Gear Head Tuesday – Studebaker’s Zip Van and Westinghouse Truck

Gear Head

This post was adapted from an article in Old Cars Weeklyand from Car Lust

Zip Van front

1963 Studebaker Zip Van

In 1958, Studebaker was truly in the Intensive Care Unit and on death watch. After the collapse of Packard and with Packard’s collapse the planned all-new ’57s. Studebaker was forced to try to stay alive with yet another inexpensive facelift of its aging 1953 body shell. The “Eisenhower Recession” of 1957-1958 battered all automakers, but hit Studebaker especially hard. Studebaker did, however, find an unexpected Ace in the bad hand of cards it had been dealt. Desperate to find something – anything – that would give the company some volume, they looked back to 1939 when the introduced their original Champion model. The Champion was a bare-bones car aimed at the economy minded buyer. The ’39 Champion was an unexpected hit for Studebaker and it inspired two models that kept the company alive at the end of the 1950s.

1939 Champion

With the onset of the Recession, Studebaker took the basic 1957 Champion and de-contented it even further to produce the Scotsman, a name chosen because of the reputation of the Scots as being thrifty and frugal. Priced at a patriotic $1776, Studebaker thought they might sell 4,000 units for the 1957 model year. They knew they had (for them) a “winner” when they sold 9,000 Scotsmen for 1957. The Scotsman continued into the 1958 model year when Studebaker production fell to only slightly more than 40,000 units – and 21,000 of those were Scotsmen. In other words, the Scotsman outsold the 1958 Champion, Commander and President in all body styles combined.

1957 Scotsman

1957 Scotsman

The success of the Scotsman, combined with the success of AMC’s Rambler and the growth of imports such as the VW Beetle inspired Studebaker to morph its aging 1953 body shell into the compact Lark for 1959.

The most basic Lark was not as stripped of content as the Scotsman and there were Regal models of the Lark that were quite nicely appointed. The Lark was a hit, even more so than the Scotsman, and Studebaker for 1959 was profitable for the first time in years.

59 Lark

1959 Lark
(The sign misidentifies it as a 1960.)

Over at Studebaker’s truck plant, volume continued to fall as the company was still trying to sell the body style first introduced in the 1949 model year. Taking the lessons learned from the Scotsman and the Lark, Studebaker bolted the front clip and “A” and “B” pillars of the Lark body shell to the truck chassis for 1960, breathing new life into the truck plant with its “new” Champ pick up truck.

60 Champ

1960 Champ Pick Up Truck. Put the Lark front (based on the ’53 body shell onto the 1949 chassis, bed and rear fenders and Voila! Instant on the cheap facelift!

Studebaker’s winning streak with the Lark was short-lived. Instead of re-investing the profits provided by the Lark into new car development, Studebaker joined the Corporate Fad du Jour of becoming a “conglomerate.” They went on a spending spree buying up companies, most of which weren’t related to their core automotive business. For heaven’s sake, they even bought an airline!

In the meantime, GM, Ford and Chrysler had jumped in with their own compact cars and sales of the Lark plummeted. By 1963, Studebaker was once again on the ropes.

Against this backdrop, Studebaker brass must have jumped with joy when the U.S. Post Office approached them about building a fleet of delivery trucks that would use the name of the new-in-’63 Zip codes assigned to help mail arrive at the proper destination, the Zip Van.

Studebaker mated their six cylinder engine – the basic block of which dated back to the 1939 Champion, but only recently converted to overhead valves from the original side-valve design – to their Borg-Warner built automatic transmission and stuffed this power train into an 85″ wheelbase chassis. A purpose-built body was supplied by Met-Pro of Landsdale, PA. The Post Office originally ordered 3,391 Zip Vans to be manufactured. An additional 847 units were ordered for a total of 4,238 built. The Post Office accepted the “pilot” model on Sept. 3, 1963. In order to complete the government contract, the Zip Van continued in production after Studebaker shut down its civilian truck manufacturing.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 8.22.11 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 8.23.11 PM

While the Zip Vans are fairly well-known, less known is that Westinghouse, apparently because of the Zip Van project, approached Studebaker about building a fleet of vans and pickup trucks for urban deliveries, a Westinghouse equivalent of the UPS “package car.” It would have to be visually unique, yet easy and inexpensive to build.

Studebaker designer Randall Faurot sketched out a boxy cab-over-engine design with a forward-raked windshield which he called “Model X.” Faurot worked up three variants of the “X”- a van, a pickup truck with a flip-down side loading gate, and a cab and bare chassis that could presumably accomodate anything from a camper body to a dump bed as well as a diesel-powered “upscale” fitted with a fifth wheel for towing semi-trailers.

That took care of the “visually unique” part of the specification. Studebaker chief engineer Gene Hardig, used to making something from nothing at the always cash-strapped automaker, did the engineering and built the two prototypes, a van and a pickup, and squarely addressed the “easy and inexpensive to build” bit.

Studebaker's Westinghouse prototype (F)

Studebaker’s Westinghouse prototype

Now quoting directly from the Car Lust article:

“Except for the forward-canted windshield, it’s all 90-degree angles. The body panels are flat pieces of sheet steel; those raised ribs and the pseudo-running board along the bottom aren’t there for decoration; they’re necessary to keep the structure all nice and rigid. The only circles are the headlights, tail lights, and the wheel openings. The glass is all flat panels. There is no chrome. The door handles and window cranks and other miscellaneous fittings are Lark and Avanti (!) components.

Under the sheetmetal, everything came from the Studebaker parts warehouse. The prime mover is a base model 289 V-8 mated to a Borg-Warner three-speed “Powershift” automatic, a drive train you could get in a Champ, a Lark, or a Gran Turismo Hawk. The 96″ wheelbase frame looks to be straight off the Zip Van. Springs, axles, steering gear, and bumpers are stock Champ parts.

Because of all that, the only significant development work needed to go into mass production would be the dies for the body panel stampings, and those would be some of the simplest stamping dies ever made. It is impossible to design something to be any cheaper to produce than that.

It is also a remarkably elegant design. Not “elegant” in the Chrysler-Cordoba-with-Corinthian-leather-interior sense, but in the way engineers use the word: “a solution which is highly effective and simple.”

Take that forward-canted windshield, for instance. By angling the glass, it reduces glare–the same reason that you see angled front cab windows on cranes and other heavy equipment–and gives the driver an excellent view of where the front bumper is, useful for tight quarters maneuvering.
The “forward control” layout maximizes the usable cargo space and compensates for the short wheelbase.
On a less concrete level, the thing just looks efficient, like it means business. It’s also kinda cute, in a dorky, form-follows-function-off-a-cliff sort of way.

While there’s plenty of information available about the trucks themselves, I could not find any source which explains why the project never went past the prototype stage. Maybe they couldn’t get the cost down far enough to be competitive with off-the-rack fleet specials from one of the Big Three. Maybe Westinghouse They keep it back in the corner. Irony!became concerned that Studebaker might not be able to stay in business long enough to complete the project, or they just thought the thing looked too dorky. It might be that the Studebaker board decided to close the South Bend plant and get out of the truck business so fast that Westinghouse never had a chance to greenlight the project. Whatever the reason, there were only the two prototypes built.

Thought to have been scrapped, the pickup which you see here was discovered hidden away in an Indiana barn in 1982. After a proper restoration, it now resides at the Studebaker National Museum. The van appears to be lost to the mists of time–I couldn’t even find a photo or drawing of it anywhere–but Car Lust readers in northern Indiana should be on the lookout, just in case.”

When we consider all the ups and downs of Studebaker it is sometimes amazing they managed to stay in the transportation business until 1966. When South Bend closed in December of 1963, limited production continued in Canada through the 1966 model year. Then Studebaker, auto operations closed for good, morphed into Studebaker-Worthington which was in turn acquired by McGraw-Edison in 1979. Thus ended the company founded in 1852 as a smithy shop that morphed into a wagon builder and then into an auto maker .

Studebaker's Westinghouse prototype (R)

UPDATE: George H., who is quite knowledgable of all things Studebaker and Packard, corrected me by pointing out that the Studebaker brothers originally founded a blacksmith shop and later began producing wagons. (In fact, they built the famous Conestoga wagons used by settlers moving to the West and they supplied wagons to the Union Army in the Civil War.)

George H. owns a Zip Van. He writes:

“… there is one unauthentic piece about it:  I used STUDEBAKER over the front window instead of U.S. MAIL.  Wanted the mouth breathers to know what it was.”

“Mouth Breathers” BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! With that, here’s his Zip Van followed by photos I took of some Studebaker wagons at San Juan Bautista, CA:

GH's Zip Van

Above: George H’s Zip Van. Below, a Studebaker water wagon at San Juan Bautista, CA

Stude water wagon, front Studebaker water wagon

Below: A Studebaker built Petaluma Road Cart, also at San Juan Bautista:

Petaluma Cart Studebaker Petaluma Cart


Add yours →

  1. Ah, I liked the more! Good article. Shirl had a REd truck like the Blue one. But I believe it was a 64, they must have looked a lot a like. Jim gave my son a Lark like that but I think it was a convertible as a project car. He never got it off the ground. Too bad I was other wise tied up my self and he locked the engine up and gave up.
    Thanks for the beauty and history of theWestinghouse Prototype.


  2. I will take one of each… The Scotsman, Lark and the Westinghouse truck.
    Yes, please.

    cheers, parsnip


  3. chris houck 08/04/2015 — 07:47

    The county museum in El Dorado county, California has a original wheelbarrow made by John ” Wheelbarrow Johnny” Studebaker when he was working there during the gold rush era.–4HchU2JkHlXhNq2jUNptyx1JR2AulCKgphtxM7sZ7G8Zuhj1DjVZ1PjZ8zqyqTCPXQ_iXcDOiEgxG9HPefY1hfC550Ij83g0gC_edLNOktyXaqSuKEKp0yP9jtCy_QrZJXp99mD4c-31L1SQot2fJ&attredirects=0

    Excellent write up, I think that I remember seeing Zip Vans scooting about town when I was a small boy in Vallejo, California in the sixties.


    • Yes, one of the five Studebaker Bros. came West during the Gold Rush and later returned to South Bend.

      I don’t think the Post Office in my home town (Lubbock, TX) got any of the Zip Vans. I was enough of a Studebaker “nut” even at that tender age that I’m sure I would have noticed!


  4. Gary Lindstrom 02/10/2018 — 08:26

    The sign does not misidentify the 1959 Lark. The sign clearly has a red arrow indicating that the 1960s are to the right. The cars to the left are 1959s.

    Liked by 1 person

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