Horses to Horsepower: Studebaker Helped Move a Nation
by Kent C. Boese
The Studebaker story began when brothers Henry and Clement opened the H & C Studebaker blacksmith shop at the corner of Michigan and Jefferson Streets in South Bend, Indiana, on February 16, 1852. They had $68 capital and various blacksmith tools. Their wagons became known for quality and longevity.
Business began slowly, with production being only two wagons built and sold the first year; the first carriage followed in 1857. By 1858, brother John Mohler joined and invested in the firm, which was filling wagon orders for the U.S. Army. Studebaker continued to supply wagons to the Army throughout the Civil War, exposing their product to the Nation.
The company grew quickly. Production in 1867 was 6,000 vehicles, and by 1885 topped 75,000. Sales by 1887 surpassed $2 million. Studebaker had become one of the world's largest manufacturers of horse-drawn vehicles in the world. This success was not without hardship. Major fires occurred at the factory in 1872, 1874, and 1885, with the 1872 fire nearly wiping out the firm, and the 1874 fire destroying two-thirds of the factory.
As with its wagons, Studebaker carriages were highly prized, and counted U.S. presidents among their passengers – including Abraham Lincoln, who was transported to Ford's Theater the night he was assassinated in a Studebaker carriage; Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison.
Remarkably, while many early automobile companies were direct or indirect outgrowths of the carriage industry, Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was the only top-ranked carriage builder to make a direct transition to being a top-ranked automobile producer, and actually manufactured both automobiles and wagons from 1902 to 1920. The company introduced an electric car in 1902 and a gasoline powered vehicle in 1904.
The Studebaker Corporation was formed in 1911 when Studebaker joined forces with the Everitt-Metzger-Flanders Company of Detroit to form its automotive division. When wagon production ceased in 1920, automobile production was moved from Detroit to South Bend.
Even though Studebaker experienced a great deal of prosperity in the 1920s - offering cars in the low- and medium-priced range, and purchasing Pierce-Arrow in 1928 to provide a luxury vehicle - a failure to fully understand the depth of the Great Depression by management lead to Studebaker going into receivership in 1933. Under new leadership, Studebaker gradually recovered from the Depression.
The design relationship with Raymond Loewy began in 1936, and Raymond Loewy Associates held the Studebaker account from 1936 to 1955. The first designs to come out of this union were the 1938 models.
World War II once again saw Studebaker filling defense contracts, supplying military trucks, the M29 and M29C "Weasel", and engines for B-17 Bombers.
After the War, Studebaker was among the first auto manufacturers to introduce new styles rather than warmed over pre-war models. The 1947 Starlight Coupe included a wraparound rear-window and the 1950 models were styled with the now famous "bullet nose". The sought after Loewy coupes, designed by Bob Bourke, were introduced in 1953, and evolved first into the 1955 Speedster and then into the Hawk line that ran from 1956 to 1964.
Despite everything, Studebaker's financial picture was bleak in 1954, leading to a merger with Packard. The new Studebaker-Packard Corporation did not succeed as desired, posting a $43 million loss in 1956.
With the introduction of the popular Lark in 1959, Studebaker again was profitable for a brief period, until 1961 when they were again running at a loss. In an attempt to turn the company around, Raymond Loewy was again asked to design a breakthrough car. The result was the Avanti, which was introduced in May 1962. While the styling was well received, production problems related to the fiberglass shell plagued the company.
problems were never overcome, and Studebaker closed its South Bend plant
in December 1963. Automobile production continued at the Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada, plant until its closure in March 1966, ending a 114 year history
of Studebaker vehicles.
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