Why did Studebaker go out of business? I have your book Studebaker 1946-1966, originally published as Studebaker: The Postwar Years. I worked for the old company at the end in Hamilton, Ontario. Your book 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 often quote from your book: “For many years, Raymond Loewy Associates would be the only thing standing between Studebaker and dull mediocrity.”
Like you I owned a 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk, a surprisingly impressive car. 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.
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, beginning with chairman Paul Hoffman accepting every union demand after World War II. James Nance, the last president of Packard, which purchased Studebaker in 1954, had it right. “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 Packard didn’t know when they bought Studebaker they learned to their horror when accountants finally got into the books. Studebaker’s break-even point by the mid-Fifties was 50,000 or more cars higher than their best-ever annual volume. A Studebaker designer told me he once priced the 1953 Starliner using General Motors costings. He found that GM could have sold the identical car for $300 less (which was a lot more then than it is now).
Packard indeed had its own problems. But Studebaker dragged Packard down with it, making it impossible for Nance to find the finances to bankroll an all-new 1957 line that might have allowed Studebaker-Packard to go on longer than it did.
The greatness of Raymond Loewy
And yes, Raymond Loewy led the teams that created the 1953 Starliner and 1963 Avanti. They were the key to the cars being as distinctive as they were. Loewy had a keen eye for talent. He hired and directed fine designers, such as Bob Bourke (Starliner) and Bob Andrews, John Epstein and Tom Kellogg (Avanti). The Avanti was impressive, but perhaps not the right product for Studebaker. Otto Klausmeyer, a longtime and outstanding engineer, told me he regarded it as “our first a duck-back, droop-snoot sport car.”
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.
Brooks Stevens’ life support
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. George Mason of Nash saw the future before anyone else. He tried to build a conglomerate of independents—Studebaker, Packard, Nash, Hudson—in the 1940s. Nobody else was listening. It was probably the only way to stave off death for those companies. After World War II, economies of scale worked greatly in favor of the big automakers. But hindsight is always cheap. And far too easily indulged.