Gear Head Tuesday – The Studebaker – Porsche Connection

Gear Head


We expect Porsches to have their engine in the rear, although that is not always the case. But in the late 1950s, if you are going to stuff a Porsche engine into a Studebaker Lark, where are you going to put it? In the trunk, of course!

Studebakers powered by Porsche!

Hat tip: “Chris-to-Fear”

When we think of Porsche, we think of their justly famous sports cars. In recent years, Porsche has expanded their offerings to include the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera luxury sedan. These recent additions to Porsche’s model lineup retain the Porsche core high performance value. What is seldom remembered today about Porsche is throughout their history they have done engineering and development work for other manufacturers, including General Motors. Porsche was an engineering firm before it became a car builder.  A number of years ago, Harley-Davidson contracted Porsche to develop a new motorcycle engine. Porsche had a clean sheet of paper on which to draw and had only one instruction from Harley-Davidson: “It must SOUND like a Harley!”  In the 1950s, Studebaker was a Porsche client.

Self-taught, Ferdinand Porsche began his engineering firm in Austria in 1931. He designed the famous Auto Union racers of the 1930s as well as Hitler’s “People’s Car,” the Volkswagen.


Above: the Porsche-designed 1939 Auto Union race car. We know Auto Union today as Audi. Below: the Porsche-design Volkswagen “Käfer” – (beetle) – prototype.


After World War II, Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, took the reins at Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG and continued the company’s consulting work. In 1948 Porsche began building the first Porsche-label cars, the VW-based Type 356.

Porsche Type 356

Porsche 356

In the early 1950s, the very few Volkswagens sold in the U.S. had been distributed by the Austrian-born car importer, Max Hoffman. Hoffman also imported Porsches and Mercedes-Benz.

Ferdinand Porsche died in 1950. A few months later, in 1951, Ferry Porsche made his first post-war trip to the U.S. He was in the U.S. because of a military vehicle project Porsche was working on. While in the U.S., Ferry Porsche met with fellow Austrian Hoffman to confer about Porsche car sales.

Fellow Austrians: Influential car importer Max Hoffman, left and Ferry Porsche, right.

Hoffman knew full-well what Porsche engineering was capable of and asked Ferry if he would like more consulting work in the U.S. The answer was “yes.”  Hoffman ran with that affirmative answer and set up a meeting with his friend Richard Hutchinson at Studebaker. Hutchinson had been with Studebaker since 1923 and was then the Vice-President, Exports. Hoffman accurately assessed what lay ahead for Studebaker in his conversation with Hutchinson. In essence he said:

“You’ve done all the right things so far. Your cars are selling well. It’s a seller’s market, but the buyer’s market will return soon. When it does you will have trouble competing in the future if you try to match the Big Three directly. You should do something else, something the Big Three won’t do. You have to have a Volkswagen for America and I know just the people to design it for you, the people who designed it originally.”

Despite the fact that Volkswagens in the U.S. were sold at that time in only minuscule quantities, Hutchinson (because of his job in Exports) understood what Hoffman was talking about and, as we will see below, knew about Volkswagen.

At the close of World War II, the British military oversaw the operation of the VW assembly plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. The British made every effort to get the bombed but still somewhat useable plant rebuilt and assemble as many cars as they could despite severe materials shortages. The British were trying to help the German civilian population recover from the privations of the war.

Hutchison knew about the unique Volkswagen and the British efforts to get the VW plant up to speed. He had contacted the British authorities and had one of the first – if not THE first – postwar VW built at Wolfsburg sent to South Bend. Hutchinson had arranged for Studebaker to become the U.S. distributor. But Studebaker boss Harold Vance vetoed the idea and Max Hoffman became the Volkswagen distributor in the U.S. instead of Studebaker.

After Ferry Porsche’s visit with Hoffman, Hoffman and Hutchison were able to schedule  a meeting with Studebaker and the Porsche team in May, 1952. Ferry Porsche, chief designer Karl Rabe, chassis engineer Leopold Schmid, and body designer Erwin Kominda brought with them a running prototype, the Type 530. The 530 was a small, rear-engined two door coupe that would hold four passengers. The 530 was crude (after all, it was a prototype) and it didn’t show itself particularly well when driven around the Studebaker test track. In spite of this, the Porsche team and Studebaker’s Vice-President of Engineering, Stanwood Sparrow*, and Chief Engineer Harold Churchill found common ground. Aided by Max Hoffman, an agreement was reached that Porsche would develop a compact car but one larger than the Type 530 prototype. It is reasonable to think that part of Studebaker’s interest in a compact car was the result of the introductions of the small Nash Rambler, Kaiser’s Henry J and the pending introduction of Hudson’s Jet. And, Willys had just brought its smartly-styled (by Brooks Stevens) compact Aero to market.

* Stanwood Sparrow – what a  name! It sounds like a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel!

Porsche Type 530

Porsche Type 530 prototype for Studebaker

The agreement between Studebaker and Porsche called for the car to have four doors and a front-mounted six cylinder engine, a three speed manual transmission and a minimum top speed of 85 miles per hour. Studebaker asked that the design offer manufacturing efficiencies over the current (1952) Studebaker Champion. Studebaker put other demands and specifications into the agreement. The car had to be designed in such a way that Studebaker would not have to rip out its existing tooling on its body assembly line. The bodies had to be designed to fit in the existing specially-designed rail cars carrying South Bend-built bodies (standing upright in the rail cars) to Studebaker’s suburban Los Angeles, California plant. The car must use as many existing components as possible: Studebaker’s three speed/overdrive manual transmission, 9″ drum brakes, door handles, steering gear and steering wheel, 15″ diameter wheels, hub caps, etc. The engine design had to be workable on Studebaker’s existing foundry tooling, thus iron rather than aluminum blocks. The resulting car became Type 542.


Above: The 542-L (L = Luft = air) air-cooled engine.
Below: The 542-W (W = Wasser = water) water-cooled engine.


Porsche worked its engineering magic in designing the engine. They came up with a 120º V-6. By choosing the 120º angle, the inherent roughness of a V-6 was minimized. There were two versions – one air cooled, the other water cooled. Many components between the two versions were interchangeable. Porsche was not proposing that both engines go into production but was offering Studebaker a choice. The water-cooled version was quieter and developed more power, but the air-cooled engine was lighter. The air-cooled version was 542-L (L = Luft = air) and the water-cooled version was 542-W (Wasser = water).


The Porsche 542 prototype for Studebaker. Note the Champion wheel covers. 


Below: The VW Type III has a striking resemblance to the  Porsche Type 542 that preceded the VW by some ten years.

VW Typ 3 1600 L, Baujahr 1969, 54 PS, 28. Internationales Oldtimer-Treffen, Konz

A prototype car was assembled along with two each of of the engine types. It all arrived in South Bend along with Ferry Porsche and Karl Rabe just as a number of important events were taking place that shaped Studebaker’s destiny and doomed the 542 from being produced:

• The ’53 Studebakers had been plagued by production snafus that would have been eliminated or minimized had Studebaker bothered to set up a pilot production line to sort the new car out prior to actual introduction. But they pinched pennies and didn’t do that. It was a textbook example of being “penny wise and pound foolish.” The front clips of the stunning Robert Bourke-designed coupe didn’t fit. Studebaker had tried to shortcut the metal stamping process and had to re-tool to get properly stamped body panels. Dealers were slammed with orders they couldn’t fill because they couldn’t get the cars – and lost thousands upon thousands of sales as a result.

• Studebaker didn’t heed the counsel of Robert Bourke and Raymond Loewy and have the new ’53 sedans share the same body shell as the coupes. Instead Bourke had to stuff his sleek design on a shorter chassis. The resulting car didn’t look right – and didn’t sell.

• The 1953-1954 price and volume war between Ford and Chevrolet effectively destroyed most of the market for all manufacturers. The exception was Studebaker’s new coupe – but they couldn’t build enough of them. On the other hand, Studebaker couldn’t give the dumpy-looking new sedans away. The market mayhem continued in 1954 and all of the independent auto makers bled profuse amounts of red ink. Studebaker was badly weakened by all of this.

• The Porsche-designed prototype arrived just as Studebaker was completing its merger with Packard. Along with that merger came plans to do what Studebaker told Porsche it didn’t want to do: rip out the existing body assembly tooling to build a new common body shell to be used by Packard, Clipper and Studebaker. Although the new common body didn’t happen, Ferry Porsche found that the atmosphere in South Bend had cooled to his compact car program and the car would not enter production.

Interestingly, Studebaker had done an extensive market survey and found that there would be a considerable demand for a subcompact rear engine economy car – the very type of car Studebaker had rejected when shown the Type 530 prototype – and exactly the car that Volkswagen was building. Aware of this, when Ferry Porsche arrived in South Bend with the Type 542 prototype he arrived with details and drawings of a proposed Type 633 in his portfolio: a flat four, rear-engine coupe with front lines that predicted the frontal styling of the Type 901 (911 in production) that Porsche would introduce ten years later.

Porsche 633-fr

Sensing that his Type 542 would not see production, Ferry Porsche arrived in South Bend with drawings of the Type 633 as an alternative. While the Type 542 got as far as running prototype stage, the Type 633 didn’t get past these drawings.

Porsche 633-r

Harold Churchill became Studebaker’s Vice-President of Engineering when Stanwood Sparrow was killed in a car wreck in 1953. Churchill seemed to be generally impressed with what Porsche had come up with in the 542, but told Ferry Porsche that Studebaker now lacked the funds to produce the car. A Studebaker stylist favorably commented that Studebaker should take a page from Porsche in body stiffness and integrity. On the other hand, John Z. DeLorean, who had been an engineer at Packard, evaluated the 542 and generally panned it. Ferry Porsche’s reaction was that regardless of Studebaker’s finances, DeLorean was suffering from an excessive amount of Not Invented Here Syndrome.

Volkswagen caught the wave Studebaker missed. By 1970, VW was selling 500,000 Beetles as year in the U.S. – a production number Studebaker never saw.


In 1970 VW sold 500,000 cars in the U.S., a number Studebaker never saw in its entire life as a car builder. Studebaker’s peak year was 1950 with 268,229 cars built, a number they never achieved again.

While the Porsche-designed 530 and 542 never got past prototype stage, in later years, there was one more Porsche-powered Studebaker prototype.

As we saw above, Studebaker’s merger with Packard effectively doomed the Type 542. The merged company began developing plans for a common body and this program would not accommodate the 542. The merger did more than doom the 542. It killed Packard and did almost nothing beneficial for Studebaker. Packard president James Nance’s attempts to modernize both companies and put the newly-designed common body shell car in production for Packard, Clipper and Studebaker were quashed when Nance couldn’t fund the project. One big reason he couldn’t fund the new body program was the loss of the J-47 jet engine contract.

President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, who had come from General Motors, re-wrote the Pentagon’s procurement rules in a way that favored – wait for it – General Motors. In this new environment, both Packard and Studebaker lost defense work they were counting on to help fund Nance’s modernization program. The case can be made that Wilson knew of Nance’s intent for Packard to regain the luxury car crown from Cadillac and Wilson devised the Pentagon procurement rules specifically to weaken Studebaker-Packard. Wilson would be right at home in the Obama regime.

Studebaker-Packard Interchangeability program

The planned shared body shell program for 1957 Packards, Clippers and Studebakers

The auto industry had a boom year in 1955, but the favorable sales climate of 1955 didn’t extend to 1956. Studebaker’s sales had been hurt in 1955 by a strike when the newly merged company tried to get its labor costs in line with the rest of the industry. Studebaker workers were the best paid in the industry – making 20% more than workers at other auto manufacturers.

Packard had stumbled in 1955 because of quality issues resulting from the hasty conversion of the former Briggs body plant (which had been supplying Packard bodies) into a full production facility – something the plant wasn’t designed to do. Packard’s new V-8 engine and updated Ultramatic transmission had teething problems. Thus neither Studebaker nor Packard benefited as they should have in 1955.

Everything was falling apart and in 1956 sales plunged. Packard closed its factory in Detroit for the entire month of February, 1956 to get inventory in balance with sales.

Matters had become so dismal that the possibility of liquidation and bankruptcy became all too real. Charles Wilson aside, the Eisenhower administration even expressed concern over the situation. Eisenhower was not willing to reverse the cancellation of the jet engine contract – General Motors was also building that J-47 jet engine – but Ike did see to it that Studebaker received an order for 5,000 trucks.

In April of 1956 a panel of consultants advised Nance to liquidate. This precipitated high level meetings in Detroit and Washington that included, among others, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, defense contractor Curtiss-Wright and several investment firms. Weeks of discussion finally produced a solution. In addition to new financing from several banks and insurance companies, Curtiss-Wright agreed to oversee management of Studebaker-Packard and received the option of purchasing 5 million shares of unissued S-P stock. A new subsidiary corporation to handle defense contracts, Utica-Bend, was formed; and finally, Studebaker-Packard was given distribution rights for Mercedes-Benz. All of this was done without approval of share holders, a patently illegal move motivated by urgency. When the dust settled, James Nance, Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman resigned from Studebaker-Packard. Nance had been at the helm of the combined Studebaker-Packard a mere sixteen months. (He came to Packard in 1952.)

Harold Churchill, who had been at Studebaker thirty years, took the reins from Nance. His approach would be much different than his predecessor. He steered the company away from “head on competition with the big three.” In 1957 he introduced the Scotsman, a very stripped down Champion. Priced at a patriotic-sounding $1776, the Scotsman was priced below anything comparable on the market. It quickly became Studebaker’s best seller. Encouraged by this approach, Churchill decided on the same gamble that had saved Studebaker in the Depression: a low priced car. In 1939 the Champion had brought Studebaker back to being the number one independent car maker. Churchill had worked on the original Champion project. Churchill morphed the Scotsman into the Lark for 1959 and the Lark temporarily took Studebaker off of life support.

Although Churchill was running Studebaker now, Roy Hurley and Curtiss-Wright in many respects were in the driver’s seat. The Curtiss-Wright – Studebaker working relationship was never a particularly happy one and Studebaker was chafing to get out from under Hurley’s thumb.

Curtiss-Wright had picked up U.S. rights to produce the new Wankel engine. In February, 1959 Curtiss-Wright bought a new Lark with a six cylinder engine from a dealer in New Jersey and Curtiss-Wright engineers modified it. Given that Curtiss-Wright was more or less running Studebaker, it is interesting that the car was bought from a dealer and not plucked from the production line in South Bend. A used engine from a 1953 Porsche was rebuilt by Porsche for Curtiss-Wright and installed along with the Porsche torsion-bar rear suspension and transaxle in the Lark. Wheels and gear reduction boxes from a VW bus were used to optimize the drive line. This engine was placed in what had been the trunk of the Lark after removing the Studebaker six cylinder engine and transmission from the front of the car. In addition, since Curtiss-Wright had taken out a license to build Wankel rotary engines, an adapter was prepared to install a small Wankel engine in place of the Porsche engine. The car was very completely modified. The floor pan in the interior was replaced by a flat floor as the driveshaft was no longer in the car. The flat floor made the already roomy-for-its-size Lark even more roomy.

The gas tank and spare tire were relocated to the front where the engine had been and the compartment was properly finished.

Before the car could be fully tested and the rotary engine installed, the relationship between Curtiss-Wright and Studebaker ended. The Lark was sold to a local New Jersey garage, then quickly resold twice more to car collectors. The car still survives and is now displayed at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend. It retains the 1500 cc, 70 hp Porsche engine in the trunk. While the horsepower rating is less than the Studebaker six it replaced, the much lower weight of the Porsche engine and transmission help, but it is not a high-performance car.


porsche-studebaker-rear engine

Studebaker had no part in modifying the Lark. This was entirely a Curtiss-Wright project, something of a “skunk works” job. Thus it is an official prototype Studebaker, but it is not an official Studebaker prototype.

While it seems that Curtiss-Wright was planning to install a Wankel rotary engine in the car given that the adapter for the Wankel was part of the project of installing the Porsche engine, there is another possibility as to why the air-cooled Porsche engine was installed.

There was a project knocking around at Studebaker at the time to build a subcompact car with an air cooled rear engine. Curtiss-Wright may have used the Porsche-engined Lark as a test bed for that project off the books and away from Studebaker engineering while Curtiss-Wright was waiting to test a Wankel engine in the car. Studebaker very badly wanted to part company with Curtiss-Wright and when it happened, whatever the purpose was for the rear-engined Lark was, the project was cancelled and the car was sold.


A drawing of the proposed subcompact rear engine air-cooled Studebaker.
Note the air intake louvres in the rear fender.

Thus was Porsche’s involvement with Studebaker. We can’t help but wonder what Studebaker’s fate might have been had the 542 actually gone into production. And we wonder what Roy Hurley’s intentions were with his “skunk works” Porsche-powered Lark.

As the saying goes, “If ‘ifs and buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”


Above: Now safely tucked away at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana, the Porsche-powered Lark sits next to one of Brooks Stevens’ ’65 Studebaker prototypes. Below: a better view of the ’65 Studebaker prototype designed by Brooks Stevens.



Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 05/07/2016 — 06:21

    Wild story to me. Amazed at what I DO NOT know. BUT some neat cars featured today, all of them.
    THANKS! BUT, IF….. etc History is changed by one decision ……………..


  2. Thanks for another informative article! If only Studebaker could have secured the rights to distribute VW in the US, the profits could have modernized and salvaged the cash-strapped company. Sadly, greedy union bosses helped to kill the goose that laid their golden egg at Studebaker as they have in so many other manufacturing companies. Studebaker did much with little & was willing to innovate, but when profits become too low to afford development, advertising and modernization of facilities, a company can not remain competitive. In an environment of a softer, more competitive market, economic down-turn, cancellations of govt. contracts, and abrupt loss of leadership 3 times in a decade*, it became impossible to turn a profit while paying substantially higher wages than competitors. Price and value are always the primary criteria driving buyer choice.

    *Sparrow, Vance, Egbert


  3. Gary Lindstrom 25/06/2018 — 10:16

    I was offered the Porsche powered Lark at a low price when it was in a warehouse in New Jersey. That would have been in the ’60s or ’70s. I didn’t know all of the history then and didn’t have any interest in buying it. I did see it some years later in use on the road.

    Gary Lindstrom

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great article! A well researched, well written piece about one of the most unlikely pairings of automakers in the post-WW2 era, complete with illustrations and photos I had not seen before.
    One criticism…what was achieved by interjecting a bit of current day political commentary at the end of the paragraph concerning Eisenhower’s Defense Secretary Charles Wilson? We are incessantly bombarded with partisan snipes in all matter of venues, is that necessary in an article about automotive history?
    The collector car hobby is shrinking. We need younger people to join in to our circle to keep the hobby and the cars alive. Many younger potential members of car clubs may have differing views on politics and society than the older existing members of the clubs. It might be best for the hobby if we confine our discussions to subjects on which we agree: cars, history, travel, etc. and avoid snipes at one another’s political views.



    • There was no political sniping intended in my comment about Wilson. The fact of the matter is that Wilson deliberately yanked Packard and Studebaker defense contracts because he knew that Nance was determined to restore Packard to its place as being THE premier American luxury car maker and that Nance was counting on the cash flow of those defense contracts to fund the new car line that would accomplish this. Naturally enough, Wilson was still a GM partisan, but of all the challenges Nance faced in bringing both Packard and Studebaker up to date, the loss of those defense contracts was the single event that did the most to bring about Packard’s collapse. Wilson knew EXACTLY what he was doing and Ike let him get away with it.


      • My comment was not about Secretary Wilson’s place in the story…that is relevant and all true. Rather, my comment was focused on the final sentence of that paragraph: “Wilson would be right at home in the Obama regime.”
        That seemed to be an irrelevant bit of opinion on current day matters that might be off-putting to some. A needless distraction given the context of the article.



  5. If hind site was 20/20… Sounds like most of the decisions Studebaker and Packard made in the 50’s doomed those companies… Great story though… Nice work.

    Liked by 1 person

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