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Studebaker Dreams


When I became a designer at Studebaker-Packard in February of 1957 it was the fourth largest U. S. automaker, trailing only Detroit's Big Three. Technically, it was the oldest company in the auto business. It was founded 1852 by 26-year-old Henry Studebaker and his 21-year-old brother Clement when they set up shop as blacksmiths in South Bend, Indiana. Their 19-year-old brother John joined them after amassing a fortune in the California gold fields—not as a miner but a maker of wheelbarrows, which every miner, whether lucky or hapless, needed.

The brothers didn't make cars right away, of course, but horse-drawn wagons and carriages. They got their big start from a contract for 100 wagons the Army needed to put down an anticipated attempt by the Mormons to take over the Utah Territory. Studebaker eventually became the largest manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles in the world with plants in Europe and Asia in addition to South Bend. Their sales facility in San Francisco had six stories.

So Studebaker was enormously prosperous in comparison with the likes of Henry Ford when, in 1902, its management decided to make horseless carriages. They chose electric power over gasoline or steam in deference to women, who wouldn't have to crank their cars in order to drive, and concern about environmental pollution. Yes, there were serious environmentalists even then.

Having merged with Packard in 1954, Studebaker-Packard was in dire straights when I joined the company. Designing a new car was always a matter of facelifting an old one. We pulled existing grille, taillight and bumper pieces from a storeroom of bits and pieces made from tooling already paid for. The front bumper of the Packard Hawk, for example, featured the large chrome "bombs" from recent Packard sedans but the horizontal piece between them came from the '49 Studebaker.

The company also forged a mutual assistance alliance with Mercedes-Benz aimed at reducing engineering and development costs. S-P had access to M-B's technology and parts bin. M-B had access to S-P's national sales and service network. S-P took little or no advantage from the arrangement that I knew of. Ironically, it was M-B who benefitted most. When S-P ceased production of cars in 1966, its dealers were left with only Mercedes products to sell, which turned out to be a boon. And Mercedes-Benz ended up, overnight, with the nationwide U.S. dealer network it sought—at virtually no cost.

With rising sales of Volkswagens and other European imports American automakers were compelled to think seriously about offering smaller, more efficient cars of their own, especially after the Rambler enable American Motors to overtake Studebaker. But Studebaker had nothing in the parts bin for making a small car. So management approached Glas, the German maker of Goggomobil minicars based in the Bavarian town ofDingolfing. They contemplated using Goggomobil's rear-mounted engines, transmission and suspension components under one or more bodies designed by Studebaker.

I was fortunate enough to be the only designer assigned to create a variety of vehicle concepts, including sedans, coupes, minivans and the roadster depicted above in a rendering I did on August 19, 1957. I concentrated on keeping costs as low as possible. The doors on the roadster would have been identical, for example. And the body would have been made of fiberglass, which by then the Corvette had shown to be feasible over four years of successful production.

I don't know why management decided not to pursue the project. Decision makers probably concluded that, whichever concept they chose, it would have been too small and too anemic for American tastes. The largest Goggomobil engine had a displacement of only 484 cc, while the VW had a considerably more robust 1192 cc engine. 


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