My earlier post, drawing on Grant McCracken's talk on 1950s car styling, elicited a couple of exceedingly well informed notes from readers. Gregory Beckenbaugh, who contributes to the Changing Gears blog for car buffs writes, "My father owned several Studebakers when they were just 'cars' and not artifacts." He posted the following to Changing Gears:
According to Ms. Postrel, this Studebaker - widely consdered one of the most beautiful cars ever built - failed because it didn't capture the national mood in the heady days of the early 1950s. She also links to an old Atlantic article from the 1950s, where the man credited with the design of these cars, Raymond Loewy, argues that these Studebakers were too sophisticated for Americans to appreciate.
The real story is considerably more complicated. The Studebaker wasn't a flop because it didn't reflect the exuberant national mood obsessed with jets and rockets, or because Americans couldn't appreciate good styling.
The new Studebakers debuted for the 1953 model year. The 1953 Studebaker line was styled by Robert Bourke of Raymond Loewy Associates. Loewy, however, took all of the credit, as he owned the design firm and promoted his designers' ideas to Studebaker management.
The coupes and hardtops (known as Starlights and Starliners, respectively) are widely considered among the most beautiful cars ever built. The Starlights and Starliners were based on a prototype that Robert Bourke originally designed as a showcar.
Studebaker management loved the prototype, and decided that it would serve as the basis for a radical new model that marked Studebaker's second century in the transportation business (the company, which began by manufacturing wagons, celebrated its centennial in 1952).
But Studebaker couldn't survive selling only sporty, low-slung coupes and hardtops. Its lineup had to include two-door and four-door sedans. Management therefore decreed that the sedan models be based on Robert Bourke's prototype.
That was the first mistake. The second mistake was to place the sedans on a shorter wheelbase than that used for the coupes and hardtops. While the coupes were long, low and sleek, the sedans - the bread-and-butter models of any mainstream manufacturer - were short and dumpy.
A third mistake occurred during the development of the models. Management decided that the frames of the new Studebakers should contain a fair amount of "flex" in order to smooth out the ride (the frame would flex with the road, and thus absorb minor bumps, at least in theory). Unfortunately, when the engine was mounted on the coupe and hardtop frame, it caused the frame to bow, which meant that the hood and front fenders didn't mate properly with the rest of the body! Without the engine, the sheetmetal matched perfectly! The coupes were delayed for several crucial weeks while Studebaker scrambled to work out a fix. The sedans were not affected.
Despite all of this, the 1953 Starliners and Starlights were a success. The problem was that the sedans were duds, so Studebaker as a whole registered lackluster sales in what was a decent year for the entire industry.
The new vehicle market in 1953 was up 38 percent. Sales of Studebaker's handsome new coupes and hardtops increased by 61 percent over comparable 1952 models. But sales of Studebaker sedans dropped by one-third when compared to 1952!
When 1954 rolled around, Studebaker thought it had the situation in hand. But a sales war broke out between Chevrolet and Ford, and both divisions began shipping new vehicles to their dealers, regardless of whether there was an order for them. The dealers naturally heavily discounted these cars. Studebaker and the other independents (Nash, Hudson, Packard and Kaiser) were hammered, as their weaker dealers wouldn't or couldn't discount their wares to match Chevy and Ford. Sales for all the independents dropped dramatically in 1954. Before the start of the 1955 model year, Studebaker had merged with Packard, while Hudson and Nash had combined to form American Motors.
The drop in sales brought out another hidden weakness - Studebaker's labor cost were far higher than its Big Three rivals. Even worse, it had to spread those costs over a much smaller production base. The competitive environment made it impossible for Studebaker to raise prices. (Ironically, GM faces a similar situation today, when compared to Toyota, Honda and Nissan.)
In 1953, Studebaker had one of the most critically acclaimed cars in history. And within two years of its debut, the company was almost bankrupt, and saved only by a merger with Packard. Studebaker limped along for almost a decade, but never really recovered, and finally threw in the towel by closing its South Bend, Indiana, plant in December 1963.
Production continued in Canada for three more years, but the company's engineering and styling departments were gone, so there was no real hope that the Canadian plant was anything more than a temporary arrangement. Studebaker continued to supply cars to dealers, and thus avoided lawsuits for violating the franchise agreements. As sales dropped, and the dealer body dwindled away, Studebaker ended all car production in March 1966. It was a sad end for the nation's oldest car manufacturer.
And W. Edward Howard, Jr. writes:
I'm not sure what Grant McCracken had to say about Loewy's 1954 Studebaker design, but the cars weren't "streamlined" in any 1930's or 1940's curvilinear modern sense. They were basically rather angular wedge shaped, low drag designs (especially the coupes), and actually resembled airplanes much more in cockpit design than other makes at the time. They were regarded as too modern, rather than retro. The GM cars during the 50's were based more on late 1940's aircraft designs in use and production during the 50's. Harley Earl was said to be fascinated by fighter aircraft, and based most of his design elements on early jets.
Earlier Studebakers, from 1949 to 1951 or so, appeared to be airplanes from the front (resembling early P-40s and P-38s), with nacelles, bullet spinners, faired radiator intakes, and struts, and were also perceived to be out of the mainstream. The 1954 Studebakers were a facelift modification of a design from 1952 or so that was quite radical for the time, and had changed very little from 1952 to 1955. They had begin to look outdated, or perhaps too familiar, while still appearing too radical for the mainstream. There was apparently no way to update the shell for mid 50's styling cues.
The big problem from 1954 or 1955 on was that Studebaker didn't have the money for a new design, with wrap around windows, etc., like GM and Ford. The same body shell from the early 50's was used through the early to mid 60's and was by then three or four generations older than the big three. It was chopped off and became the "compact" Lark, which was easy since the design never had reached the length of the other early 60's makes in the first place.
Just one more example of the dispersed knowledge you can elicit from a blog with a diverse, well-informed, and engaged readership. Thanks to everyone who has written to me about blog postings over the years. I don't always have the time to reply, but I always read your emails, learn from them, and appreciate them.