Days Gone By: The Studebaker: Here it comes, or there it goes

Look! There is an old car. Can you tell which way it’s going?

If it happens to be one of the old Studebakers, one of those manufactured … say between 1947 and the mid-’50s, it may not be so easy to tell which way it’s going. But few of us baby boomers could mistake the distinctive airplane styling developed by the Studebaker designers for any other make of vehicle.

After World War II, beginning in 1947, the Studebaker adapted a mid-cab look with a sleek aerodynamic design on both the front and back. The result was that it became more difficult to determine whether a Studebaker spotted in the distance was coming toward you or driving away from you. But it did cause the Studebaker to become one of the more recognized vehicles on the American highway. While many cars adapted a “sameness” approach to designing cars that even continues today, the Studebakers headed off in a completely new direction, and stayed there for many years.

The Studebaker was different. Its futuristic styling suggested that it would be more fitting for a Saturday morning Buck Rogers thriller than it would hauling a family on a picnic. Sitting inside the cab of the Studebaker, one could still gather the feel of being out in the open, almost totally surrounded by the wrap-around glass that even allowed one to see the blind side corners. No doubt about it, Buck Rogers or Captain Midnight would have felt right at home in one these beauties.

And the Studebaker designers didn’t know when to quit. By 1950, the Studebaker had added a bullet-nose on the front end that to this day causes controversy. While many believe that this drastic styling was the beginning of the long trail down to oblivion for Studebaker, others see it as a daring modern design that reflects the new (in 1950, at least) jet-age styling. In fact to this day this design continues to have an immensely popular following with loyal Studebaker supporters. Try purchasing one to see what the price may be in 2008. Often an old Studebaker may cost more than the ultra-expensive new cars of today.

From 1902 to 1966 new Studebakers roamed the American roads. However, now, in the 21st century, it is a rare treat to spot one passing by on a roadway. You might think this rare sighting is a testament to a lack of quality in manufacturing that could have driven the sleek Studebaker sedan to an early demise, and that could be one reason. But there is more to it than that.

For one thing, there were far fewer Studebakers sold than the more popular brands. For example, in 1952, while Chevrolet dealers averaged 112 vehicles per franchise, and Ford dealers sold 110, Studebaker dealers averaged 56. In 1954, the story was getting even more depressing for Studebaker: Chevy dealers sold an average of 188 vehicles per dealer, Ford 213, while Studebaker averaged only 39. That translates to far fewer Studebakers on the road, even in the years when they were shiny new.

Most all of us post-World War II baby boomers have a Studebaker memory or two from years gone by. I can remember a small neighborhood grocer who had two new Studebaker Champ trucks in the mid-’50s. Using these gas-stingy models allowed his customers to be able to call in a grocery order in the morning and his drivers would then deliver the order to the customer’s door before supper. Talk about service in a different era!

When I began school, the school principal and his wife, a teacher at the same school, drove the few blocks to school each day in one of the least expensive Studebaker models, possibly a Champion. Of course these were the days when having a luxury-model car simply meant having one that included a radio and heater, but I don’t think this model had either. The economy sedan probably also reflected a time in our history when paltry salaries caused teachers to cut corners as much as possible.

As in most communities the unusual qualities of the Studebaker caused it to stand out from other vehicles. While most of the town populace drove Fords and Chevys, the uniqueness of the Studebaker would likely catch a young man’s eye, and attach an indelible memory to the brain.

However by the 1960s, Studebaker appeared to focus on producing truly economical cars, such as the Lark, a vehicle that could easily have taken a second job as a grocery store box. Although another segment of Studebaker designed vehicles such as the futuristic Avanti, the Lark appeared to bring to an end the idea of Studebaker building the lower-priced cars with designs that appeared to come out of a Saturday morning space movie.