In the mid-1950s, it was no secret either in the auto industry or in the general public that Studebaker-Packard was in serious trouble. The planned four way merger of Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard was only half-completed before the visionary George Mason at Nash died from pneumonia – his vision of forming the fourth full-line automaker dying with him. The Nash-Hudson half happened and the Packard-Studebaker half happened – but those two halves never completed the final merger Mason envisioned.
James Nance (center) with Studebaker’s Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman and an early production 1955 Studebaker President. Nance, never at a loss for colorful language, hated the styling of the Studebaker sedans, calling it “the drooping penis look”.
This left James Nance at Studebaker-Packard struggling to right his capsizing corporate vessel. Packard had been hit with a series of setbacks that alone made Nance’s job extraordinarily difficult. He also had to contend with the massive problems at Studebaker. Packard’s acquisition of Studebaker did not accrue to Nance’s advantage in re-shaping the two corporate entities into the competitive company he envisioned. Studebaker, as Nance put it, was bleeding Packard white.
Studebaker honchos Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman had steered Studebaker out of the Depression and scored a hit in 1939 when they introduced the low-priced Champion. But by the time Packard acquired Studebaker (looking toward the final merger with Nash and Hudson to form American Motors) Vance and Hoffman had become stumbling blocks and needed to be retired. Packard’s acquisition of Studebaker was not structured in ways that would allow Nance to clear the dead wood from Studebaker as he was able to do at Packard.
The blame for the badly-botched introduction of the 1953 Studebakers quite rightly belongs to Vance and Hoffman. They OK’d the shortcuts on the die stamping of the sheet metal that resulted in the front clips of the ’53 coupes not fitting, costing Studebaker tens of thousands of sales because this delayed the shipment of the beautiful Starliner/Starlight coupes for months. It was Vance and Hoffman that OK’d the decision not to set up a pilot production line for the ’53s that would have caught the error on the front clips. Vance and Hoffman insisted that the ’53 sedans be built on a body shell that used many inner panels from the 6 year-old ’47-’52 cars. Stylist Robert Bourke, who had done the stunning coupes, wanted to build the sedans on the 120.5″ wheelbase coupe chassis, but the aging Studebaker brass insisted that the sleek lined-sedan Bourke envisioned be foreshortened and built on a shorter wheelbase. Vance and Hoffman were stunned when the public rejected the sedans by a ratio of five to one in favor of the coupes. Studebaker was unprepared to meet the demand for the coupes. The company never recovered from the unforced errors of the 1953 model year.
Bourke’s Starliner coupe should have been the basis for the 1953 sedans:
Instead, Studebaker built the sedans on shorter wheelbase and management dictated that the body be taller, resulting in a puffy, foreshortened look the public soundly rejected.
Above: The ’53 Champion Regal four door sedan was built on a 116.5″ wheelbase chassis. Below: The Commander Land Cruiser came off better than the Champions and the regular Commanders as the Land Cruiser was built on the 120.5″ wheelbase chassis, but because of the artificially high fenders, hood and trunk still suffered from the foreshortening Bourke fought so hard to avoid.
Above: an early production ’55 Studebaker President. Stylist Bourke fought – and lost – against the “catfish mouth” grille. Below: mid-year 1955 Studebakers got a revised “A” pillar on the roof:
Another criticism of the Studebaker sedan body shell was that it was not competitive size-wise with the offerings of the “Big 3”. Indeed, the Studebakers were more narrow and this caused a perception problem among the public in the ’50s when buyers were going for the “longer-lower-wider” theme sweeping Detroit. Nance ordered a study of the interior volume of the Studebaker bodies. The cars were competitive in interior volume. What made the Studebakers smaller were the thin doors. When Raymond Loewy was calling the shots on Studebaker styling, one of his mantras was that “weight is the enemy”. Studebaker pared weight out of its cars by making the doors thinner in cross section – thus creating the perception that Studebakers weren’t as roomy as the competition. A benefit of Loewy’s weight consciousness is that 6 cylinder Studebaker Champions regularly won the Mobil Economy run, scoring 30 miles per gallon. Ironically, because Studebaker was still stuck with the ’53 body shell when they introduced the compact Lark in 1959, the Lark’s interior volume was competitive with full size Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths. But when Nance was struggling to make Studebaker competitive six years earlier, everyone in the industry believed Studebakers weren’t as roomy as their “Big 3” competitors.
While planning the all-new ’57 Packards and Studebakers which would share the same basic body shell, Nance ordered that most of the restyling money for 1956 be allocated to Studebaker in a serious effort to make the cars competitive and build badly-needed volume to stop the red ink.
The Loewy team found itself without a contract at Studebaker for the styling of the 1956 models. Duncan McRae was hired away from Ford and assigned to Studebaker. McRae tasked Vince Gardner with the re-style of the ’56 Studebakers. The company, having spent a lot of money for ’55 with the mid-year “A”-pillar change, wouldn’t let Gardner further freshen the roof of the Studebaker sedans, but he did get to apply all new sheet metal to the body itself. He squared up the lower body and generally did a fine job on a small budget with the ’56s.
The top-of-the-line Commander Land Cruiser on the 120″ wheelbase of ’53-’54 was replaced in 1955 by a name recycled from the pre-war years: President. For ’56, the President was offered as a 116.5″ wheelbase sedan and as a “President Classic” on the 120.5″ wheelbase. The extra four inches of wheelbase shows in the rear doors, whose windows got the vent wing missing from the rear windows on the 116.5″ wheelbase President.
Above: 120.5′ wheelbase ’56 President Classic; below – 116.5″ wheelbase President. Note the vent wing in the rear windows of the Classic which are lacking in the shorter wheelbase version of the President.
There was an effort to have a bit of “family resemblance” in the styling of the rear of the ’56 Studebaker President and the ’56 Packard Patrician.
In the effort to get more volume out of Studebaker, the Bourke-designed Starliner/Starlight coupes were morphed into the new Hawk line in four series: the Champion six cylinder coupe “Flight Hawk”, the Commander 259 cu. in V-8 “Power Hawk” coupe, the President 289 cu. in. V-8 “Sky Hawk” hardtop and the Packard 352 cubic inch V-8 powered “Golden Hawk” hardtop. The ’56 Golden Hawk with its Packard V-8 was the industry’s fastest production car for 1956. Some car buffs make the case that the very nicely-trimmed ’56 Golden Hawk was the industry’s first personal luxury coupe, predating the ’58 “Square Bird” Ford Thunderbird by 2 model years.
Putting all of this together, Studebaker advertising for 1956 touted the new sheet metal on the sedans as making them the “newest cars in the low price field” and, trying to overcome the image of their cars being smaller than the “Big 3”, the ads praised “The Big New Studebakers for 1956”.
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Alas, it all came to naught. Industry-wide volume for 1956 fell sharply over 1955 and that fall, the first signs of the short but sharp recession of 1957-1958 appeared in the economy. Packard closed and Studebaker found itself in an unhappy embrace with Roy Hurley and Curtiss-Wright. The big news for Studebaker was that they managed to last as long as they did …
Eddie, author of “Disaffected Musings” sent these photos of a ’55 Packard Caribbean he took this past weekend at a car show at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.