I have often been asked, "If Studebaker made such great cars, why did it go out of business?" The best answer I can give is that a car company that builds cars by the thousands is at a great price disadvantage when its competition builds cars by the millions. It should not be surprising that Studebaker went out of the auto business in the 1960's. It's more surprising that they lasted that long. Most of the "independent"car companies did not make it through price wars of the 1950's when Henry Ford II decided that Ford would cut prices and sell more cars than Chevrolet. He actually did that occasionally, but in the process Packard, Hudson, Kaiser-Frazer and Willys went out of the passenger car business or continued only as a model built by other companies.
The 1950's were a decade of intense competition when customers expected new models every year. The model year change was so important that in 1956 Buick had the model year scripted on the trunk of some of its models. The cost of tooling to meet demand for this constant change was expensive. The "Big Three" automakers had such high sales volume that they could pay off their tooling costs within a year or so and begin making profits, but the smaller companies did not have that volume of sales so they tried to "facelift"models in most years to make them look new. That was bad news for the smaller independent car companies, but it is good news for Studebaker collectors today because many different models share so many parts in common. The cars in the photos below are all closely related to the first two cars shown, which are 1953 Commanders. Between 1953 and 1963, Studebaker changed the hoods, trunk, roof and dash board but the vast majority of parts on these cars are interchangeable. In addition to the 1953 Commanders, there is a 1957 Golden Hawk, a 1959 Silver Hawk and a 1962 GT Hawk.
Studebaker's sedans, which became the basis of the Lark and Avanti, also share a great number of parts in common. Again, things began simply enough in 1953 but many variations took place during the 1950's as Studebaker tried to be as flashy as the competition.
Although Nash and Studebaker were the only independent car companies to survive until 1960, it is hard to explain why the Nash (later known as Rambler and then American Motors) did so well while Studebaker was dying a slow death. In 1950, Studebaker built 268,099 autos and 52,146 trucks for a total of 320,245 vehicles, while Nash built 172,000 cars (including 58,000 Ramblers). By 1963, the last full year of Studebaker auto production in South Bend, Studebaker built approximately 84,000 cars while Rambler sold 428,000. Worse yet, Studebaker was not able to sell all the cars it built in 1963. A large inventory of unsold 1963 models was still in South Bend when Studebaker ceased production of the 1964 models in December, 1963. Nash had nothing to compare with the Studebaker Hawks or Avantis and it did not build trucks. Yet in the early 1960's American Motors appeared to be passing Chrysler by as America's third largest automaker. So why did American Motors do so well when Studebaker was failing?
I have read a number of books and articles on this subject, but I have come to my own conclusions based upon my own experience and those of many friends and family who owned Ramblers and Studebakers. I believe that the Rambler was successful because it had better rust protection and a more modern and powerful six-cylinder motor that started in the coldest weather. I owned two 1960 Larks and I found that when the temperature went below zero degrees they were difficult to start. My dad and our minister had 1959 Larks with the same problem. In addition, within a few years, rust started showing up in the front fenders in the same locations where it had been appearing in Commanders and Champions since 1953.
The problem with failing to start in cold weather was especially aggravating because earlier Studebakers had not had that problem. Our 1951 Champion would start in the coldest weather. It pushed the neighbor's Cadillac down the street to get it going to work on the coldest Chicago mornings. My grandfather's 1952 Champion was equally good, and he always liked it much better than the 1963 Lark he bought just before he retired from Studebaker. In fact, my dad liked Grandpa's 1952 motor so much that he put it in his 1959 Lark after Grandpa scrapped his Champion. I never had that problem with my two Studebaker V-8s.
Although I am not an automotive engineer, I think that when Studebaker created the six-cylinder Lark engine in 1959,they should have installed a stronger starter motor. The Lark engine was a modification of the existing Champion six-cylinder engine, but it had a higher cylinder compression ratio to give it more power. Unfortunately this modification also required more power to turn the engine over when it was starting. That was not a problem during warm weather, but cold weather decreases battery power. The engine would start if it was cranked fast enough, but it wouldn't crank fast enough when it was cold unless I kept the battery warm at night or used battery jumper cables to assist it. Although a six cylinder Lark is not an ideal car to have as your only transportation if you live where they salt the streets in the winter, they are otherwise reliable, durable and fun to drive.
I am reluctant to complain about Studebakers at all, because I really enjoyed every one I owned. Between July, 1968 and January, 1997 they were the only cars I owned. My journey over those twenty-nine years began in Chicago, continued to Ft. Dix, New Jersey and then to California. The only time I had to get towed to my destination was in 1980 when the Commander motor seized in the Mojave Desert while running uphill on a day when the temperature was more than one hundred degrees. The cost of ownership was so good that I actually made a profit over the years! I bought the 1960 Lark in 1968 for $100 and gave it away to a friend in 1974. I bought the 1963 Avanti for $1,600 in 1971 and sold it in 1982 for $3,000. I bought a second 1960 Lark in 1982 for $300, and gave it away after it blew the reverse gear in its transmission in 1990 during a Mojave Desert trip. I bought the Commander for $700 in 1979 and still own it, although I have been offered $10,000 to sell it. In summary, over twenty-nine years I paid a total of $2,700 for four Studebakers. Although I gave two away, I sold one for $3,000 and still have one worth $10,000. My total accrued gain is $10,300. Such a deal!
I have fond memories also of the South Bend factory when Studebakers were being built, some of them because Studebaker sometimes held "family night"factory tours. There were huge smokestacks and hills of coal at the power plant where a minor league baseball stadium now stands. Colorful car bodies passed over Sample Street on a conveyer from the body plant to the final assembly buildings where all the major components of the cars came together. Inside the foundry, a man drove a small crane with a ladle that poured steel which looked like liquid fire into sand castings to make engine blocks. I remember buildings with red brick floors ( like the South Bend streets) and rows of flourescent lights that seemed to go on forever. Studebaker was a big important company and my grandfather was a foreman there.
So I joined the Studebaker Drivers Club in 1968 (at the age of fifteen) and began to attend the annual meets held in South Bend at the factory site. At the time, I was more interested in taking photos of cars than of the factory, but some of my photos show factory buildings in the background. Except for the main body plant
near the railroad bridge, all of the buildings in the photos are gone today. That main body plant building was too huge and inconveniently located to die, although the water tank on the roof was removed in 2001.
By way of comparison, here are some more recent photos of the same locations as those in the photos above. The first two rows were taken in June, 2002 and the final row was taken in April, 1999. The final row of photos shows the main body plant where bodies and interiors were completed. In the good old days, workers could sometimes be seen hooting and whistling at the pretty girls at the Union Station. This behavior surely did not help productivity or the price of the vehicles that were assembled at South Bend Main.
I did not want to end this web site on a somber note, so to seek inspiration and take some additional photos, I returned to South Bend in June, 2002 for the 150th anniversary of the date the Studebaker Brothers began building horse-drawn wagons. We no longer meet at the factory because a police station and prison are located on part of that site. So I enjoyed looking at the fine cars on display at the Notre Dame parking lot and then proceeded to the Studebaker Museum and took a few photos. The last photo shows the very last Studebaker passenger car made in South Bend, a red 1964 Daytona hardtop.
After visiting the museum, I decided to take some photos of the old factory site to compare to photos I had taken in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I was getting pretty depressed from photographing prisons, police stations and parking lots on land where some of Studebaker's oldest buildings had recently been demolished. As I started taking photos of the final assembly buildings, I had a vision which made me wonder if I had been out in the sun too long.
Next to the fence by the final assembly building was a red 1964 Daytona hardtop that looked like the last Studebaker made in South Bend. I stood there wondering how it had busted out of the museum and arrived at the fence outside the final assembly plant before I did. As I was getting ready to take photos, a man came out of a building supply store and prepared to drive it away. So I struck up a conversation with him. I learned he was Bud Medich, a former Studebaker employee who was still living in South Bend and is also a longtime Studebaker Drivers Club member. He said that he selected his car because it was exactly like the last one made in South Bend. So I took a couple pictures of him and his fine automobile.
After kindly obliging me by standing for a photo, Bud Medich got into his Daytona and drove off. I wish I would have made a video clip of that event too, but I was too busy savoring the moment, watching a twin brother of the last South Bend Studebaker ever made, being driven on the streets behind the factory where it began, by one of the craftsmen who built it. I decided to end this site on that note.
I don't think of Studebaker as a failure, because nothing lasts forever and because a blacksmith shop that grew into a business that built millions of vehicles for well over a hundred years seems to be an American success story to me. At the beginning of the twentieth century over 2,000 companies were making motor vehicles, yet only two of them survived to the end of the century as independent American auto companies. That makes the odds against "success" a thousand to one. There were also 6,000 wagon and buggy makers at the beginning of the century, but Studebaker was the only company to make the transition from horse wagons to automobiles. Many of the people in South Bend were shocked when Studebaker ceased production there in December, 1963, because Studebaker had survived so many difficult times in the past.
Studebaker was a good company that built great cars, treated its workers well and celebrated their achievements. I can think of no finer tribute to my home town of South Bend, Indiana, than to have thousands of Studebakers still traveling the roads of America and the world. I think of Studebakers and my relatives who built them every time I fire up the Commander and go for a ride. So, everybody, let's celebrate Studebaker's 150th Birthday by singing our song.
Copyright 2001-2013 by J. L. Jacobson
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