1959 Studebaker Lark
1959 Studebaker Lark
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Smaller companies often have better ideas which they can implement quicker. In the automobile industry the period just after the Second World War was a good example of how smaller automakers beat the Big Three to market with new designs.

Studebaker and Hudson were faster than General Motors (except Cadillac and Oldsmobile), Ford and Chrysler with their new post-war styles. Then in 1950 the Nash Motor Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin., introduced its all-new 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase compact Rambler. It was an instant hit, and it was decade before the Big Three responded with their compact models.

With imported car sales increasing in North America during the 1950s, it became apparent that smaller cars were not a temporary fad. Many people preferred them for their agility, economy and fun.

Studebaker, which introduced its innovative “coming or going” Raymond Loewy design in 1947, and its beautiful 1953 Starliner/Starlight coupes which became the Hawk series, was again able to demonstrate its reading of the market. It brought out its compact 1959 Lark model a year ahead of the Big Three.

Studebaker was not a stranger to smaller cars. It had produced the new, lighter 1939 Champion powered by a small six-cylinder, side-valve engine. It would prove to be one of the longest running nameplates in the industry.

After World War II, Studebaker attempted to compete with the Big Three as a full-line vehicle manufacturer. The car-starved ’40s were easy, but during the ’50s competition became stiffer.

The independents were suffering. Studebaker and Packard merged in 1954 to form the Studebaker-Packard Corp., but even the addition of the prestigious Packard name wasn’t enough. By the late ’50s Studebaker-Packard was struggling financially.

Consolidation was the answer, so Studebaker limited its offerings to the compact Lark and stylish Hawk series. In some ways the Lark was a reincarnation of the pre-war Champion, although in others, it wasn’t.

It was light and economical like the original Champion, but whereas the Champion had been all-new, the Lark was derived from existing models. This is how Studebaker beat the Big Three to the market; the Lark was reportedly developed in less than a year, a remarkably short time even for a partly new car.

The Lark was pretty much an existing Studebaker with new front and rear ends. Although stubbier, it managed to avoid the dismal bargain-basement appearance of the unlamented Studebaker Scotsman.

Basic power was a 2.8 litre (169.6 cu in.) 90 horsepower side-valve derivative of the original Champion engine with its stroke reduced from 111 to 102 mm (4.375 to 4.0 in.).

A V-8 engine was also offered. Studebaker’s version of the short-stroke, overhead valve V-8 displaced 4.2 litres (259 cu in.) and developed 180 horsepower.

Road & Track magazine (3/59) regarded the six-cylinder model as more in keeping with the purpose of the Lark, so they tested a Lark six. Its performance was modest, taking 21 seconds to get from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph), and reaching a top speed of only 129 km.h (80 mph).

This was inferior in acceleration, and only slightly faster at the top end than the original Champion of 20 years earlier. According to R & T’s comparison figures, the 1939 Champion did zero to 96 (60) in 18.2 seconds, and topped out only 3.2 km/h (2.0 mph) slower at 126 km/h (78 mph). The reason for the original’s good performance was its 1,202 kg (2,650 lb) weight, 45 kg (100 lb) lighter than the Lark, and its lower axle ratio.

The Lark was really Studebaker’s last sedan, although it went through several minor restylings and some name changes before the end came. It inevitably grew larger with more emphasis on V-8 engines. And body-on-frame construction rather than the unitary designs of its competitors meant it was always heavy for its class.

In 1960 the Big Three brought out their compacts, followed by their senior compacts, and the competition became just too fierce for independent Studebaker (the Packard part of the corporate name was eliminated in 1962). In spite of the introduction of the elegant Gran Tourismo Hawk and the stunning Avanti, Studebaker could not survive.

Production ceased in the parent plant in South Bend, Indiana. in 1964, but continued on in the Hamilton, Ontario, facility using General Motors engines. Although the Canadian operation showed a modest profit, the corporation discontinued production in Hamilton in the spring of 1966.

Studebaker was a smaller company with some better ideas, including the Lark, and although there were still many Studebaker fans, there weren’t enough of them to save the old company.

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