The Once and Future Coupe: The Studebaker Hawk

Some cars are seemingly immortal, but the Studebaker Hawk had more reincarnations than the Dalai Lama. Originally developed by the design firm of Raymond Loewy as a show car, it became a highly acclaimed production model in 1953, and survived for another 11 years in a bewildering number of variations. This week, we take a look at the history of the “Loewy coupe” and its many reinventions, including the Studebaker Hawk, GT Hawk, and Super Hawk.

1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk badge

RAYMOND LOEWY AT STUDEBAKER

The late Raymond Loewy remains one of the most famous industrial designers of the 20th century. During his long career, the Paris-born Loewy lent his talents to everything from refrigerators to locomotives. Starting in the early thirties, he also became involved with the auto industry, first as a consultant for Hupmobile, then for South Bend, Indiana’s Studebaker Corporation. Loewy first approached Studebaker president Paul Hoffman in 1936 and the first production cars to show Loewy’s influence appeared for the 1938 model year. Studebaker would remain a major client of Raymond Loewy Associates (RLA) for almost 20 years, and RLA would design nearly all of the company’s most famous and memorable cars.

Although Loewy is commonly credited as the designer of the cars styled by his firm, his role was primarily managerial. Robert Bourke, who headed RLA’s Studebaker studio in the early fifties, recalled that for all Loewy’s graphic design talents, he couldn’t even draw cars competently. Loewy was a fine editor and an excellent promoter, but he left much of the firm’s actual design work to his employees. Even so, his clients tended to promote Loewy as the sole designer, capitalizing on the value of his name. Some of Loewy’s staff (particularly Virgil Exner, Sr., who worked for him in the forties) chafed at that, feeling Loewy was too eager to accept credit for designs with which he’d had little direct involvement.

1948 Studebaker Commander rear 3q
The 1947-1951 Studebakers’ dramatic backlight earned them the nickname “Coming or Going Studebakers,” and made them the butt of countless jokes. Early in its development, Studebaker considered making this a rear-engined car, part of the reason for its elongated tail.

Loewy also aroused the resentment of some Studebaker executives. While he got along well with Paul Hoffman and other board members, historians Michael Lamm and Dave Holls note that Hoffman’s successor, Harold Vance, was wary of Loewy, while chief engineer Roy Cole was actively hostile.

Despite that occasional animosity, the Loewy team continued to do most of Studebaker’s styling until the mid-fifties. RLA’s Studebaker group was neither very large nor particularly well paid and their facilities were often poor. For many years, they were consigned to a tiny office on the second floor of Sherman, Schaus & Freeman, a South Bend dealership several blocks from the Studebaker factory. They eventually graduated to an office in the engineering building on Sample Street, a half mile (0.8 km) from Studebaker’s administrative headquarters.

By the late forties, the head of the Studebaker team was Bob Bourke, who had come to RLA from Sears, Roebuck in late 1940. The first design Bourke directed was Studebaker’s 1950 “Next Look” line, which added a wild-looking airplane-inspired nose to Virgil Exner’s “coming or going” 1947 design.

THE LOEWY COUPE

Bourke was never fond of the Next Look cars and by early 1951, he was eager for a new styling direction. He suggested that Loewy ask the Studebaker board for permission to develop a show car that could establish new design themes. GM had recently launched its traveling Motorama show, while Ford and Chrysler were beginning to roll out dramatic-looking show cars of their own. With Studebaker’s centennial coming up in 1952, it seemed an appropriate time to follow suit. Neither Bourke nor Loewy was confident that the board would agree to that kind of expenditure, but Loewy said he would ask.

1951  Studebaker Commander front 3q
The 1950-1951 “Next Look” Studebaker kept the ’47′s wraparound rear window and added a jutting spinner nose. The 1951′s snout was somewhat shorter than that of the 1950. Bob Bourke, who oversaw the styling of these cars, didn’t like either version. The 1951 Commander introduced Studebaker’s new V8. It was initially 233 cu. in. (3,812 cc), rated at only 120 hp (90 kW), and suffered serious reliability problems.

Studebaker had been in reasonably good financial shape in the late 1940s, but by early 1951, dark clouds were gathering. As had been the company’s wont since the 1920s, much of its profit was paid out in dividends, which was popular with stockholders, but did little to improve Studebaker’s aging facilities. The South Bend factory was antiquated compared to the latest Big Three plants, with adverse effects on both productivity and production cost. The outbreak of the Korean War made things worse, bringing with it new production restrictions and shortages of steel and other materials. Although Studebaker’s production volume rose dramatically in 1950 and 1951, its profit margins were already slipping.

Compounding those problems, Studebaker was also struggling to correct the flaws of its brand-new V8 engine, launched for the 1951 model year. Early engines suffered serious valve-gear problems that resulted in many warranty repairs and hasty design changes. To its credit, Studebaker dealt with the problem in a thorough and conscientious fashion, but it cost them more than $4 million, reducing their 1951 profits by almost 25% and taking a serious toll on public confidence.

In that climate, Bourke hadn’t expected the board would go for his show car plan, but to his surprise, they said yes. Whether Harold Vance saw the show car as a promotion for the company’s centennial or just a convenient way to generate some positive publicity, he told Loewy to go ahead.

Bourke decided to develop a sleek, low-slung coupe, influenced by the latest European styling trends. He and his team began by creating a series of quarter-scale models, from which Loewy chose two: one by Bourke, the other by Holden (Bob) Koto. The RLA team then created a full-size clay, one side of which was based on Bourke’s design, the other on Koto’s. Since the team still had a lot of work to do on Studebaker’s production cars and trucks, the show car became an after-hours project, done over the course of many unpaid evenings and weekends. Loewy was in Europe during most of this time and had little involvement with the design of the clay model.

Although Bourke conceived the coupe as a one-off, Harold Vance came by the studio one evening and asked him to keep a close eye on its production costs — something that mattered very little for a pure show piece. It was Bourke’s first clue that the design might become more than a concept car. When Loewy returned from Europe, Bourke told him about Vance’s visit and they worked yet more overtime to ensure that the coupe would be suitable for mass production.

Loewy and Bourke showed the finished model to the board a few weeks later, along with their models for the 1953 sedans. Vance, Hoffman, and the other board members walked around the coupe without commenting, but Vance called Bourke the following morning and told him they had decided to build it as a regular 1953 model.

The coupe was an expensive investment for Studebaker. It used the long-wheelbase chassis of the big Land Cruiser sedan, but its body was unique. Although it shared some styling cues with the sedans, also all new for 1953, they had no common stampings or sheet metal. The coupes also required some minor chassis modifications to ensure sufficient headroom beneath the low roofline, which was 5.5 inches (140 mm) lower than the sedan’s. The coupe was one of the lowest cars in the industry at that time, giving it a rather rakish air.

1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner front 3q
The original 1953 “Loewy coupe” was only 56.3 inches (1,430 mm) high, making it one of the lowest cars in America. Most 1953 Studebaker sedans rode a 116.5-inch (2,959 mm) wheelbase, but the coupes shared the 120.5-inch (3,061mm) wheelbase of the Commander Land Cruiser, giving them better proportions. The coupe is 201.9 inches (5,128 mm) long and weighs a little over 3,300 lb (1,500 kg) with a full tank of gas. (Photo © 2006 Derek Jensen; released to the public domain by the photographer)

There were technically six versions of the coupe. Pillared models, called Starlight, were offered in both six-cylinder Champion and V8-powered Commander form, in either DeLuxe or Regal trim. The pillarless hardtops, offered only in Regal trim, were called Starliner, again available in both the Champion and Commander series. The wide selection meant that the coupe covered a rather broad price spread, from just under $1,900 for the Champion DeLuxe Starlight (about $140 more than a Chevrolet 210 club coupe) to nearly $2,400 for a Commander Regal Starliner, within $25 of a two-door Oldsmobile Super Eighty-Eight.

The public was quite taken with what Studebaker advertising called the coupe’s “European look.” In fact, many buyers preferred it to the comparatively dumpy-looking sedans, which debuted several weeks before the coupe. Studebaker had not anticipated that — at the time, coupes seldom accounted for more than 15-20% of sales — and had not allotted enough production capacity to meet the demand for the coupes. Many frustrated customers simply walked away rather than accept a sedan.

Those customers who did get their hands on the new coupe were not necessarily impressed. The big Land Cruiser frame lacked sufficient rigidity, resulting in a disconcerting amount of chassis flex over large bumps. (This weakness was partially addressed in 1954, but not enough; Bob Bourke recalled that he beefed up the frame his personal car even further before it felt adequately solid.) Assembly quality was not the best, either, and squeaks and rattles were common. Both the body and the frame also proved to be very vulnerable to rust.

The coupes — inevitably christened the “Loewy coupes,” although they were primarily Bourke’s work — eventually accounted for nearly half of all 1953 Studebaker passenger car sales. However, that total was only 166,364, down more than 100,000 units from 1951. The main reason was a fierce price war between Ford and Chevrolet (and, to a lesser extent, competition between Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac) that forced Big Three dealers to cut prices to the bone. Studebaker, with its high production costs, simply could not afford to respond. Bob Bourke said they did a cost analysis on a Commander sedan and found that it cost Studebaker at least $350 more to build than GM would have spent for an identical car. The coupes, with their unique body shells, were even more expensive. Although the Loewy coupe was an aesthetic triumph, it was not a financial success.

THE STUDEBAKER-PACKARD MERGER

By early 1954, Studebaker was in very bad shape. Production for the 1954 model year was barely 50% of the already-depressed 1953 total, well under 80,000 units. The board started looking for partners.

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  1. Thanks for the great story on the Hawk. The 64 is still one of my favorite cars. It’s a shame these cars had the rust out and rattling problems as you noted. I remember my uncle saying to never open the door on a Hawk when it was being jacked up as it wouldn’t shut from the weak frame taking a slight bend. They may have been willowy but they are still beautiful.

  2. A nice overview on some really sharp cars. The 1953-54 Studebakers were really far ahead of their time in style.

    The 1953 line was a fiasco on many levels. Studebaker essentially built two distinct car lines, but never received credit before it, because they shared so many design cues. The sedans were not very attractive compared to the coupes, and they looked rather small and unsubstantial compared to their Big Three competition (or even a contemporary Nash Statesman/Ambassador).

    Someone wrote that, in retrospect, Studebaker should have continued with a heavily facelifted version of the 1952 model four-door sedans and Land Cruisers for 1953, with the Starliners and Starlights introduced as a speciality model.

    The coupes were delayed because of the flexible frame. Studebaker didn’t account for the weight of the V-8 engine when it developed these cars. When the bodies were developed, the front clip mounted fine with the remainder of the body. When the V-8 engine was mounted on the frame, it caused such flex that that the front clip no longer mounted properly to the body! The company scrambled to find a fix, but the delays kept the coupes out of the showrooms during a critical time.

    Even so, the coupes still sold well for 1953. I remember reading the sales of the Starliner/Starlight actually were very high, and constituted a much higher percentage of Studebaker’s production than was normal for those two body styles in the early 1950s. The problem was that the sedans were such flops.

    Another Studebaker problem that presaged Detroit’s 21st century woes was union trouble. During the lush postwar years, the company essentially gave in to union demands, instead of taking a strike (as GM had endured for months in 1946). Both Vance and Hoffman insisted that Studebaker avoid antagonizing the UAW, as they wanted to run “America’s Friendliest Factory.” Certainly an admirable view, especially since the bitter GM sitdown strikes and the brutal “Battle of the Overpass” at Ford were still fresh on everyone’s memory.

    But, as someone once noted, a company that doesn’t turn a profit doesn’t do the working man or woman any good, and Studebaker workers would soon learn that the hard way.

    By 1953, Studebaker not only had far more workers than necessary to do most jobs, but they received a HIGHER rate of pay than the union members at the Big Three, and still managed to have a poorer productivity rate. Nance was willing to risk a strike to bring wage and productivity rates back into line, but by then it was too late.

    My father had a 1953 Champion Starlight (light blue with a white roof). He still speaks fondly of that car. He bought it when it was a year old, and he was able to get over 100,000 miles out of it before he sold it. It didn’t even have serious rust on it, which was quite an accomplishment here in southcentral Pennsylvania. But, looking back, I can see why many more people would have bought a better built, more thoroughly developed Chevrolet, Ford, Buick or Oldsmobile, even if the Studebaker was much better looking.

    As late as 2000, large portions of the old Studebaker complex were still standing in central South Bend, although largely in derelict condition. Let’s hope that the rest of the American car industry meets a better fate.

    1. I tend to regard the anti-union stance of historians like Tom Bonsall and Rich Taylor with a great deal of skepticism. Studebaker’s productivity levels had as much to do with the antiquated layout of the South Bend factory as with their UAW deal; their assembly lines were cumbersome, requiring more labor operations per car than any of the Big Three. That remained true even after Nance forced the UAW to accept sharp concessions in wages and hours.

      Furthermore, given the number of strikes that the Big Three suffered during that period, I’m not convinced that S-P’s efforts to make nice with the UAW was bad strategy at all. Unlike GM or Ford, Studebaker simply could not afford work stoppages — even strikes at their suppliers were absolutely crippling. Paying a slightly higher hourly rate as insurance against debilitating strikes was a fairly reasonable decision.

      The experience of BMC/BMH/British Leyland in the sixties and seventies demonstrates what can happen when an under-capitalized automaker with inefficient facilities and limited cash reserves tries to take a hard-line attitude with its workers. There were certainly points in the history of BLMC where the union’s demands were unreasonable (and a lot of problems that took place at the level of individual foremen, not union management), but BMC/British Leyland’s undisguised antagonism toward the union made it a lot worse.

      1. Thank you for a well considered view on the unions. It’s very popular to blame them for all problems -as they are among few workers who earn a living wage in America. This seems to madden management types and inspire mistrust in others.

        There are no angels in the decline of the US auto industry, but, the unions are certainly not responsible for decades of poor decisions, hubris, and lack of foresight. This was purely management.

  3. I’ve been in love with the lines of the ’53 Stude since I was a kid and this article only serves to remind me how a once great car lost it’s way due to budget-constrained remodels that left a once great car looking half-assed, with disparate elements from other marques incorporated in an attempt to lure buyers to the brand.

    I realize that Studebaker was in financial dire straits for many of their last years, but I’m sure that their designs (engines notwithstanding) would have flourished had they possessed the capital to hang on until the late ’60s when everyone wanted a racy looking car. History is one of those things that we only see in 20/20 vision, but I’ve always felt like Studebaker would have done alright had they been capitolized like the Big Three.

    All that aside, I’d like to provide some praise for Aaron Severson, the fellow that provides us car junkies with a weekly dose of well thought out history and thoroughly researched history to read up on and marvel at. Thanks, Aaron-you are completely awesome and wiser than I can ever hope to be.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I don’t think Studebaker could have survived much longer than they did. They just never had the capital they would have needed to stay competitive in engineering, and that was before federal safety and emissions standards. They didn’t lack for talent, but their resources were just too limited. It went beyond the engine — for instance, the final Studebakers still had kingpins, a decade after other automakers had switched to ball joints. Probably the only way they would have had a shot would have been if they’d joined Hudson and Nash in AMC in 1953, which didn’t happen because of the mutual animosity between Jim Nance and George Romney.

      Certainly, a lot of the people involved were capable of better, and many of them went on to bigger and better things. Duncan McRae, for instance, became the chief designer of Ford of England in the mid-sixties, with great success. It was just that Studebaker never had the resources to make it.

  4. Part of the reason Studebaker’s plant was outdated was that management paid out high wages to employees and lavish dividends to shareholders instead of updating the plant.

    It’s also worth noting that Studebaker wasn’t just handicapped by lower productivity. Studebaker paid higher wages to its workers than those earned by Big Three workers.

    By the time Nance brought wages more into line with industry standards, it was too late. There was no money to invest in either new vehicles or the plant. Studebaker could not afford to update the plant. The company was too far gone at that point.

    I agree that deliberately antagonizing the UAW was not a good idea, but rolling over and playing dead, as Studebaker management regularly did when faced with a UAW demand or possible strike, was not a good strategy, either. There should have been a middle ground – explaining the hard economic facts of life to the union would have been a good start.

    Studebaker’s factory was notorious for overstaffing. It was not uncommon for several workers to sleep on the job (with cots in full view of foreman!), or read books while other workers took up the slack. That has nothing to do with the plant being outdated.

    The strategy of Vance and Hoffman was a ticking time bomb. Companies with smaller production bases need to keep a very close eye on labor costs – more so than larger companies – because they can’t spread the cost over a larger number of vehicles.

  5. As a kid my favorite toy car was a 1955 President State Studebaker. It was cream white and blue. To protect from chipping the paint of the bumpers when hitting a wall I wrapped a rubber band around it. I immediately preferred the original 1953 design when I saw it. I never saw one in France.
    It’s in my top ten most beautiful cars of all times along with the Jaguar XK120 and MKII, some Ferraris and Maseratis, a couple of vintage Packards. I have mixed feelings about the Avanti but it’s quite deserving too.
    The story of Studebaker and Packerd is too sad.

    Nick

  6. Looking at the 70′s Firebirds, it’s obvious they borrowed heavily on the almost twenty year old Stude styling.

  7. Aaron,
    Do you know if this car had any influence on the original Mustang? To me, the stying cues are just about unmistakeable. Long hood, short rear deck and the “scoop” line on the side.
    Your thoughts?

    1. I don’t know that the Hawk was a direct influence on the Mustang; I think it was probably more a case of both having common antecedents. The long-hood/short-deck proportions were a prewar thing, of course. I think both the Mustang and the GT Hawk owed something to the Thunderbird, as well, both the ’55 and the ’58 Square Bird.

      As for the Mustang side scoop, it looks to me like an offshoot of the ’62 Mustang I show car, and the 1963 Mustang II, which is kind of the missing link between the Mustang I sports car and the production model. I don’t have any photos of it, but if you do an image search on “1963 Mustang II,” you’ll see what I mean.

  8. My first car at age 16, was a 55 President Hard Top. It was customized with Frenched headlights, leaded in, 56 Packard tail lights, and candy apple burgundy paint. It had a floor stick from a jeep that bolted right into the Borg Warnner three speed. Orginally an automatic, it had high gears, but that did not slow it down with it’s four barrel carb and cam. It was very quick for the times and surprised many a pre muscle car such as the 270 hp Chevs. Like many 50′s cars with more power, it constantly blew tranys. It would look very slick to this day. Yes, it did have windows that would suddenly fall into the door and break. The doors could not be opened if it were on the lift and of course those rattles. Who cares at 16?

  9. There was also another designer who tried some ideas for Studebaker. Bob Marks did some nice renderings of proposed Studebaker for 1967 and beyond. Brook Stevens also suggested some ideas.

    1. Yup — Bob Marcks actually did the facelift that turned the Lark into the 1965-1966 Studebakers (mentioned in the article on the Lark), and Egbert had commissioned Brooks Stevens to develop concepts for both future Hawks and future sedans.

  10. Thank you, Aaron, for putting together the best pieces on the Studebaker Hawk,Lark and the legendary Avantu that I’ve ever come across; well researched and with enough interesting anecdotes to make them required reading by anyone, anywhere, interested in good writing.

    When I was just getting into my teen years, I wrote a hand-written letter that I addressed simply to the "PR department, Studebaker Corporation" using an address off the back of a sales brochure. My intent was to get more information on the Granatelli’s efforts at Bonneville.

    Someone at the Studebaker facility in South Bend was kind enough to photocopy a company newsletter with a report in it on those efforts (no name, no cover letter). It meant a lot to me and secured me as a Studebaker fan. So there were people, even in those last dark days, who were believers in what they did. Long may the marque survive, because of them.

  11. Just watching Barrett- Jackson with a 57 Golden Hawk going for $135k.
    Comparing this car to it’s 57 contemporaries is no contest design wise, the later versions with Modernizations mods were too far from Loewey’ original Starliner Coupes but the grille treatment lends it a surprisingly contemporary relevance, and makes the Chev/Fords contemporaries look bloated and trite.
    Too bad they didn’t get the chassis right, if they had had the later day Avanti chassis/suspensions the car would have earned the undisputed bragging rights for the best looking car from the 50′s to the end of the century and arguably up to the present..

  12. It would appear that George Romney had much of the same ego, pride and personality that his son displayed in last year’s Presidential election?

    What a pity that George Romney could not had swallowed his pride and worked out a merger when it was still possible!

    1. Well, in the case of Romney the senior, if you wanted to assign blame you’d really have to split it between he and Jim Nance. I don’t think there was an easy solution to that one: Both Nance and Romney were ambitious and the fact that they were roughly the same age meant that they were going to be rivals. For either of them to have a shot at running the merged company after Mason’s death or retirement, the other would have had to step aside; Nance had already taken one titular demotion prior to going to Packard, while Romney had been groomed as George Mason’s successor.

      Also, it’s important to remember keep in mind that the Packard board was resistant to a merger with Nash, having become convinced that Studebaker was a better bet. Hudson was widely perceived as a terminal case and it was quite a while before the merged AMC was no longer hemorrhaging.

      Honestly, I’m not sanguine about the prospects of a four-way merger. I’m very doubtful that a merged Studebaker-Packard-Hudson-Nash entity would have had the capital to create a viable Sloan-style brand hierarchy — the only way I think that might have worked was if it had happened right after the war, but at that point no one except Mason saw the need. I think if they had merged in ’54, it’s unlikely that all four brands would have survived into the ’60s.

  13. These 53′s are still so stunning, it is hard to imagine everyone was not clammering to have it. It was the low, long look long before the Chrysler’s adverts ‘Suddenly its 1960′ in 1957! The chassis would have to be beefed up for a convertible, but that should have been a priority. Look at the competition, the T-Bird, the Corvette, the Darrin, all two seaters, but the Starliner could seat four. A terrible, missed opportunity, which Ford soon rectified in 1958 with the T-Bird. Studebaker’s top brass made a mistake on the sedan versions, another missed opportunity. America did not want something this advanced apparently and went right on buying their extremely boring Fords, Chevys, Plymouths and Dodges, and you can still buy a new Dodge today, which given the choices back then seems almost unthinkable now.

    1. People did clamor to have the ’53 coupes; not so the sedans. Studebaker hadn’t anticipated that, so they couldn’t keep up with demand for the coupes and had unsold sedans mouldering on dealer lots. Admittedly, the sedans were undoubtedly hurt by the Ford-Chevrolet price war, which meant that it was often considerably cheaper to buy a ’53 Ford or a Chevy.

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