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.