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. He 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, 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 a South Bend dealership located several blocks from the Studebaker factory. The group 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 Robert 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. They were distinctive but very gimmicky and Bourke was never overly fond of them.
THE LOEWY COUPE
Around the beginning of 1951, Bourke decided that the best way to develop new styling themes to replace the Next Look was to create a show car, giving the design team the opportunity to explore different ideas without the constraints of designing for production. GM had recently launched its traveling Motorama show and Ford and Chrysler were beginning to roll out dramatic-looking concept cars of their own. Bourke suggested Loewy ask Studebaker for permission to do the same.
Loewy was not sure what the Studebaker board would say. The company had been in reasonably good financial shape in the late 1940s, but by early 1951, the future was no longer looking so bright. As had been the company’s wont since the 1920s, much of its profits were 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, which had adverse effects on both productivity and production costs.
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. Studebaker was also struggling to correct the flaws of its brand-new V8 engine, launched for the 1951 model year, which had suffered serious valvegear problems and a rash of warranty repairs and running design changes. The latter episode had cost Studebaker more than $4 million, reducing their 1951 profits by almost 25% and taking a serious toll on public confidence.
To Loewy and Bourke’s surprise, the board agreed to authorize the show car, perhaps seeing it as a promotional opportunity for the company’s forthcoming centennial or just a way to generate some positive publicity.
After receiving the green light, Bourke and his team, which at that time included Ted Brennan, Don Bruce, John Cuccio, Holden (Bob) Koto, Ed Herman, Vince Gardner, and a little later Bob Andrews, set out to develop a sleek, low-slung coupe influenced by various recent European styling trends. With RLA still busy with their ongoing commitments to Studebaker’s production vehicles, the show car project took place mostly after hours and on weekends.
Although the production car is still often called “the Loewy coupe,” Loewy was actually in Europe during much of its development. His main contributions were to select which of the various competing designs he preferred. Each of Bourke’s team developed their own concept, but the final design was primarily Bourke’s.
RLA originally assumed the coupe would be only a concept car, but a visit from Harold Vance one night while Loewy was out of town suggested to Bourke that it would be prudent to keep the design within the realm of what Studebaker could conceivably produce. He later mentioned that visit to Loewy, who began a lobbying campaign to get Studebaker to consider the coupe as a production model.
A few weeks later, Loewy and Bourke showed off the finished model to Vance, Paul Hoffman, and the Studebaker board along with the models for the other 1953 cars, which borrowed various cues from the coupe. The following morning, Vance called Bourke personally to say the board had decided to build the coupe as a regular 1953 model.
The coupe was an expensive investment for Studebaker. Although it rode the long-wheelbase chassis of the big Land Cruiser sedan, the body was unique, sharing some styling cues with the 1953 sedans, but no common stampings. The coupes also required chassis modifications to ensure adequate headroom beneath the low-slung roof, which was fully 5.5 inches (140 mm) lower than the sedan’s.
There were technically six versions of the coupe. Pillared models, called Starlight, were offered in both six-cylinder Champion and V8-powered Commander forms 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, ranging from $1,868 for the Champion DeLuxe Starlight (about $140 more than a Chevrolet 210 club coupe) to $2,374 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 total sales — and had not allotted enough production capacity to meet the demand. Worse, the stylish coupes dampened any appetite the public might have had for rest of the Studebaker line. Some customers who couldn’t get a coupe simply walked away rather than settle for a sedan.
Buyers who did get their hands on the new coupe were not necessarily impressed. The big Land Cruiser frame was not very rigid, which resulted in a disconcerting amount of chassis flex over large bumps. (Studebaker reinforced the frame for 1954, but its rigidity was still marginal; Bourke ended up beefing up the frame of his own car considerably before it was satisfactory.) Assembly quality was not the best either, so squeaks and rattles were common. Both the body and the frame also proved to be very vulnerable to rust.
Suspension is typical for the period: double wishbones and coils in front, a live axle on leaf springs in back. (Photo: “53 Studebaker Commander” © 2012 Greg Gjerdingen; modified 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
The coupes 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 higher production costs, simply could not afford to respond; each sedan cost hundreds of dollars more to build than GM would have spent on an identical car and the coupes were even costlier. 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: fewer than 80,000 units. The board started looking for partners.