Why did Studebaker go out of business? I have your book Studebaker 1946-1966 originally published as Studebaker: The Postwar Years. As an employee of the old company at the end in Hamilton, Ontario, it brought back memories of many old Studebaker hands: stylists Bob Doehler and Bob Andrews were good friends about my age.
I am looking forward to the last chapter discussing how Studebaker went wrong, especially since I also have theories. It would fun to compare notes. I am on a panel in Phoenix/Glendale next June and made a PowerPoint presentation to the Avanti Club in 2006. My grand finali was your a quote from your book: “For many years, Raymond Loewy Associates would be the only thing standing between Studebaker and dull mediocrity.”
P.S. Like you I owned a 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk, a surprisingly impressive car. I drove it back and forth to Hamilton when we were working on the last 1966 production Studebakers. I put a ’53 Starliner decklid on it and ’54 Starliner wheel covers; I thought each addition was an improvement. —B.M., via email
Thanks for the kind words. My GT Hawk was one of the best cars I ever owned: fast yet easy on gas, stylish, fun to drive. It leaked oil and the famous “flexible frame” was a little creaky, but it was a satisfying car, if overly susceptible to the dreaded tinworm.
At the end of my book is a list of what Studebaker did wrong, begininning with chairman Paul Hoffman accepting every union demand after World War II. James Nance, the last president of Packard, who purchased Studebaker in 1954, told me: “The trouble with Studebaker was that they wouldn’t take a strike. Everybody else took strikes after the war and reasonable compromises were reached on wages and benefits. Studebaker didn’t, and they never caught up.”
What Nance and Packard didn’t know when they bought Studebaker—but learned to their horror when Packard’s accountants finally got into the books—was that Studebaker’s break-even point by the mid-Fifties was 50,000 or more cars higher than their volume in their best year on record. A Studebaker designer told me he once priced the 1953 Starliner using General Motors costings—and found that GM could have sold the identical car for $300 less (which was a lot more then than it is now).
Studebaker proved the albatross that dragged Packard down with it, making it impossible for Nance to find the finances to bankroll the highly competitive all-new 1957 line that might have allowed Studebaker-Packard to go on longer than it did.
And yes, Raymond Loewy, for all his posing as the actual creator of styling triumphs like the 1953 Starliner and 1963 Avanti, was the key to the cars being as disctinctive as they were. He had an eye for talent and hired and directed fine designers, such as Bob Bourke (Starliner) and Bob Andrews, John Epstein and Tom Kellogg (Avanti).
Studebaker’s sales and marketing people blunted those good designs by inept planning and promotion. In 1953, for example, they built a surfeit of sedan models, finding to their shock that people mainly wanted the beautiful Starliner hardtops and Starlight coupes. Their production mix was the exact opposite of what the public desired.
But Studebaker’s styling was consistently good. Trying to save the rump company in the Sixties, President Sherwood Egbert hired Brooks Stevens, who deftly facelifted the Lark and Hawk, and came up with novel ideas like the sliding-roof Wagonaire station wagon—but these were all reskins of the 1950s models. Stevens and Loewy then offered exciting ideas for all-new designs for 1966 and beyond, but by then it was too late. Studebaker shut down its main factory in South Bend, Indiana, in December 1963, and the Hamilton Ontario plant closed after building the last 1965-66 models. But no—Studebaker didn’t have to fail.