One of only 8,947 built – a ’66 Studebaker Commander in the unlikely location of Ferndale, California. Ferndale, population 1,371 , is an exquisite Victorian village on the far north coast of California. Driving into Ferndale, you feel as if you have stepped back into the end of the 19th Century. I found this Studebaker there when I visited Ferndale three years ago. It is a completely original and unrestored car, driven by a young woman who was a college student at the time.
Fifty years ago last week, on 16 March, 1966, the last Studebaker rolled off Studebaker’s Canadian assembly line in Hamilton, Ontario. Today we will look at the sad end of Studebaker’s automobile business.
Studebaker, barely alive as a company in the 1958 model year, had saved itself by introducing the compact Lark for the 1959 model year. The company had worked a miracle with the Lark. It looked like a new car but in reality was patched together from pieces that had been in the Studebaker parts bin – especially the body shell – since 1953. The Lark sold very well in 1959 and the company made money for the first time in years. Sales fell in 1960 because General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all brought their compact cars to market. By 1961, Studebaker was in serious trouble again and stumbled through the ’61 – ’63 model years.
With a deft restyling by Brooks Stevens of the ’64 Studebaker line-up, the company had a modest hope that the sales of the cars would pick up, though many on the board of directors had been wanting for some time to end Studebaker automobile production altogether.
In earlier posts about Studebaker, we’ve seen how, instead of re-investing in its core product – cars – with the profits from the successful ’59 model year, the company went on an acquisition binge. Some of the acquisitions made sense – Paxton and STP being two of them. But because of the acquisitions, the company had no money left for cars and when the compacts and then the “senior” compacts from the Big Three hit the market, Studebaker was once again stung.
We’ve previously seen how the board had brought Sherwood Egbert over to the automotive operations in 1961 from the Paxton division for the specific purpose of closing Studebaker’s car division. Paxton made the superchargers used on Studebaker’s ’57 and ’58 Golden Hawks and on the ’57 “Packardbakers,” the sad Studebaker President-based Packard Clippers. Egbert wasn’t a “car guy” when he arrived at Studebaker, but quickly became one. Rather than close the auto operations, he went full-throttle trying to save them. It was under Egbert that Studebaker introduced the stunning Avanti and the superlative Brooks Stevens restyle of the Hawk, transforming it into the Gran Turismo Hawk. The Brooks Stevens restyle of the regular passenger car line of Studebakers for 1964 was as close to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear as anyone has ever come – the frame and basic body shell dated to Studebaker’s ill-fated ’53 models.
The Brooks Stevens-designed ’64 Studebaker Cruiser: Stevens almost turned a sow’s ear into silk purse, but it didn’t sell well.
Egbert and Stevens worked toward launching all-new Studebakers for 1965. The project got far enough along that running prototypes were built. The planned ’65 Studebakers would have been extraordinarily handsome cars. But Egbert was felled by a fast-moving cancer and forced to resign. The board threw in the towel and sent former Packard executive Byers Burlingame to South Bend with the unenviable task of closing the automobile operations of the now-diversified Studebaker.
Burlingame pulled the plug as assigned and the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana ceased production on December 20, 1963. It was a sad day indeed for the venerable auto manufacturer, but it wasn’t the final day. Not quite. Through an strange alignment of events and decisions, the company’s Canadian assembly plant in Hamilton, Ontario, 40 miles west of Niagara Falls, was permitted to continue vehicle production on a limited basis. So oddly enough, Studebaker would shamble along in its final months as a nominally Canadian auto producer. For a brief time, the company’s print ads included the tagline, “Canada’s Own Car.”
Crunching the automaker’s rapidly declining numbers, Studebaker management determined that operations at the Canadian plant were sustainable at a level of 20,000 units per year. To reduce costs, the Hawk, truck, and Avanti lines were dropped, and production was focused on the Cruiser and Commander models. As the engine operations in South Bend were wound down, the Hamilton facility arranged to use Chevrolet 230 CID sixes and the trusty 283 CID V8, obtained from nearby McKinnon Industries, GM’s engine division in Canada. Studebaker’s Hamilton plant had always been profitable and its energetic manager, Gordon Grundy was quite vocal with the Studebaker board that he should be allowed to continue building cars. Working in Grundy’s favor in persuading the board to continue production in Hamilton was the fact that production could be slowly wound down and remaining dealer franchise obligations honored without dealer lawsuits against the company.
While the purchase of the engines from McKinnon solved the problem of how to power the cars without Studebaker’s engine plant continuing, it created another problem: a Studebaker with a Chevrolet engine was no longer a real Studebaker, and people knew it despite the fact that with ever-dwindling numbers of Studebaker dealers, owners could have their GM-engined Studebakers serviced at any Chevrolet dealer in the U.S. or Canada. Many potential buyers reasoned, “If I need to have my Chevrolet-engined Studebaker serviced by a Chevrolet dealer, I might as well buy a Chevrolet.”
Another serious drawback to the idea of building cars at Hamilton at the lower volume projected there is that even had Hamilton hit its production goals, the plant would not have thrown off enough cash to support development of new cars. Further, the car they were building was outmoded. The compact car wave so deftly exploited by Studebaker with the ’59 and ’60 Lark had crested. The Hamilton-built Studebakers were larger than the Lark, but smaller than the full-size sedans offered by GM, Ford and Chrysler. They were too big to be compact cars and too small to be full-size cars despite the fact that their interior volume was generally competitive.
These facts combined to make even the 20,000-unit sales objective hopelessly optimistic. While production actually increased at the Hamilton plant when South Bend closed, sales overall continued to plummet. For the 1965 model year, production came close to the target at 19,435 units, but in 1966, only 8,947 cars were produced before the company threw in the towel for the final time on March 16, 1966, 50 years ago last week. Telegrams sent to the few remaining dealers stated that the losses were simply too great to continue. The very last Studebaker produced that day, a ’66 Cruiser four-door sedan in Timberline Turquoise with a 283 CID V8, dwells today in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend. The closure adversely affected not only the plant’s 700 employees, but the city of Hamilton as a whole. Studebaker had been Hamilton’s tenth largest employer.
With the automotive operations now completely shuttered, Studebaker continued to operate its Paxton, Onan, STP and other divisions. Many of Studebaker’s dealers either closed, took on other automakers’ product lines, or converted to Mercedes-Benz dealerships following the closure of the Canadian plant. (Studebaker had become the U.S. Distributor for Mercedes.) Studebaker’s General Products Division, which built vehicles to fulfill defense contracts, was acquired by Kaiser Industries, which built military and postal vehicles in South Bend. In 1970, American Motors purchased the division, which still exists today as AM General. In May 1967, Studebaker and its diversified units were merged with Wagner Electric. In November 1967, Studebaker was merged with the Worthington Corporation to form Studebaker-Worthington. The Studebaker name disappeared from the American business scene in 1979, when McGraw-Edison acquired Studebaker-Worthington, except for the still existing Studebaker Leasing, based in Jericho, NY. McGraw-Edison was itself purchased in 1985 by Cooper Industries, which sold off its auto-parts divisions to Federal-Mogul some years later. And that was the end of the enterprise begun in 1852 by the Studebaker brothers.
Above: The end of the line: the very last Studebaker car built, a ’66 Cruiser which now resides at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. Below: another view of the remarkable ’66 Commander I spotted in tiny Ferndale, California.
They are going fast!
Tickets for the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk!
To be given away by the Keystone Region of the Studebaker Drivers Club.
Automobiles as Art
(Hat tip to “B-Squared” for the image.)