers to work for Loewy on Studebaker, among them Bob Bourke, Frank Alhroth, Jake Aldrich, Bob Bingman and Tom Dingman. It was Loewy who hired the first woman to work as a designer, Helen Dryden, and she was assigned to the Studebaker account.
“For the most part, Loewy gave his designers free rein, although they were not allowed to do any freelance work,” Grist wrote. “Loewy, however, insisted on having the final say on designs.” (Nonetheless, Bob Bourke and Holden Kato, working at home on a kitchen table did most of the design of the 1949 Ford, a design often credited to George Walker, who happily took the credit and used it to further his career at Ford.)
Loewy took full credit for his firm’s designs while others – principally Exner – whose ego was as large as Loewy’s – wished to see the entire team of designers (meaning mostly himself) credited. This is why the signature Studebaker design, the ’53 – ’54 Starliner and Starlight coupes are known as “the Loewy coupes” even though these beautiful cars were designed by Robert Bourke with Holden Kato working with Bourke on the design.
Loewy’s signature often appeared on subordinates’ drawings, and he periodically starred in photo ops revising a sketch or working clay. This practice often has been criticized, while others point out that the Loewy name sold a design that might otherwise have remained on a drawing board.
Loewy at the table with Bourke standing in a staged publicity shot of Bourke’s design for the ’53 Studebaker Starliner. Despite being Bourke’s design (assisted by Bob Koto) these cars are known as “the Loewy coupes”.
1941 Studebaker President
The friction in the working relationship between Loewy and Exner – along with Studebaker engineering vice president Roy Cole’s dislike of Loewy – led to an infamous episode of “palace intrigue,” during the design process for Studebaker’s first post-war car. Though Loewy had the contract to design the car, Cole convinced Exner to set up shop independent of Loewy and submit his own design for what would become the 1947 Studebaker. Cole also, probably intentionally, gave Loewy incorrect body dimensions, effectively sabotaging the project. Roy Cole was the black hat figure in this episode and Exner happily participated in it.
1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe. This design is largely the work of Robert Bourke and originated with a sketch Bourke had done prior to the outbreak of World War II.
In response to the friction with Exner, Loewy hired Gordon Buehrig – who in turn hired John Reinhart, Jack Aldrich, Bob Koto, Dick Calleal, and Vince Gardner – and had Buehrig’s team work with Exner’s (sometimes subordinate to, sometimes in charge of) until June 1945, when Loewy fired Exner and Buehrig, believing both were in on the sabotage of Loewy’s postwar Studebaker design. Reinhart went from Studebaker to Packard and was responsible for the fine 1951 Packard.
1951 Packard Patrician – designed by John Reinhart
Bourke then took over the Studebaker effort for Loewy. Exner soon went to Chrysler where he did some fine work, most notably the 1955 line with the “100 Million Dollar Look” and became most famous for the “Forward Look” which included the finned ’57 – ’59 Chrysler line. Exner’s work went downhill from there at Chrysler. He became known as “Virgil Excess” in response to his bizarre (but thankfully unbuilt – other than the “XNR”) asymmetrical design proposals for the early ’60s Mopar lineup and his subsequent firing from Chrysler. Among Bourke’s team’s achievements during that time were the bullet-nose Studebaker of 1950, the 1952 redesign, the ’52 Starliner hardtops, and the streamlined 1953 coupes.
“Virgil Excess’s” asymmetrical XNR concept car was the only one of Exner’s asymmetrical designs to be built.
With the merger in 1954 of Packard and Studebaker, Packard president James Nance refused to renew Loewy’s contract with Studebaker because he believed “Loewy didn’t do Studebaker any favors.” Nance hated the design of the Studebakers calling it “the drooping penis look.” In fairness to Bourke and the others on the Loewy team at Studebaker, it was Studebaker chiefs Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman that were responsible for the ungainly look of the Studebaker sedans. Bourke wanted the sedans to be based on the coupe, which would have resulted in a far more handsome car. But Vance and Hoffman forced Bourke to put the sedan on a shorter wheelbase that used many inner body panels from the ’47 design. The result was an awkward, foreshortened design that was a failure in the market.
Loewy wasn’t entirely a hands-off manager who stepped in to claim credit for design work actually done by his staff at Studebaker. He greatly influenced Studebaker’s reputation for economy by encouraging the company to cut needless weight from their cars. His mantra was “weight is the enemy”. Weight was reduced, for one example, by making the doors thinner in cross section than other manufacturers – but there was no sacrifice in interior volume. Thus when it came time to make turn the 1953 body shell into the 1959 Lark, Studebaker’s task was simplified because the Studebaker body, thanks to Loewy’s efforts at weight reduction, was already compact in cross-section. To make the Lark, Studebaker had only to trim length from the car.
Loewy’s campaign against weight paid another dividend for Studebaker. Because Studebakers were lighter than competing cars, the company regularly won the Mobilgas Economy run, often achieving 30 miles-per-gallon with the Champion six in an era when 18 miles per gallon was considered to be “economical”.
Although James Nance terminated Loewy at Studebaker, Loewy would return to help bring about another iconic Studebaker design. When Sherwood Egbert arrived at Studebaker in 1961, Loewy was hired again specifically to design the Avanti, which Loewy did with Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews, and John Ebstein over the course of six weeks in a rented house in Palm Springs, California.
Loewy took a significantly different role in the Avanti’s design process than on previous Studebaker projects. When Raymond Loewy Associates previously held the Studebaker account, Loewy visited South Bend on a periodic basis and represented the Design Department to the Studebaker Board, but he was far from a day-to-day manager. In Palm Springs, Loewy visited the studio daily. He encouraged the team to explore new avenues within the Avanti’s established design concepts but remained open to a well-reasoned argument. Ever the celebrity, Loewy also made sure his role in the Avanti’s creation was properly recorded. Photos show Loewy posing in a white smock with clay modeling tools and a number of Kellogg’s sketches bear Loewy’s “RL” signature. That said, the final design of the Avanti is not far removed from Loewy’s own first sketch of the car.
Loewy’s own sketch of the Avanti
The influence of Raymond Loewy on Studebaker designs has far outlived the company. As Studebaker Museum’s Andy Beckman wrote, Studebaker’s investment in Loewy paid the company many dividends.
Raymond Loewy (left) and Sherwood Egbert with the Avanti.
Studebaker’s unbuilt answer to the Corvette and Thunderbird. We will endeavor to learn the story about this car.
The old gas station photos series as posted at Curbside Classic continues:
A fill up on a cold winter day in Pennsylvania