Scenes from Cruise Nite

There were some really special cars and trucks in Kearney for Cruise Nite this year.  If you weren’t there, here is a sample of what you missed:

Cool coupes
1950 Studebaker Starlight Coupe with a 350 Chevy engine
1961 Jeep Super Hurricane
1958 Chevy
1949 Ford truck
1936 Buick
1956 Chevy
Boss 429 Mustang
Boss 429
1938 Chevy
Edsel “horse collar” grille
1962 Olds Starfire
V16 Caddy
1965 Chevy

Original Horsepower to Solar Power

A couple of recent events here in Nebraska made me think about how far we’ve come in terms of transportation (and where we might go from here)!  In the early part of our nation’s history, Nebraska served as a gateway to the West.   Hundreds of thousands of pioneers, miners and trappers began the trek to settle the west by following the Platte River across the state.  The Oregon, California and Mormon Trails all passed through Nebraska, and the ruts made by those early travelers as they creaked along in oxen-drawn wagons are still visible in many places.

The settlers craved word from home, and one “thread that tied East to West” was the Pony Express mail service which carried letters from Missouri to California.  The riders covered nearly 2,000 miles in 10 days, and they, too, crossed Nebraska following the Platte River.  The ride was a dangerous one, and ads for riders read as follows:  “Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”  Even though a lasting part of Western lore (Buffalo Bill Cody was even a rider), the Express only operated for a period of 18 months, from April of 1860 to October of 1861.  Each year, members of the National Pony Express Association recreate the Pony Express with a commemorative re-ride.  This year, my family and I made the early morning trip to see the mail hand-off at Fort Kearny:

Pony Express Re-rider leaving Ft. Kearny
Fort Kearny

The second event is going on right now, the American Solar Challenge.  This event is a biennial competition in which college teams design, build and drive solar-powered cars across more than 1700 miles of open road.  This endurance event started at Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha and loosely follows the Oregon Trail from Nebraska to Oregon.  Heavy fog was blamed for a slow start and the lead cars didn’t make it to the first stop at Stuhr Museum in Grand Island until around noon.

University of Michigan solar car
University of Michigan pit crew

The cars have no air conditioning, which must be miserable in the July heat.  They also have no power steering and, while they can go faster, they were traveling at a speed of approximately 45 mph.  Each car has something in the neighborhood of $200,000 worth of solar panels installed.  These panels need to be cooled to increase efficiency, and this is the Western Sydney University team using distilled water to bring down the temperatures of the panels.

These modes of transportation from the past and possibly the future are certainly interesting, but for now I will happily stick with the horsepower I have sitting in my garage.  By the way, if you are anywhere near Kearney, Nebraska, this weekend, the town will be crawling with classic horsepower for Cruise Night 2018.  Hope to see you there!

Studebaker: Part II

In 1902, Studebaker started making “horseless carriages” and sold their first one just four days before the company’s 50th anniversary.  By this time, John Mohler (J.M.) was the sole remaining brother.  America quickly fell in love with the automobile and Studebaker sold an astonishing 9.5 million dollars’ worth of them just seven years later  in 1909.

One of these early automobiles was the Flanders 20.   The 20 had some design defects, and J.M. wanted to do something about it.  Stating that Studebaker had always backed up its goods with a guarantee showing good faith, the company dispatched hundreds of mechanics to fix every 20 that had been sold.  Likely the first recall, this endeavor cost Studebaker $1 million and said much about the Studebaker ethics.

The Studebaker was popular in Europe and, by 1912, Studebaker accounted for 37% of cars exported.  World events would soon affect the company again and, in 1914, 81-year-old J.M. saw the world go to war.  The last of the Studebaker boys died in March, 1917, before he could see the war end.   During the war Studebaker made many products to aid the war effort including artillery wheels, ambulances and water carts as well as harness sets and saddles.  Studebaker even developed a caterpillar tractor at the request of the British.

The 1920s were a boom time for American companies, and Studebaker was no exception.

By 1922, the company had sales of $133 million.  Albert Erskine was now in charge of the company, and Studebaker named a new small car after him, the Erskine Six.  In 1928, Studebaker bought stock in the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, and Erskine boasted that they had a car for anyone in any price range.  Dividends were issued at 90% of the profits in 1929.  Then, in October, the  stock market crashed and the nation plunged into depression.

Times were tough in the 1930s.  Erskine believed a new, small, low-priced car was the way to go and so Studebaker introduced the Rockne Six, named for Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.  This was a sad chapter in Studebaker’s history as Rockne was killed in an airplane crash in March of 1931.   Studebaker was using capital to continue issuing dividends and, by 1933, the company owed banks $6 million and went into receivership.  Erskine committed suicide.  Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman steered the company through reorganization, and Studebaker began making the popular and reasonably-priced Champion in 1939.

The world went back to war, and this time Studebaker focused on building trucks and aircraft engines for the war effort.  Studebaker also designed and built the M-29 tracked personnel and supply carrier known as the “Weasel” that could attain high speeds over any type of terrain.  The Weasel continued to see service in Korea and Vietnam.  This one is at the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles in Lexington, Nebraska:

While the other car companies were selling recycled versions of their pre-war models, Studebaker was “First by Far with a Postwar Car” when it came out with all new styling in 1947.  Strongly influenced by aircraft design, the postwar Studebaker had features like a gun-sight hood ornament, wrap-around rear windows and non-glare, black light instrument panel illumination originally developed for fighter planes.  They earned the nickname “Coming-and-Going cars,” because both ends looked so similar.

Studebaker re-styled for 1950 and continued the aircraft theme with “an airplane-type hood” that was “flanked by deep front fenders of the air foil design” and also featured the chrome “spinner” in the nose and an airplane-like hood ornament.  The design was revolutionary and people either loved it or hated it.  Seriously, what’s not to love?

The last chapter of Longstreet’s A Century on Wheels is titled “And Now Tomorrow”.  Unfortunately, Studebaker didn’t have too many tomorrows left.  They merged with Packard in 1954 and had some successes such as the Lark, but eventually closed the doors for good in 1966.  It is too bad this historic American company didn’t last another 100 years.  They probably would have if the Studebaker boys had still been in charge.

The Fabulous Studebaker Boys

I recently found an old book called A Century On Wheels, The Story of Studebaker which was written by Stephen Longstreet for the Studebaker centennial.  Here’s the kicker, it was written in 1952.  In 1952, Studebaker had already been around for 100 years!  The maker of the iconic bullet nose not only started out making wagons, it dominated the world in wagon making.  The Studebaker story is a fascinating one about a group of brothers who were able to transition from building wagons to manufacturing automobiles using a business model predicated on smart business practices, hard work, and fair dealing.

In 1736, three brothers named Studebecker arrived in Philadelphia from Frefeld, Germany.  They Americanized their name, as many did, and became known as Studebaker.  One of their descendants, John, moved to a place called Getty’s Town and, as more Germans settled there, it became known as Gettysburg.  John worked as a blacksmith and had five sons, Henry, Clem, John Mohler, Peter and Jacob.

The family eventually settled in South Bend, Indiana (by way of Ohio) and Henry and Clem started a blacksmithing business in 1852 with only $68 in capital.  They wanted to build wagons, but business was slow. John Mohler (J.M.) traded one of these wagons to a wagon train for passage to California.  He intended to mine for gold and ended up in a town called Hangtown with 50 cents in his pocket.  The official name of the town was Old Dry Diggens, but it was called Hangtown because of the local, and rather enthusiastic, vigilante activity.

As soon as J.M. arrived, a man named Joe Hinds began asking the group if there was a wagon maker in their midst.  Everyone pointed at J. M. and Hinds offered him a job.  At first, he declined, because he was there to look for gold, but reconsidered after receiving some good advice from a local citizen.  He went to work repairing stagecoaches and making pick axes and wheelbarrows.  He made so many of those he became known as Wheelbarrow Johnny.

J.M. stayed in Hangtown (which eventually became Placerville) from 1853 to 1858.  His brothers, Henry and Clem, were still in business but they desperately needed capital.  Due to his hard work in the gold fields of California, J.M. now had $8,000 and he was ready to return home and turn that capital into something historic.

Henry wanted to be a farmer, so J.M. bought him out.  In 1862, the Union came calling, needing all types of wagons for northern troops to use in fighting the Civil War.  They even ordered a beer wagon for the German troops!  All of this business required expansion, so their brother Peter, who had been operating a general store, joined them and their company became Studebaker Brothers.

The Studebakers were smart and effective salesmen.  Instead of waiting for farmers to come to their factory to buy wagons, they would take them directly out to the farms. After the war, when there was a western expansion, the Studebakers erected a 75×60’ showroom for their wagons at St. Joseph, Missouri, a gateway for those headed west.  Next to the showroom they developed a camping ground so their customer base had a place to stay while looking over their wagons.  Clever strategies like these, along with effective newspaper advertising and great slogans like “Our house is founded on the farmer” helped fuel additional expansion.  By 1874, the company had 500 employees and built over 11,000 vehicles.  The youngest son, Jacob joined the firm.

Studebaker was everywhere.  The firm supplied most of the wagons for army posts in the west.  When General Custer met his demise at Little Big Horn, he had been separated from his supply train of Studebakers.  During the Spanish American War, the government wanted 500 wagons within 36 hours, and Studebaker delivered within 24!  Orders for Studebakers poured in from around the world and were used in the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War.  Winston Churchill was even sleeping in a Studebaker when he was captured by the Boers.  The world was changing, however, and Studebaker had to change with it.

To be continued . . . . .

Studebaker wagon