Studebaker, the only company that made the transition from producing
horse-drawn wagons to motor vehicles, was also the only auto company to
emerge from receivership during the great depression and get back in the
business. In 1928 it was selling more than 100,000 vehicles a year but by
1933 its liabilities exceeded its assets by $15 million. Studebaker was saved
by new leaders, including Harold S. Vance (the man with the white shoes in
the earlier photo) who decided to save Studebaker by building a completely
new model named the Champion.
In the days of low-octane gasoline, around 1939, Studebakers were powered by
two engines; the Commander had a 226 cubic inch 6-cylinder which produced 90
horsepower, and the President had a 250 cubic inch "straight 8" which
produced 110 horsepower. ( The Ford V-8 and Chevrolet 6-cylinder each had 85
horsepower that year.) Studebaker's new Champion had a 164 cu.in.,
6-cylinder motor that produced 78 horsepower, which was only 12 horsepower
less than the Commander, although the Champion engine was much smaller and
lighter. (164 cu.in. vs. 226 cu. in.) Although the Champion had less
horsepower, it was also a much lighter car. It weighed between 2,260 and 2,275
pounds compared to the Commander, which weighed between 3,035 and 3,640 pounds.
The Champion was a "compact car" years before anyone used that term.
The Champion was a big success. In 1939, (first year of production),
the Commander outsold the Champion by 43,724 to 33,905; but by 1940, America
discovered what a fine car the Champion was and it outsold the Commander by
66,264 to 34,477. By 1941, the score was 84,910 Champions to 41, 996
Commanders, more than 2 to 1 in favor of the new Champion. World War II ended
all auto production in 1942, but when production resumed, the Champion and Commander
were entirely new models in 1947, while the other major auto companies sold
"facelifted" prewar cars. Studebaker's new slogan was, "First by far with a
postwar car." The pundits and comics responded, "Which way is it going?"
Everyone laughed at first, but soon realized that Studebaker was going the
right way, and followed.
Fortunately, my grandfather was able get one of the first 1947 Champions.
Studebaker employees were the first to get the new cars, but had to sign
agreements not to resell them because of the shortage. Dad took the Champion
with him to school in Chicago to study a newfangled device called television
and soon discovered that a new Studebaker Champion was a great car to attract
young ladies. (One of those attractive young ladies later became my mom.)
The first family car I can remember riding in was our '51 "bullet nose"
Champion, pictured with me on the first page. The photos below illustrate the
cars that are the subject of this discussion. The first two photos below show
my father and his '47 Champion while the lower two are of the'51 Commander
and Champion. The lady with the "bullet nose" Champion is my dear departed
Aunt Wanda, who was completely unrelated to the Studebaker side of the
family, but owned a Champion and called it the best car she ever owned.
In 1951 Studebaker introduced its new overhead valve V-8 to replace the big
Commander 6-cylinder motor. (Only Cadillac and Oldsmobile had modern overhead
valve V-8's before Studebaker.) From that point forward, the main difference
between a Champion and a Commander was whether the car had a 6-cylinder or
V-8 engine. Unfortunately, American cars got bigger and heavier during the
1950's and the Champion ended up with a reputation of being a slow car made
for senior citizens. Most Americans did not want to follow Studebaker's
chosen path of low weight, economy and efficiency. Americans wanted more
horsepower, chrome and "road hugging weight." A comparison between Buick and
Studebaker between 1950 and 1953 illustrates that trend.
In model year 1950, Studebaker sold 343,166 cars compared to 338,905 for
Buick. Then Studebaker got smaller and Buick got bigger. In 1953,
Studebaker came out with the beautiful "Raymond Lowey" hardtops and coupes
which had very little chrome and weighed about 3,100 pounds with the 232 cubic inch V-8. That same year, Buick celebrated its 50th anniversary with
cars that weighed between 3,700 and 4,260 pounds powered by its new 322 cubic
inch V-8. It also had "portholes" in the front fenders and a chrome grille that
appeared to be capable of devouring pedestrians in one bite. Americans loved
it. Buick became the third best-selling car in the USA that year, right
behind Chevrolet and Ford, which caught everyone's attention because Ford and
Chevy were low-priced cars while Buick was only one step below the Cadillac.
Thus, in 1950 Studebaker sold slightly more cars, but by 1953 Buick sold 486,812
cars vs. 169,899 for Studebaker. Model year 1954 was even worse for
Studebaker. Buick sold 444,903 while Studebaker sold 81,309. Everyone got
the message, including Studebaker. In 1955 Studebaker increased its V-8 from
224 to 259 cubic inches, added lots of chrome to all its models and tried to
make them look more like Buicks. Sales increased from 81,309 to 133,826,
between 1954 and 1955, but Studebaker lost nearly 30 million dollars in 1955
and nearly 44 million dollars in 1956. Between 1954 and 1957 the net worth
of the Studebaker-Packard Corporation dropped from more than $148 million to
approximately $4.5 million. Studebaker spent most of the 1950's adding
chrome and fins in an effort to make its cars look bigger and more expensive.
The results are illustrated by the photos below.
Each of the cars pictured above are Champions (1939, 1947 and 1958), except
for the last car on the right which is my first Lark. A comparison between
the 1958 Champion and my 1960 Lark clearly illustrates the overweight problem
that Studebaker solved by taking the Champion, chopping off the front and
rear "overhang," shortening it and eliminating the fins, chrome and quad
headlights that had accumulated over the years. At first they called it
"Model X" but before the first car was sold, they named it the "Lark."
The Lark brought good times back to South Bend. Studebaker sold them as fast
as they could make them, and they could make 84 of them per hour at "South
Bend Main." (Not bad for an "antiquated" factory.) In the photos below,
notice how Studebaker emphasizes the name "Lark" over its own name as though
"Lark" is the company, not a car model sold by the company. Note the middle
advertisement which says, "Lark has the greatest selection of fleet vehicles."
Another good example of the Lark's popularity is demonstrated by the
cigarette ashtray I stuck in my scanner and copied below. It says, "Stolen
from Deka's 'Lark' Bar, 849 South Chapin Street, South Bend Indiana." That
was a favorite watering hole for Studebaker employees. Look up the address on
a map and you will see where the old factory was located, and where much of it remains.
My Lark is a good example of the way Larks affected many people. In 1960, I
was nine years old and living in Chicago when I went to visit my Aunt
Harriet, who was unrelated to the Studebaker side of the family. I took a
yellow Lark model with me that my grandfather had given me. (It was the same
color as their house in South Bend.) My aunt Harriet liked my model Lark so
much that she had my uncle drive her to the Studebaker dealer and buy her one
exactly like it. Although my aunt was about 35-40 years old at the time and
never had gotten a driver's license, once she saw my model Lark, she bought the real
thing and learned to drive. In 1968, they sold the car to me and it became my
The photos below are, left to right, as follows: First, me at age 18 with my Lark in front of our home in Chicago Ridge, Illinois. Second, my Lark at the Studebaker Proving Ground during the 1970 Studebaker Drivers Club Meet. Third, my grandfather with the Lark outside Studebaker "Plant 8" in 1970. Fourth, my grandparents in front of their house in South Bend in late July, 1971. The two stylishly dressed gentlemen sitting on the front of my car were accompanying me to the George Harrison concert for Bangladesh, held in Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. We toured the East Coast that summer in the Lark and it ran perfectly. (Getting it to start on winter mornings when the temperature was below zero was an entirely different matter.)
The yellow Lark was not my only Lark. In 1980 I saw near my home in Anaheim, California a green Army surplus for sale at the price of $375.00.
At that time I already had a '63 Avanti, '55 Commander, '55 Messerschmitt
and a motorcycle. Although I didn't need another car, I offered $300. About two weeks later my offer was accepted. It was a complete rust-bucket,
but was also the best $300 I ever spent. Within two years, the Commander
engine seized up, I lost my job and I had to sell the Avanti. Driving "Fritz
the Schmitt" on a regular basis was out of the question since that is
possibly the most dangerous and unreliable vehicle ever devised.
For about 10 years my $300 green Lark was my most dependable means of
transportation. It never gave me a bit of trouble. That Lark was a
"champion." It had the three-speed with overdrive transmission which remains
my favorite transmission to this day. I drove it about 200 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mojave Desert to my mom's home in Lone
Pine, California on a regular basis. On one trip, I pulled the V-8 out of the
Commander and hauled it home in the rear passenger compartment of the Lark
(after removing the rear seat bench cushion, of course.) We also used it
like a Jeep to explore the mountains looking for ghost towns. During one of
those trips I took two pictures of it on the road to Cerro Gordo, which are copied below.
Unfortunately, the green Lark blew its transmission on a trip home from Lone
Pine, but it took me home anyway. Reverse gear and overdrive no longer
worked, but like the '51 Champion, the car went to the junk yard under its
own power. Years later I realized what a dependable and economical car it
had been and wished that I had taken more pictures and better care of it. It
reminds me of a Joni Mitchell song that begins with the line, "Don't it
always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone?"