Studebaker: The Complete History, by Patrick Foster. Click image to enlarge
The automotive landscape is littered with stories of success and failure, but one that immediately stands out from the rest is the story of Studebaker. This roller-coaster of a tale saw the company evolve from the manufacture of covered wagons for the Union Army during the Civil War, to a position of industrial prominence in the United States that saw it ranked as the fourth largest producer of automobiles in the country by 1921. A decade later the company faced bankruptcy as the “Dirty Thirties” wrought havoc on the economy.
In 1852, Henry and Clement Studebaker established H&C Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. The family-run operation offered blacksmithing and woodworking services, as well as the eventual core business of building custom wagons and carriages to order.
Initially the company would produce about a dozen wagons a year, but large orders from the military spurred the brothers on, eventually finding ways to speed up the process so that their business could handle such large contracts. The addition of a kiln to speed up the production of seasoned lumber and the hiring of extra manpower helped the brothers embark on volume production. By 1860, the company had opened its first dealership, located in the town of Goshen, Indiana. This would eventually lead to over 2000 dealerships speckled throughout the United States and Canada by the time of the company’s demise in 1966.
After producing thousands of wagons for the military, the company’s name was established as the producer of durable wagons, capable of meeting the hardships settlers would face on the move westward. This lead to dealerships popping up to meet the significant demand and with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad the brothers were able to send completed wagons and carriages across the rapidly growing country.
In 1897, the company, now known as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company (as Henry and Clement would be joined over time by brothers Jacob, Peter and John “Wheelbarrow” Mohler) was in the control of a New Jersey lawyer named Frederick Fish, who had married John’s daughter. Mr. Fish initiated the company’s move towards producing automobiles through his production of bodies for taxicabs run by the Electric Vehicle Company. This would lead to the firm’s eventual production of its own “horseless carriage” in 1902, the Studebaker Electric.
Studebaker may have only produced 20 cars that first year, but the build quality, materials and craftsmanship were outstanding and did not go unnoticed. The author surmises that Studebaker’s eventual failure in the automotive industry may have been due to its focus on initially producing electric vehicles rather than gasoline models like its new rivals Ford, Oldsmobile, and Overland. Much like today, electric cars are recognized as being efficient, clean and quiet, but gasoline vehicles offered longer range, higher speeds and ease of use.
In 1904 Studebaker partnered with the Garford Company of Cleveland, Ohio, to help it develop a gasoline-powered offering. This collaboration resulted in the production of a five-passenger touring car the following year, but high production costs meant it couldn’t compete with the likes of Ford’s relative bargain, the Model T. The next phase saw the company join with the E.M.F. Company to produce its own entry-level car, the Flanders, but the always astute Henry Ford just kept slashing his prices to keep his position of market dominance.
The company struggled on, determined to find its niche in the marketplace. By 1919 the company ceased to produce wagons and carriages, finally embracing the automobile as its focus. The Roaring Twenties produced popular value models like the Light Six coupe and sedan, and beauties like the Big Six Victoria and the Commander Sport Roadster. This period of growth and sales successes both at home and abroad came to a halt with the Great Depression, which is unfortunate as at the time, Studebaker cars were some of the best engineered and attractive cars on the road. In 1933, the company went into receivership after a move to merge with the White Motor Company failed.
In 1935 the Studebaker Corporation was back, now offering a simplified model line-up and bargain pricing. Cars of this era like the Dictator Six, the President Coupe, the Commander and the Champion were proving popular. Military orders for trucks, Weasel troop carriers, and for a time, aircraft engines (63,000 units for the Flying Fortress bomber), would help the company weather the war-torn 1940’s.
The Post War era saw Studebaker struggle with labour unrest, and a lack of materials, but it managed to return to the production of regular passenger cars and trucks faster than its main rivals, and also began operations in Canada.
The 1950 model year gave consumers a look at what Studebaker claimed would be the “next look” in cars when it released the Champion, Land Cruiser and Commander models with bullet-type noses, designed to resemble the look of an airplane.
By 1953, post-war demand for automobiles had finally been met, and the company made the ill-advised decision to introduce a low-slung European look to its entire line-up based on the design of a stylish coupe (Starliner) that had been given production approval. This lead to major production dilemmas and an astronomical rise in costs. Cost cutting and a less meticulous workforce lead to quality control problems that would hamper the brand’s identity in latter years. In 1954, Packard and Studebaker joined forces in an effort to stop their financial haemorrhaging and hopefully be better able to compete in the marketplace, but both companies were tired, and were quickly losing ground.
Studebaker dropped the Packard name in 1962, as the directors felt having the name of a now-defunct company as part of the corporate identity was a mistake. The company’s auto sales were sluggish and continued labour issues meant its future in the industry was bleak, so Studebaker diversified into a number of outside businesses, including appliances, an airline, and Paxton superchargers. It is too bad the company was in dire straights, as the styling department seemed to be finding its feet again with cars like the Gran Turismo Hawk and the Avanti. By 1964 Studebaker’s Canadian plant in Hamilton, Ontario became the sole producer of the company’s cars. In an effort to shore things up the company explored importing low-priced cars from Europe and Japan, as they had successfully introduced prestige brand Mercedes-Benz during its partnership with Packard, but these deals also fell through.
Author Patrick Foster does an excellent job of fleshing out the colourful history of this American automotive icon, beginning with its earliest roots in the carriage trade and ending with the emergence of Studebaker derived models like the Excalibur and the Avanti II that were produced with some success after the company had closed its doors in 1966. But he also draws some interesting parallels between the demise of Studebaker and what is happening in the current automotive sector, issuing a warning to auto executives that complacency can lead to ruin, and often in short order. The final chapter for Studebaker saw it making garden tractors and tire studs, a far cry from its once prominent position in the industrial infrastructure of North America. Makes you wonder what Ford, GM and Chrysler will be producing in twenty years?
Studebaker: The Complete History is published by Motorbooks.com