Carol M. Highsmith, via Library of Congress

More than just a name

Quick notes

-They were founded prior to the Civil War.

– They launched the first brand new post-war car.

– Just one of their cars broke 29 speed records at Bonneville.

Of all the automobile manufacturers that have been and gone, it’s easy to forget Studebaker. The company, that went out of business way back in 1967, had a rich history. Despite the occasional stumble, they made some incredible cars and had some truly revolutionary innovations. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at their history, and why they need to be remembered.

The Origins Of Studebaker

Studebaker, as a company, can be traced as far back as 1750. Clement Studebaker built his first wagon on American soil in 1750. Jump forward to 1852, and two of his great-grandsons, Henry and Clement, founded the H&C Studebaker shop in South Bend, Indiana, in 1852. Studebaker would be associated with South Bend until the company went bankrupt, over a century later.

While Henry and Clement were working in Indiana, their younger brother, John M. set out for California. There, in Placerville, he made his fortune making gold mining tools. After the Gold Rush ended in 1858, John moved back to Indiana and used his capital to propel his brothers’ business to new heights.

Early years of the automobile

Flash forward to 1902, and as part of the larger electric car boom, Studebaker Electric, as it was then known, began producing electric vehicles. The first gasoline automobiles were produced two years later.

In 1911, the company was incorporated, but due to reliability concerns with their E-M-F vehicles, lost around $1 million in repairs. However, a massive order from the British government, and World War I’s challenges, led to new innovations. By 1920, all the company’s cars were being made in South Bend.

Post-war problems

Sicnag, CC BY 2.0, resized.

While Studebaker put its back to the wheel in World War II, it never recovered the momentum it once had back in the 1910s-1930s. The company had gone into receivership during the Great Depression, but it was an ill-advised merger with Packard that would finally kill the company. In the early 1960s, the company moved away from cars, diversified into a wide range of industries, and was merged with Wagner Electric.

Why Studebaker mattered

So, now you know where they came from, why did Studebaker matter? Well, because they innovated. Instead of selling the same old pre-war cars after World War II, they became the first company to offer a new model. The 1947 Studebakers were split into two series, the Champion Six and Commander Six, and they looked like a million bucks. Featuring double-dropped frames and clean, swept-back bodies, amazing legroom.

The coupe was a particularly popular model, with wraparound rear windows that were positively futuristic. These were new cars for a brave new world. As Hemmings writes, they were superbly built, too, with writer Tom McCahill saying “if there’s any place where pride of workmanship still exists…it’s in the Studebaker plant.”

Studebaker’s Last Hurrah

Greg Gjerdingen, CC BY 2.0, resizedSONY DSC

The company’s last model was also its most innovative. The Avanti is a car that should have been huge. Designed by streamlining pioneer Raymond Loewy, the car was stunning. Its sweeping lines and recessed headlights were reminiscent of the Jaguar E-Type. It didn’t have any grille either, instead, it drew air from below, which was almost unheard of. But it was more than a pretty face.

The body was made of an exciting new material called fiberglass, making it exceptionally light.  This body was fitted on a Studebaker Lark Daytona’s body. Pair this with the optional supercharged R3 engine, and you got outrageous performance.

The car’s top speed, in the early 1960s, I’ll remind you, was 170 mph. It broke 29 records at the Bonneville salt flats. Sadly, less than 6000 were ever made. The Avanti sums up Studebaker as a whole: brave, pioneering, and with a lineage to be proud of. Sadly, that was not enough. But it’s enough to deserve a special place in our memory.

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