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.
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.
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.
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.
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.