By 1963, Studebaker was already doomed, but its dynamic president, Sherwood Egbert, was not yet ready to admit defeat. Not only did he launch the sporty Avanti, he hired Andy Granatelli to develop a series of hot engines that transformed the humble compact Studebaker Lark into a ferocious — and unlikely — performance car. This is the story of the Lark and Super Lark.
Studebaker has a venerable history: The Studebaker brothers of South Bend, Indiana, began manufacturing wagons in 1852 and the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company sold its first cars in 1902. In 1910, the company bought out Detroit automaker Everitt-Metzger-Flanders (E-M-F), reorganizing the following year as the Studebaker Corporation. Although Studebaker was now firmly in the automobile business, they still produced horse-drawn wagons until after World War I.
Like most automakers, Studebaker fell on hard times during the Great Depression, leading to bankruptcy in 1933 and the suicide of president Albert Erskine. Erskine’s lieutenants Paul Hoffman and Harold Vance managed to revive the company by the late thirties, thanks in large part to the very successful 1939 Studebaker Champion.
Studebaker was, as its advertising proclaimed, the first to introduce an all-new postwar car: the 1947 “coming or going” models designed by Virgil Exner. Under the leadership of Harold Vance, the company had its best-ever sales years in 1949–1950 and did well in the early fifties. Between 1947 and 1953, Vance managed to double Studebaker’s gross sales and earn profits totaling $108 million. Studebaker had a modern V8 engine and automatic transmission in 1951 and in 1953 unveiled the beautiful Starlight and Starliner coupes, styled by the design firm of Raymond Loewy.
Even then, dark clouds were settling in. Studebaker remained undercapitalized and its South Bend factory had been obsolescent even before the war. The company had avoided most the strikes that had often paralyzed other automakers, but its labor costs per car were higher than any rival. Studebaker cars were not exactly over-engineered, but the company spent some 25% more to build each car than it would have cost Chevrolet.
With its higher costs, Studebaker was particularly vulnerable to the vicious price war between Ford and Chevrolet between 1953 and 1956. Determined to claim the No. 1 slot in overall sales, Ford and Chevrolet stepped up production, which led dealers to slash prices — and margins — to the bone just to move the metal. (The aggressive sales push later led to congressional hearings and a federal grand jury investigation of allegations that the automakers had forced dealers to accept extra cars.) Since Studebaker’s margins were already slimmer than Chevrolet’s or Ford’s, Studebaker could not afford to keep up and its sales plummeted. By early 1953, Studebaker was losing $2.5 million a month.
THE PACKARD MERGER
Luxury automaker Packard was also on the skids in the early fifties. The price war had affected Packard almost as badly as it had Studebaker and Hudson and its old rival Cadillac had eclipsed it in sales and prestige. While it had previously been the most elite of American automakers, by 1953, Packard was looking old-fashioned.
Packard management felt that what the company needed was volume. Since the advent of the One-Twenty in 1935, Packard had moved into the near-luxury class then dominated by Buick, but at the cost of much of its former prestige, something new Packard president James Nance was eager to rectify.
Although Studebaker had higher volume, a bigger dealer network, and a lower price point than Packard did, the South Bend firm was not Nance’s first choice. Nance preferred was Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Nash Motors, whose president, George W. Mason, been proposing a merger of the independents since 1946. Nance’s predecessor, Hugh Ferry, had begun negotiations with Mason to create such an alliance, which they hoped would eventually include Packard, Nash, Studebaker, and Hudson.
In January 1954, Nash and Hudson agreed to merge, reforming as the American Motors Corporation in May. For a time, it seemed that Packard might join them, but its board was wary of AMC, recognizing that the new company would end the year deep in the red. In February, the Packard board refused to even hear George Mason’s merger proposal, opting instead to pursue a merger with Studebaker, independent of AMC.
By September, the Packard and Studebaker boards had approved the formation of a new Studebaker-Packard corporation effective October 1. Jim Nance became president of the merged company, with former Studebaker president Paul Hoffman becoming chairman of the new board of directors. Nine days later, George Mason died, leaving his vice president, George Romney, as the president of AMC. Romney and Nance were both relatively young and very ambitious and it quickly became clear that they could not coexist happily. By mid-October, Romney told the press that AMC did not expect any other mergers.
The Studebaker-Packard marriage almost immediately turned sour. In their eagerness, Packard had not requested an independent audit of Studebaker’s books, which proved to be a grievous mistake. Shortly after the merger, Packard finance VP Walter Grant determined that Studebaker’s financial position was far more precarious than they had assumed. Grant estimated Studebaker’s break-even production level not at 165,000 units, as the company’s proxy statement had asserted, but 282,000, a level Studebaker had only reached at its 1950 peak. Studebaker fell well short of even the lower figure for 1954.
That depressing revelation might have given Packard grounds to dissolve the deal (or perhaps even file a false conveyance suit), but by that point, Packard’s own financial situation was precarious and the Packard board believed that the partnership with Studebaker was their only hope for survival. They decided to stay the course.
Even with substantial combined tax credits, Studebaker-Packard lost $26 million for 1954. Nance and Hoffman initiated a painful cost-cutting program, which included the termination of Raymond Loewy’s consulting agreement and the hiring of Lincoln-Mercury designer Bill Schmidt as VP of styling and Ford designer Duncan McRae as Studebaker chief-stylist. Nance and Hoffman also negotiated a new UAW contract, the bitter negotiations for which led to Studebaker’s first really protracted strike. All these moves failed to stem Studebaker-Packard’s losses, which totaled $29.7 million for 1955.
Nance had high hopes for an all-new body planned for the 1957 model year, which was to be shared by both Studebakers and Packards. Unfortunately, the company didn’t have the $50 million needed for tooling and the corporation’s principal backers refused to extend the necessary credit. Two different management consulting firms looked at the Studebaker-Packard’s financial situation and recommended liquidation.
Increasingly desperate, Nance turned to the aviation company Curtiss-Wright, which was then earning formidable profits from its defense contracts. Curtiss-Wright chairman Roy Hurley (a former Ford manufacturing executive) was not interested in a merger, but floated the idea of a management agreement. Hurley offered Studebaker-Packard $10 million for Studebaker’s remaining defense contracts and $25 million for a prepaid rental of company facilities in Michigan and Indiana as well as a three-year agreement for him to manage Studebaker-Packard’s business. In exchange, Curtiss-Wright would receive options to purchase 45% of Studebaker-Packard’s stock for around $40 million less than market value.
It was not a particularly attractive deal for Studebaker-Packard, but Nance had no choice. The company’s 1956 losses ultimately totaled $102.3 million and it was losing 40 to 50 dealer franchises a month. With Hurley’s help, Nance had to tap the last $15.3 million of Packard’s revolving credit lines just to keep the doors open during the negotiations. The Studebaker-Packard board signed the deal in July 1956.
Nance resigned as soon as the deal was signed, joining Ford Motor Company that fall; Paul Hoffman also departed. Hurley named chief engineer Harold Churchill as president with Eugene Hardig taking Churchill’s place as engineering chief.
Packard’s fate was sealed as soon as Nance departed. In retrospect, it probably would have been the easier of the two brands to salvage, but Hurley and the board were counting on Studebaker’s ostensibly greater volume and Packard had lost its engine and transmission plant in the Curtiss-Wright deal. Packard endured two final, ignominious model years as an over-decorated Studebaker and then disappeared for good.
Studebaker’s volume, meanwhile, was sinking rapidly. Its 1958 sales were less than 60,000 units and Studebaker-Packard lost $24.5 million in 1957-58. Studebaker’s major problem, aside from an understandable shortage of public confidence, was that all designers Duncan McCrae and Vince Gardner could afford were increasingly desperate rehashes of the 1953 body shell. It was no longer selling, but Studebaker-Packard could not afford to replace it.
The only upside during this period was that Studebaker-Packard negotiated a deal to become the new U.S. distributor for Mercedes-Benz, succeeding Max Hoffman’s Hoffman Motors in the spring of 1957. There was little financial benefit, since Studebaker-Packard had no real idea how to sell Mercedes cars, but it would prove fortuitous.
THE STUDEBAKER LARK
In 1957, AMC chairman George Romney abandoned the Nash and Hudson brands in favor of the compact Rambler. That fall, with the country slipping into recession, sales of the 1958 Ramblers picked up sharply even as most other car lines took a bath. The market was suddenly shifting toward compacts and economy cars.
Many of Studebaker’s 1957–58 sales were of a stripped-down base model called Scotsman, so Harold Churchill concluded that the new interest in economy cars might represent a viable direction for Studebaker. Using scrap material, Gene Hardig quickly slapped together a crude prototype of a compact sedan — essentially a 1953 Champion body shorn of more than two feet (70 cm) of front and rear overhang. The wheelbase was trimmed to 108.5 inches (2,756 mm), transforming a nominally full-size car into a compact. To complete the picture, Hardig added a wraparound windshield from the 1955 models and various interior pieces from 1956–57 Studebakers. It was an improvisation, but a clever one, producible at very low cost.
Churchill persuaded the board to approve this new compact for the 1959 model year. It was a big gamble: Other than the Studebaker Hawk coupe (itself a derivative of the 1953 Starlight coupe), the move meant the company would no longer have any full-size models. Still, Studebaker had little to lose and a similar strategy seemed to be working for AMC.
Duncan McCrae’s team hastily created a pair of clay models developed by Bill Bonner and Bob Doehler. The design ultimately chosen was Bonner’s, which got some additional styling input from Virgil Exner, Jr., son of the designer of the 1947 Studebaker Starlight. The new compact’s careful agglomeration of existing parts was set off by a new front end with a simple upright grille. Historians typically call it Mercedes-like, but Exner says it was more influenced by his father’s Chrysler show cars of the mid-fifties and Chevrolet’s not-yet-released Corvair, of which the stylists were already aware. The need to keep costs low limited the compact to a very modest level of trim, which made it refreshingly understated by contemporary American standards.
Mechanically, the compact, which the company dubbed the Studebaker Lark, was all too familiar, although Hardig managed to make the shortened Champion frame both stiffer and lighter than before. The standard engine was a heavily revised, 170 cu. in. (2,780 cc) version of Studebaker’s familiar flathead six with 90 hp (67 kW). A 259 cu. in. (4,247 cc) version of the corporate V8 was optional, offering up to 195 gross horsepower (146 kW). The Lark’s handling was nothing special even for the time, but the stubby little car had adequate power and reasonable fuel economy.
The Studebaker Lark was ready in only seven months, going on sale in November 1958 as a 1959 model. Like the original Champion of 20 years earlier, it proved to be the right car at the right time. The press was underwhelmed, but buyers responded with enthusiasm, quickly placing some 30,000 initial orders. Everyone knew that the Big Three were preparing compact cars, but those were still at least a year away. In the meantime, Studebaker and Rambler were in the catbird seat.
Thanks to the Lark, Studebaker’s 1959 volume swelled to 160,826 cars and 10,909 trucks, allowing the company to break even for the first time since the merger. Studebaker-Packard made a profit of $28.5 million that year. With the tax credits accumulated from the previous years’ losses, S-P’s after-tax net profits were the highest in Studebaker history.
Better still, Studebaker-Packard was now free of Curtiss-Wright, thanks in large part to Daimler-Benz. Daimler management was not thrilled with Studebaker-Packard’s efforts to market Mercedes, but they mistrusted Hurley and they concluded that Curtiss-Wright’s continued involvement was not in their long-term interests. In August 1958, Daimler-Benz and Studebaker-Packard persuaded Curtiss-Wright to end its management agreement a year early and relinquish its unexercised stock options. The Studebaker-Packard board also managed to refinance the company’s long-term debt.
Back in the black, free of Hurley’s management, and with nearly 1,000 new dealers, the company’s fortunes looked brighter for 1960.
It was obvious to any informed observer that the Studebaker Lark was at best a stopgap, a temporary reprieve. The designers, in particular, were aware that the Big Three were about to arrive in the compact sector in force. Duncan McCrae pushed strongly to invest the profits from the Lark into an all-new body. When Churchill equivocated, McCrae immediately resigned. Churchill eventually authorized development of two new compacts modeled loosely on the Rambler and Rambler American, but this did not suit the Studebaker-Packard board members, many of whom were coming to the conclusion that the automobile business was a losing proposition.
In 1960, faced with new competition from the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Valiant, Lark sales fell slightly despite new convertible and station wagon models. Studebaker’s total sales, including trucks, dropped to 133,984. (Some cars and trucks, including the Lark, were also produced in CKD kit form for local assembly overseas, at plants in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, South Africa, the Philippines, and Israel, in the former Kaiser-Frazer plant in Haifa.) The company still turned a profit, but it was a meager $708,850.
Churchill wanted to stay in the car business, but the board decided to use the 1959–60 profits to diversify, buying a range of companies like the Gravely lawnmower company and an engine-treatment manufacturer called Chemical Compounds, which made the STP engine treatment. The board ousted Churchill in the fall of 1960 and hired Sherwood Egbert from the McCulloch Corporation to replace him. The new compact-car programs were canceled even though the company had already spent more than $4 million on them.
The diversification proved to be a sensible business decision. Although Studebaker sales fell to 92,434 for 1961, profits from the corporation’s non-automotive subsidiaries put them $2.5 million in the black.
THE EGBERT INITIATIVE
Sherwood Egbert is often described as a sort of industrial version of John F. Kennedy: young, tall, and handsome, a charismatic ex-Marine who had already had an impressive career as executive vice president of the McCulloch Corporation. Egbert knew little about cars, but as soon as he became president of Studebaker-Packard in January 1961, he threw himself into the business with relish.
If the board had expected Egbert to prepare the Studebaker division for a quiet euthanasia, they were sorely mistaken. Egbert’s ignorance of the automotive business gave him a naïve confidence that he could turn the flagging automaker around. His first move was to hire industrial designer Brooks Stevens, with whom he’d worked at McCulloch, to restyle the 1962 cars on a miniscule budget of $7 million. Stevens, taking it as a challenge, came up with an adroit facelift in only six months. Studebaker Lark sales increased by nearly 30,000 units.
Among Stevens’ clever ideas was shifting the four-door Lark sedans to the longer 113-inch (2,870mm) wheelbase previously used only by the station wagons, leaving the two-door models on a slightly longer 109-inch (2,769mm) wheelbase. (GM would later adopt this split-wheelbase strategy for its A-body intermediates.) A new sporty Daytona model, Studebaker’s answer to the popular Corvair Monza and Falcon Futura, joined the Lark line-up that year, as did a plush four-door Cruiser.
Egbert may not have known much about cars, but he liked sports cars — in fact, he owned a gullwing Mercedes 300SL coupe. He decided that the best way to perk up Studebaker’s image was to launch a new high-performance flagship. He hired Raymond Loewy to design one, which emerged as the fiberglass-bodied Studebaker Avanti.
Egbert knew that sporty looks alone would not make the Avanti a sports car; it needed a new image. To solve that problem, Egbert called another contact from his days at McCulloch: Andy Granatelli of Paxton Products, builders of the most popular automotive supercharger of the era.
THE MCCULLOCH SUPERCHARGER
Supercharging is one of the simplest ways to get more power out of an existing engine. Automotive superchargers had been used at least as far back as 1902, although their popularity with manufacturers had waxed and waned. However, they had been popular with the aftermarket since at least the early 1930s.
Back in 1937, Robert Paxton McCulloch’s McCulloch Engineering Company developed a belt-driven centrifugal supercharger for Ford flathead V8s. Although it was moderately popular, selling around 5,000 units, reliability problems led McCulloch to discontinue the street version in 1940, although the company continued to manufacture superchargers for military use during the war.
Bob McCulloch sold his company to Borg-Warner in 1943, but after the war, he established a new McCulloch Motors Corporation, based in Los Angeles. Although the company focused primarily on lawnmower and chainsaw engines, McCulloch continued to develop the supercharger, setting up the Paxton Engineering division to work on that and other experimental projects. In the late forties, Paxton engineer John Oehrli developed a new centrifugal supercharger with an unique ball bearing drive system (a set of hardened steel ball bearings allowed the output shaft — which operated the compressor — to turn 4.4 times faster than the input shaft, which was driven by a belt from the engine). The result, known as the VS57, was offered first as an aftermarket accessory for 1950–1953 Ford V8s and later for a wide range of other engines.
McCulloch was interested in bigger things, so the McCulloch VS57 supercharger got a big push at the Pan American Motorama in late 1953, followed by a lavish presentation to the Society of American Engineers (SAE) in January 1954. Later that month, Kaiser announced that it would offer the supercharger as factory equipment on Kaiser cars. McCulloch went so far as to arrange an hour-long television special about the supercharger on a local L.A. station — partly narrated by Sherwood Egbert, then McCulloch’s vice president. McCulloch subsequently launched the Paxton Products division to market automotive superchargers.
One of Paxton’s earliest customers was none other than Studebaker-Packard, which bought 15,000 superchargers for the Packard Hawk coupe in 1957. (Ford also purchased a small number of Paxton-McCulloch VR57 variable-ratio superchargers for NASCAR homologation, which were installed in a few hundred “F-code” Thunderbirds and other Ford models.)
Unfortunately, the VS57’s reliability was not as impressive as its performance, due in part to quality-control problems with the ball bearing drive system and in part to the fact that the blower required more maintenance than most owners bothered to give it. Those problems soon soured Detroit on factory supercharging, although the VS57 remained a popular aftermarket item. It also saw a fair amount of racing use, although NASCAR banned supercharging in April 1957.
In 1957, racing impresario and hot rodder Anthony (Andy) Granatelli and his brothers moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and began working with Paxton chief engineer John Thompson to resolve the McCulloch supercharger’s reliability problems. By then, the company was losing faith with the Paxton division, which had lost more than $400,000 in 1957, due mostly to high warranty costs. Granatelli bought the division from McCulloch in June 1958. He and his brothers Joe and Vince helped to develop a new series of improved SN (“Short Nose”) superchargers, which again became popular with amateur and professional racers.
Sherwood Egbert had worked with Andy Granatelli at McCulloch and had been impressed with Granatelli’s engineering acumen and business savvy. In March 1962, Egbert arranged for Studebaker to buy Paxton Products and with it the services of the Granatelli brothers. The morning after the deal was signed, Egbert called Granatelli at 4 a.m. and began laying out his ambitious goals for Studebaker performance. Granatelli and Gene Hardig immediately got to work hot-rodding the Studebaker V8 for the Avanti, using every trick in Granatelli’s voluminous book.
Studebaker’s V8, introduced back in 1951, was heavy by contemporary standards and had a reputation for excessive oil consumption, but it was a sturdy and generally reliable engine. Hardig had already developed a hotter R1 version (later advertised as “R1 Jet Thrust”) with 10.25:1 compression and various changes to its oiling system, ignition, timing gear, and breathing. This was somewhat more powerful than the regular 289 “Powerpak” engine already optional on the Studebaker Lark, which made 225 gross horsepower (168 kW). There was also the R2 (advertised as “R2 Super Jet Thrust”), which had different heads with 9.0:1 compression and a Paxton SN-60 supercharger making up to 6 pounds (0.41 bars) of boost.
Hardig and Granatelli subsequently developed R3, R4, and R5 versions, which were assembled mostly by hand in the Granatelli brothers’ Los Angeles workshop. Each used specially selected blocks, carefully bored out to 304.5 cu. in. (4,990 cc). The R3 was supercharged like the R2, but had a new aluminum intake manifold with no heat riser, low-restriction exhaust headers, 9.75:1 compression, and a hotter camshaft. The R4 was similar, but was normally aspirated with dual four-barrel carburetors and a 12.0:1 compression ratio. The experimental R5, never seriously intended for production, had dual superchargers and Bendix fuel injection. Only 120 to 125 R3 and R4 engines were built and only a handful went into production cars.
You’ll notice that we haven’t quoted any horsepower numbers for these cars. When Studebaker introduced the R1 and R2 engines, their power and torque outputs were left blank on the official specifications table. The likely reason was that those figures weren’t very impressive compared to the Avanti’s principal competitors, particularly the Corvette, whose top engine was rated at 360 gross horsepower (269 kW). Finally, very late in 1963 (well into the 1964 model year), Studebaker belatedly announced ratings of 240 gross horsepower (179 kW) for the R1, 289 hp (216 kW) for the R2, 335 hp (250 kW) for the R3, and 280 hp (209 kW) for the R4.
Although intended for the Avanti, the point of the exercise was to add luster to the entire Studebaker line. Therefore, when the R1 and R2 engines debuted, they became optional on the Studebaker Lark and GT Hawk, priced at $210 for the R1 and $372 for the R2. (The R3, which also included extensive chassis modifications, cost over $1,000, part of the reason it was rarely ordered.) Buyers could also specify heavy-duty suspension, a tachometer, and a new Studebaker option: front disc brakes. Made by Bendix under license from Lockheed, these brakes were functionally identical to those of contemporary Jaguars. At the time, no other U.S. manufacturer offered discs; even the Corvette wouldn’t get them until 1965.
Unlike most of its compact brethren, the Studebaker Lark had been available with a V8 from the start — the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, and Dodge Dart wouldn’t have a V8 until 1963. Since 1962, the Lark had also beeen available with a four-speed transmission, the same Borg-Warner T-10 found in contemporary Corvettes. A Lark with the non-R-series 289 (4,737 cc) engine and four-speed was already fairly quick. With the R1 or R2, it became something else entirely.
STUDEBAKER SUPER LARK
Studebaker initially did not promote the availability of the Jet Thrust engines in the Lark. Unless a buyer carefully perused the catalog, those options were easy to miss. Studebaker’s reluctance to promote the R1 and R2 engines in the regular cars may have been out of a fear of overshadowing the Avanti, which was off to a very slow start. The fiberglass coupe had been announced in May 1962, but production issues had delayed its actual introduction and eventual sales were slow. Part of the problem was that in recent years, Studebaker dealers had made their living selling economy cars, not sporty performance, and few salesmen really understood or even cared about the Avanti or the hot engines.
In March 1963, Andy Granatelli took a couple of R2-equipped Studebaker Larks, GT Hawks, and Avantis to the Bonneville Salt Flats for speed trials. A supercharged Lark with a 3.31 axle reached a top speed of 132 mph (213 km/h), an impressive performance for any stock sedan of the time.
In April, Studebaker belatedly introduced a special performance package for the Lark, naturally called Super Lark. It was not a separate model, but an option package available on any Studebaker Lark. (A similar package was offered for the Hawk.) It included either the R1 or R2 engine, a Dana 44 limited-slip rear axle (which Studebaker called Twin-Traction), front disc brakes, a new gauge cluster with a tachometer, and the heavy-duty suspension package developed for the Avanti, with front and rear anti-roll bars and trailing links to supplement the standard rear leaf springs. The total package was not cheap — the R2 package cost $680.02 on a Custom sedan like our photo subject, which didn’t include the four-speed manual, an extra $188.30 — but it made the Lark a fearsome performer. The Lark’s handling still left much to be desired even with the heavy-duty suspension, but only a handful of street cars could match its straight-line speed. A four-speed Super Lark R2 was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 7 seconds and the quarter mile (402 meters) in the 15-second range despite an obstructive shift linkage. Even with the optional “Powrshift” Borg-Warner automatic, Car Life clocked a supercharged Lark Daytona at 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 7.8 seconds and ran the standing quarter in 16.2 seconds at 87 mph (140 km/h). Inevitably, a Lark so equipped was no longer an economy car; Motor Trend‘s R2 Super Lark averaged a mediocre 13 mpg (18 L /100 km).
The lack of factory horsepower ratings kept the Super Lark out of the NHRA’s drag-racing stock classes, which were based on advertised horsepower and shipping weight. It’s unclear if that was intentional, but it probably robbed Studebaker of a certain amount of publicity.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
The company could have used the good press because sales of the Studebaker Lark dropped to 74,201 for 1963, down nearly 20,000 units from 1962. Lark buyers were apparently unimpressed by the Super Lark. They bought Larks because they were economical and relatively cheap, not for their performance. (Much the same was true of the Big Three compacts. As popular as the sporty-looking Ford Falcon Futura was, for example, the V8-powered Futura Sprint was a flop and only about 25% of Valiant and Dart buyers opted for a V8.) Former Studebaker employee Fred Bartz recalls that dealers had a great deal of trouble selling the supercharged cars even when they bothered to order them. The Studebaker Avanti, meanwhile, had turned out to be an expensive sales disaster, selling only 4,643 units in two model years.
The 1964 Lark wasn’t looking any more promising despite another Brooks Stevens facelift that made it look rather like a Lancia Fulvia Berlina. Studebaker’s automotive division lost over $25 million in 1963. Even with the profits from the other divisions, it still added up to a $16.9 million net loss.
Sherwood Egbert was by then a very sick man. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and while he tried to work through it, he was repeatedly hospitalized. In November 1963, Studebaker announced that he was on an indefinite medical leave of absence, convalescing in Palm Springs.
In his place, the board appointed finance VP Byers Burlingame, a former Packard exec. Burlingame made a last-ditch attempt to obtain financing for new models, but without success. Barely a month after Egbert’s departure, Studebaker shut down production in South Bend.
That might have been the end of the line, but Gordon Grundy, head of Studebaker’s Canadian operation, pointed out that the factory in Hamilton, Ontario, which was Studebaker’s most modern plant, could continue to produce an existing design with a break-even level of only 20,000 units per year. Production tooling for the Studebaker Lark was transferred to Hamilton, although the Hawk and Avanti were dropped, as were Studebaker’s trucks. Studebaker engines were retained for the rest of the 1964 model year, but after that, the company opted to purchase sixes and V8s from Chevrolet.
Historian Rich Taylor later alleged (in a retrospective in Special Interest Autos #25) that the move to Canada was not a serious attempt to continue production, but rather a way to avoid paying franchise termination fees to Studebaker dealers. That theory would not explain why the company continued to pursue additional distribution deals with foreign automakers (including Datsun, Toyota, and Isuzu) or why Studebaker hired Bob Marcks, an ex-Loewy designer, to perform one last facelift for the remaining 1966 Studebaker models. Since Studebaker lost more than $80 million in 1964, including charge-offs for shutting down the South Bend factory, they didn’t have the capital to do much else.
In any case, even the Hamilton factory couldn’t make the Studebaker — no longer called Lark — a viable product. Sales for 1965 were 19,435, followed by only 8,947 cars for the 1966 model year. Production ended in March 1966, although local assembly in some countries (from CKD kits produced in either South Bend or Hamilton) may have continued for a while after that. One source suggests that the last Israeli-built Larks, built in the former Kaiser-Eilin plant in Haifa, weren’t completed until 1967.
Although Studebaker was out of the automobile business, the company survived, becoming Studebaker-Worthington in 1967. Several of its subsidiaries became very successful, particularly Chemical Compounds, which Andy Granatelli took over late in 1963 and later renamed STP. Studebaker’s last corporate remnant was the Studebaker-Worthington Leasing Company, a subsidiary of State Bank of Long Island, which was bought by Main Street Bank of Texas in 2008.
At the Chicago Auto Show in 2003, the Avanti Motor Corporation announced it would revive the Studebaker name for an SUV, the Avanti Studebaker XUV, but nothing game of it. As of this writing, Michael Kelly, the company’s former owner, is awaiting trial on mail-fraud charges and Avanti apparently stopped producing cars in 2007. As for Paxton, the company, still run by Joe and Vince Granatelli after Andy’s departure, spun off from Studebaker-Worthington in 1974. It briefly dropped its automotive superchargers to focus on industrial applications, but continued to support the older superchargers and returned to the automotive market in 1979. Paxton merged with Vortec in 2001, selling the manufacturing rights to the SN superchargers to Craig Conley’s Paradise Wheels.
Other than the Avanti, which enjoyed a strange second life (as we’ve previously recounted), Studebaker is little remembered today, except perhaps in South Bend, Indiana, which naturally still maintains a Studebaker museum. Nearly 564,000 Studebaker Larks were built in all — though not all of them used the Lark name — but they have become a rare sight today, particularly a supercharged Super Lark like our photo car. We have found no production figures for the R2 Larks, but we have heard estimates as low as 200 and even the most generous guess is not more than a few hundred. According to one source, only one R3 and one R4 Lark were ever built.
We have a particular affection for the Super Lark. With the complete high-performance package, it was essentially an Avanti clad in an unassuming sedan body. Nobody is going to call a Studebaker Lark a sexy car, even compared to the Falcon or Valiant, but it hasn’t been tarnished by aesthetically dubious latter-day knockoffs the way its Avanti sister has. Mechanically, the Lark is a bit crude — its platform and suspension were already dated in 1963 — but that’s part of its charm. It’s a Q-ship, a mean little sleeper capable of embarrassing many faster-looking cars.
Very little would have saved Studebaker by the time the Super Lark was conceived. Even if the Avanti, Super Hawk, and Super Lark had been great successes, we see no way the automaker could have survived much longer than it did. The Avanti and the Jet Thrust cars were a sort of desperate automotive Alamo, driven as much by Egbert’s irrepressible (if groundless) optimism as any coherent strategy. Nonetheless, there’s certainly something to be said for going out in a blaze of glory.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our principal sources on the downfall of Studebaker and the origins of the Lark included Thomas Bonsall, More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story (Chicago, IL: Stanford University Press, 2000); Rich Taylor, “Variations on a Soaring Theme” and “How Studebaker Came Not to Be,” Special Interest Autos #25 (November-December 1974); Fred Fox, “1963 R2 Lark: Studebaker’s Supercharged Sleeper,” Special Interest Autos #57 (June 1980); Ken Gross, “1960 Lark Convertible: How Studebaker beat the Big Three to the compact punch,” Special Interest Autos #42 (November-December 1977). We also consulted the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “PERSONNEL: Changes of the Week,” TIME 25 October 1954, www.time. com, accessed 26 December 2009; André Ritizinger, “Studebaker 1963 range,” RitzSite, n.d., ritzsite. nl/ 63Stude/01_63stude.htm, accessed 30 August 2009; and James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).
We also consulted the road tests “Studebaker Lark Daytona R2,” Car Life June 1963, and Jim Wright, “1964 Studebaker Super Lark,” Motor Trend December 1963, reprinted in Studebaker Hawks & Larks Limited Edition Premier, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2008).
Details on the rare R3 engine came from Fred Fox’s article “Six Week Wonder: 1963 Studebaker Avanti,” Special Interest Autos #32 (January-February 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Craig Fitzgerald, “South Bend Stealth,” Hemmings Muscle Machines August 2004; and Daniel Strohl, “Flying Tomato,” Hemmings Muscle Machines August 2007. Andy Granatelli’s witty account of his involvement with Studebaker can be found in his memoir, They Call Me Mister 500 (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1969).
Additional Avanti data came from Matthew Chess’s Avanti Source Home Page, avantisource. com/ history.html, accessed 9 June 2008; the Avanti Motors company website, Avanti Motors, 27 October 2006, www.avantimotors. com, accessed 10 June 2008; and Leslie Clark Stipek, “About Michael Eugene Kelly,” www.lesliestipek. com/michaelekelly.asp, 9 May 2008, accessed 9 June 2008.
We subsequently did additional research into Studebaker’s export business (which included CKD assembly operations in at least six countries), consulting Jim Donnelly, “Clearing the Record,” Hemmings Classic Car December 2007, and “Vanished in Haifa,” Hemmings Classic Car July 2007,; Patrick Foster, “Could Studebaker Have Survived?” Hemmings Classic Car January 2007; “Israel to Assemble 5.000 Studebaker Cars a Year; Some for Export,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency 9 March 1960, archive.jta. org, accessed 6 September 2011; “Studebaker South Africa,” Bob’s Studebaker Resource Website, 2011, www.studebaker-info. org/Dealers/ studeSA.html, accessed 6 September 2011; the Studebaker page at Coche Argentino, www.cocheargentino. com.ar/s/ studebaker.htm, accessed 6 September 2011; and comments by Milaca, Jim Quigley, NZ George, et al (which reference an article in the September 1993 issue of Turning Wheels, to which we did not have access) at the Studebaker Drivers Club forum, 26-31 May 2010, forum.studebakerdriversclub. com/ archive/index.php?t-41108.html, accessed 6 September 2011. Special thanks to Ronnie Schreiber of Cars in Depth for bringing the Israeli-built Lark to our attention. Ronnie wrote his own article on those cars, “No, the Last Studebaker Ever Did Not Roll Off the Lines in Canada. The Last Stude Had an Israeli Accent,” on 10 August 2011 (www.rokemneedlearts. com/ carsindepth/wordpressblog/?p=3630, accessed 6 September 2011).
This article’s title was suggested by the 1903 George Bernard Shaw play Man and Superman.