By Bill Vance

Studebaker history went back to 1852 when Clem and Henry Studebaker’s blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, began building wagons. They prospered selling wagons during the American Civil War, and continued to grow until they claimed to be the largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles in the world.

Studebaker entered the automobile business in 1902 with an electric car, but soon realized that the gasoline engine was a better bet. They began building gasoline cars and gradually phased out electrics.

Studebaker’s fortunes were up and down over the years, but generally they developed a reputation for reliable, quality cars. They also held many stock car speed records. Studebaker acquired Pierce Arrow in 1928, but this proved to be a drag on resources which brought Studebaker to a brush with extinction in 1933 when it went into receivership. It managed to recover, and survived through the 1930s.

Studebaker broke new ground in 1939 with the introduction of its compact, all-new Champion model, a lighter, slimmer version of the full size car that proved to be very popular. It helped the company recover from the Depression, and would set the tone for Studebaker cars for many years.

During the Second World War, all automobile makers contributed to the war effort. When peace came there was a rush to return to civilian car production because the wartime shutdown of auto production from February, 1942 to the fall of 1945 had created a deep reservoir of pent-up demand for new cars.

It was seller’s paradise, and all of the established companies returned to building slightly modified pre-war designs until they could get their post-war models ready. Studebaker was no exception. It returned to producing pre-war cars with some new trim and mouldings. The 1946 line-up did not include the Commander and President that had been offered in 1942, but was pared down to the Champion only, now called the Skyway Champion.

During the later part of the war Studebaker had engaged freelance industrial designer Raymond Loewy to style a new post-war car. He was well established with Studebaker, having designed the original 1939 Champion. Loewy favoured light cars with svelte, tight lines, and those were his guiding principles when he laid down the shape of the new Studebaker.

Loewy’s work, along with a significant contribution from Studebaker’s in-house styling chief, Virgil Exner, had the new car ready shortly after the war. Studebaker’s production of its main wartime product, Curtiss-Wright aircraft engines, had not disrupted its assembly lines too much, so it was soon able to return to civilian car production.

Studebaker built its warmed over pre-war ’42s for only a few months as 1946 models as a stopgap measure until it could launch its all-new 1947 Loewy design.

The new Loewy-Exner 1947 Studebakers were a sensation. The envelope body with integrated fenders, flat flanks and distinctive trunk outline had what we would now call “three-box” design. It was comprised of clearly delineated hood, cabin and trunk. The Starlight coupe, as it came to be known, was particularly modern with a futuristic rear window that wrapped all the way around from door to door so that the roof almost seemed to float above it.

Studebakers were so symmetrical front to rear that humorists soon began calling them the “coming or going cars,” suggesting that they couldn’t tell the front from the back. But in spite of any jocular ridicule, Studebaker had clearly charted the future direction in auto styling. A small independent had stolen a march on the giants of Detroit. The Big Three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, would take until 1949 to bring out their full line of post-war cars.

The new 1947 Studebaker Champion, Commander and Land Cruiser models were introduced in April, 1946, and were on sale by June. The Commander and Land Cruiser were essentially the Champion with hood, front fenders and rear doors stretched, and a longer wheelbase.

Styling was what the 1947 Studebakers were all about because their technology was carryover from pre-war designs. The 2.8-litre (170 cu in.) side-valve, 80 horsepower six cylinder Champion engine was the same as in the pre-war Champion – and the 3.7-litre (226 cu. in.) Commander side-valve six dated back to the early 1930s.

Although Studebaker had experimented with torsion bars, they ended up using their pre-war “Planar” double-A-frame front suspension with transverse leaf springing. At the rear were conventional leaf springs and a solid axle.

Studebaker styling remained basically unchanged except for trim and grill treatments until 1950 when their “bullet nose” models arrived. By this time the rest of the industry had caught up, and Studebaker no longer had its styling advantage.

In spite of some excellent designs such as the Hawk series and the futuristic Avanti, Studebaker suffered the plight of the independent automaker and disappeared from the scene in 1966. It built its last cars in its Canadian plant in Hamilton, Ontario.

But for those few years following the Second World War the little company from South Bend had led the industry in styling.

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