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Studebaker was formed before the dawn of even the most primitive automobiles. Had it existed today it would be one of the oldest car makes behind Tatra and Peugeot. But, sadly, Studebaker went defunct in 1967, and it left behind a legacy of eccentric automobiles.
The Studebaker Corporation's lineage traces back to the 18th century blacksmith and wagon maker John Clement Studebaker. He later moved the family to Indiana where his five sons Henry, Clement, John, Peter, and Jacob helped out with the family business. When they aged, Henry and Clement opened up shop as H & C Studebaker to put their smithing and wagon making skills to work, founding metal parts like horseshoes and taking the occasional wagon order.
For a time, orders were slow, but the business still grew. In 1857 they reached such a size that the Mishawaka Wagon Works company sought their help to complete an Army order for wagons. They managed to deliver 100 in a few months. Now aware of their capability for large scale production, they were considering expansion, but Henry, who had taken a sudden interest in farming, wanted out, so John bought out his share with money he had saved up from building wagons out west for the California Gold Rush. When the Civil War later divided the US, the Union requested carriages and other war materials, prompting the brothers to expand their business further.
If H & C had somehow existed in the modern world, Peter would have probably been a car dealer before transitioning over to sales and advertising. He had owned a fairly successful general store that displayed his brothers' wagons on the side, and over time that generated massive sales. The brothers' combined earnings allowed the business to reincorporate as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company in 1868. They had become so popular they no longer needed personal orders to successfully sell wagons, which separated them from many other similar businesses.
By the 1870s, the business had grown to such a size that it was able to offer a wide selection of wagons. By 1889, the company had built carriages for US Presidents William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln.
The New Century
The brothers' success with carriages made for an easy transition over to automobiles, then known as horseless carriages. Beginning in 1902, the company focused on electric runabouts - something it produced until 1911 and one of which Thomas Edison owned - but Frederick S. Fish, John's son-in-law, saw the potential in gasoline-powered engines and wanted in on the action. Studebaker still needed equipment, so in 1904, it teamed up with the Garford Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, an automaker that had already been building Studebaker's electric runabout's chassis. Garford manufactured the chassis and engines while Studebaker handled the rest. Studebaker would later gain a controlling interest in Garfiord in 1908, and it purchased the Tincher Motor Car Company that same year too, but the acquired resources were still not enough to compete with bigger automakers.
Eager to stay in the business, Studebaker would seek out the help of Everitt-Metzger-Flanders (E-M-F) in 1908. E-M-F agreed to work with Studebaker on the condition that Studebaker marketed and sold E-M-F cars at the many wagon and Studebaker-Garford dealers located throughout America. Unfortunately, Studebaker-E-M-F's Model 20 had several engineering faults, and their cars quickly developed a reputation as an Every Morning Fix-it among other nicknames like Every Mechanic's Friend, Every Mechanical Fault, and more. Eventually, the founders of E-M-F left their holding company and Studebaker claimed full ownership, taking control over a few factories. In 1911, Studebaker reincorporated as the Studebaker Corporation.
With new independence Studebaker wanted to show that it was a different company from the start. It sold off Garford and pulled the 20 from the lot. All new vehicles featured a Studebaker stamp, and it got on to offering two new models: the Big Six and the Special Six.
War time once again boomed business, this time bringing horse-drawn carriage and other requests from the British Government. After the war, Studebaker sold off its wagon-building operation to focus on automobiles. The Bix Six, Special Six, and the Light Six all helped reestablish Studebaker's reputation as an automaker. In order to keep itself from falling susceptible to faulty parts, Studebaker used Bendix Woods, first known in 1926 as Studebaker's Outdoor Testing Laboratory, as a testing grounds for developing technology, the first of its kind. Eight thousand pine trees that spelt the name Studebaker were planted on the site in 1938. Some of them remain to this day.
That same year, Studebaker also decided to offer the Erskine Six, a compact car meant to compete in the same price tier as Ford's Model T, but it ultimately failed to measure up. Studebaker did find its stride with 8-cylinders, releasing the President 8 in 1928. That same year it merged with luxury car maker Pierce-Arrow. Studebaker's size and wide distribution network combined with Pierce-Arrow's high quality offerings built a recipe for great success.
It was easy cruising until the Great Depression. Massive layoffs ensued, and the company made another attempt at a compact, low-cost car in the Rockne. Stylish for the time, it had an unconventional bench seat exposed at the rear, but sales did not meet projections. Studebaker then tried to acquire a majority stake in the White Motor Company at a cheap price, but the deal fell through. The Depression continued to take its toll, and in 1933 Studebaker went into receivership. It managed, however, to dig out of the rut by selling Pierce Arrow to fund its new project: the Champion.
Inexpensive, reliable, and stylish, the Champion offered great gas mileage and plenty of unexpected room for its compact size. Sales racked up to over 70,000 and the once-indomitable compact car market that almost ruined the company turned out to be its savior. Studebaker had once again altered its dim future into a bright horizon.
WWII and the Golden Age
The Champion and other models like the Land Cruiser and the Commander carried Studebaker into WWII, where it was eager to help out. The company produced many trucks, chassis, and carrier vehicles for the Allies. The War did not sidetrack the company, though. It produced an updated President and Champion throughout the early ‘40s. Unlike many US companies, Studebaker wanted to be the first to offer a post-war model. And unlike many British companies, Studebaker was prepared and ready to offer not only a new model for the new post-war years, but also one in tune with the times.
This was reflected in the new slogan "First by far with a post-war car" and the 1947 Starlight coupe. Its streamlined body, wrap-around rear window, and boat-tail styling offered a unique and innovative look. It was a hit, and with the success, Studebaker expanded its operations in the following years. By 1950, it released the bullet-nose design, a pointed fascia beloved by many, stirring up jokes like, "Which way is it going?"
The post-war years looked great at first, but not long thereafter, the price war and expansion battle between GM and Ford hurt independent marques like Studebaker, Packer, Hudson, and Nash. Studebaker stubbornly continued to manufacture expensive cars, while Hudson and Nash merged to form American Motors and Kaiser and Willys-Overland merged to form Jeep.
Studebaker, however, had a problem. It needed to merge, options were running out, and many of its models carried a higher price tag than the competition. The company's labor was also the highest paid in the industry. Fantastic designs like the '53 Commander could not save the company, so it initiated merger talks with Packard. Once Studebaker-Packard was formed in 1954, the company got to work on a new model in the Hawk in hopes of turning business around. But its high price and lack of amenities turned many buyers elsewhere. By 1956, the Studebaker-Packard Corporation went nearly bankrupt. In hopes of turning their grim situation around, they introduced the economical Lark, hoping it would bring the same success of the '39 Champion. There was no such luck.
Studebaker reincorporated as the Studebaker Corporation in 1962, and its investors decided to purchase a few other firms from different industries as a safety net. By 1963, the last Studebaker built in Ameirca rolled off the South Bend assembly lines. The company tried to redesign the Lark and introduce the Avanti for the performance market, but it wasn't enough. The company was finished and investors felt that it had taken too much of a strain on its other branches. The American plants closed up for good. In 1966 the last Studebaker rolled off the Canadian assembly lines in Hamilton, Ontario.
Contributing over 100 years of innovation in the transportation business, Studebaker's impact on the auto industry has been recorded in books and media alike, with its own museum in South Bend.
Need Studebaker Parts?
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