the rise and fall of an automobile manufacturer

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: North East - Part 2

In the travel series View America, North East - Part 2 covers Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 90 full-sized photos.

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Studebaker wagons

In 1736 members of the Staudenbecker (later Studebaker) family of Solingen, Germany relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 1852 Henry and Clement Studebaker opened a blacksmith and wagon shop in South Bend, Indiana. In 1858 they were joined by another brother, John, since their company had received a large order to build wagons for the U.S. Army. During the height of the westward migration with wagon trains, half of the wagons used were Studebakers! They made about a quarter of all wagons, and for another 25 years they manufactured the metal fittings for other builders in Missouri.

By 1875 Studebaker was the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, with sulkies, broughams, clarences, phaetons, runabouts, victorias and tandems. In 1877 annual sales exceeded $1,000,000.

Studebaker automobiles

Studebaker entered the automotive business in 1902 with electric and gasoline vehicles. At first they merely assembled automobiles, and until 1910 they worked with the Detroit EMF Company (Everett-Metzger-Flanders), and the Garford Company in Elyria, Ohio. In 1910 Studebaker purchased EMF, which was the second largest automobile manufacturer in Detroit.

After the cooperation with both partners ended disastrously, Studebaker sought to remedy customer dissatisfaction by replacing defective parts in their vehicles. Their frenzied testing resulted in Studebaker's aim to design for life, and the emergence of really rugged cars. Over the next 50 years the company became a leading automobile producer, and established an enviable reputation for quality and reliability.

In 1912 Studebaker discontinued its production of electric automobiles and produced its first fully manufactured gasoline car. The 1913 six-cylinder model was the first to cast a monobloc engine, which became a major asset in World War I. It was a powerful six-cylinder, that soon became known as "the Big Six". In 1919 Studebaker ended the production of horse-drawn vehicles, and replaced it with a truck line.

Studebaker 1930 - 1 Studebaker 1930 - 2

In 1926 a large part of the Detroit plant was moved to South Bend, and a new small car, the Erskine Six was launched. By 1929 Studebaker sold 50 models and business was great. The annual production capacity was 180,000 cars, and 23,000 employees were employed. Studebaker's plants were spread over three locations ; South Bend, Detroit and Walkerville in Canada.

However, the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression caused massive unemployment for several years. In 1935 Lehman Brothers helped them to fully refinance and reorganize. A new car was brought out, the Studebaker Champion. It was introduced in 1939 and instantly doubled the company's sales! During World War II Studebaker produced the Studebaker US6 truck and the M29 Weasel cargo and personnel carrier. In 1948 Studebaker opened a new assembly line in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Studebaker's decline

Ballooning labor costs, which were the highest in the industry, quality control issues, and the tremendous rivalry between Ford and General Motors wreaked havoc on Studebaker's balance sheet. The massive discounting of the Big Three could not be equaled by the independent car makers, and their only hope seemed to be a large merger of Studebaker, Packard, Hudson and Nash.

Studebaker Champion 1953 Studebaker Golden Hawk 1955

But after 1950 Studebaker declined very rapidly, and was losing money. In 1954 it was nearly bankrupt when it was taken over by Packard. In 1956 the new Studebaker-Packard corporation introduced the Hawk line, and in 1959 the Lark line. In May 1962 it presented the model Avanti at the Indianapolis 500. Avanti set 29 new national stock car records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, earning it the title "World's Fastest Production Car".

In 1962 there was a labor strike at the South Bend plant, and by 1963 all of the company's automobiles and trucks were selling very poorly. On 20 December 1963 the South Bend plant was closed and nearly 20,000 people lost their job! Limited automotive production was continued at the company's last plant in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where Studebaker produced cars until 16 March 1966.

Given Studebaker's extraordinary reputation for quality and sturdiness, a few later experiments are noteworthy. The 1955 combination of a Studebaker car with a powerful Cadillac engine was called the Studillac, and then there was the extraordinary story of Studebaker's last model, the beautiful and powerful Avanti.

Studebaker plant in South Bend 1963

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