James Nance, who had become president of Packard in 1952, was in a comparable position. Packard was healthier than Studebaker was, but its profits and market position were slipping in a similar way for similar reasons. Even before becoming head of Packard, Nance had talked extensively with Nash’s George Mason about forming a conglomerate of the leading independent automakers — something that was beginning to look like the independents’ only hope of survival.
In early 1954, Nash merged with ailing Hudson to form American Motors. Although Nance had had discussions with Mason about joining Packard with AMC, Packard’s board instead set its sights on Studebaker, which it judged to have stronger prospects. Even before opening negotiations for a merger, Packard was exploring the possibility of a shared-body program that would allow Studebaker and Packard to share common stampings the way GM’s divisions did. By February 1954, the Packard board had snubbed Mason and the Lehman Brothers investment firm was acting as matchmaker in a union of Packard and Studebaker.
Packard and Studebaker stockholders approved the merger in September, so effective October 1, the two companies became the Studebaker-Packard Corporation, with Jim Nance as president. Talks with AMC continued, but the death that fall of George Mason ended any remaining possibility of Studebaker-Packard joining AMC; with Mason gone, neither Nance nor Romney was amenable to any merger that would leave the other in charge.
That winter, Nance and Packard finance VP Walter Grant took a hard look at Studebaker’s operations and found that the company was in far worse financial shape than the optimistic figures presented during the merger negotiations had suggested. By Grant’s estimates, Studebaker had actually been operating below its break-even point even in its last good years and was now losing money at a frightening rate.
Nance immediately looked for ways to economize. One of those moves was the termination of Studebaker’s consulting agreement with Raymond Loewy. Nance did not care for Loewy’s work, even the Starliner coupe, but the more significant point was that Studebaker was paying RLA about $1 million a year at that point, which Nance thought was excessive. It wasn’t really, considering the number of people Loewy had working on the Studebaker account (about 40) and the volume of work they were doing, but it was money Studebaker-Packard could ill afford. Nance told Loewy to wrap up their work, which included a facelift for the 1955 Studebakers, and turn over design duties to a new in-house department led by Bill Schmidt.
BIRTH OF THE STUDEBAKER HAWK
Jim Nance knew that both Studebaker and Packard desperately needed all-new bodies to have any chance of competing in the marketplace, but paying for them was another matter. Studebaker-Packard posted an after-tax loss of $26.2 million for 1954 and its creditors were wary. Nance paid Vince Gardner (who had left RLA to start his own firm) $7,500 to facelift the 1956 Studebaker sedans while Nance tried to raise enough money to finance new 1957 models.
The coupes were a greater challenge. Nance was eager to get rid of the Loewy coupe, whose body was expensive to build, but the Starliner was Studebaker’s only hardtop and the sales organization was reluctant to relinquish it. There was no affordable way to make hardtops of the facelifted sedans, which hadn’t been designed for that, and since Studebaker no longer offered a convertible, they couldn’t simply add a fixed roof to a ragtop body. It would have to be the Starliner or nothing.
Meanwhile, Studebaker-Packard had been busy rolling out Packard’s first V8 engine, along with a re-engineered Ultramatic transmission. Nance had previously made a deal with American Motors for AMC to underwrite part of the development costs of the new engine and then buy Packard V8s and automatic transmissions for the big Nash and Hudson lines. However, that deal collapsed by mid-1955, apparently due to the ongoing rancor between Nance and Romney. To make up for that loss, Nance decided to use the Packard engine and Ultramatic in a new flagship Studebaker, which was envisioned as a rival for the new Chrysler 300, Plymouth Fury, and Ford Thunderbird. (If Studebaker had been able to launch its all-new sedans for 1956, as originally planned, those would have used the Packard engine as well.)
This flagship became RLA’s final Studebaker project. Seeing no affordable alternative, Nance asked Loewy and Bourke if they could update the Starliner one more time. It was a difficult assignment both because of the very limited budget and because of demands from sales VP Ken Elliott, who wanted yet more chrome (on top of the slathering already added for 1955), side trim that would facilitate trendy two-tone paint jobs, and — to Bourke’s great exasperation — tail fins.
Bourke and his team gritted their teeth and complied, adding a new hood with a stand-up grille, squaring off the rear deck, and giving the new top-of-the-line model small bolt-on plastic fins. There was also a revamped interior along the lines of the previous year’s Presidential Speedster, which had featured full instrumentation on an engine-turned metal panel.
To support the pretense that the restyled coupes were all new, they were renamed Hawk. There were now four models: the six-cylinder pillared Flight Hawk; the base V8 Power Hawk; the upper-series Sky Hawk; and the top-of-the-line hardtop, the Golden Hawk. Except for the Golden Hawk, the new coupes were little changed mechanically. The Golden Hawk, however, had Packard’s Twin Ultramatic transmission and 352 cu. in. (5,766 cc) V8 with 275 gross horsepower (206 kW). Combined with its tail fins, plastic side spear, and higher standard of trim, it came closest to being a new car, although it was still the same 1953 Starliner body underneath. The big engine gave it strong performance — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds and a top speed of 117 mph (189 km/h) — although the car’s nose-heaviness and strong low-end torque made it easy to overload the rear tires in hard acceleration.
Studebaker sold almost 20,000 Hawks in 1956, accounting for about a quarter of the company’s dismal total volume. The company’s fortunes were still deteriorating and rumors were flying that Studebaker-Packard was not long for the world. Studebaker’s sedans had not been startlingly competitive back in 1953 and the mildly facelifted ’56s looked and felt very dated next to newer rivals. Even the coupes looked awfully familiar and their prices were none too enticing. The Golden Hawk, for instance, was within $100 of a Chrysler Windsor hardtop and about $100 more than a Buick Century Riviera; both rivals had a far more upscale image than did the Studebaker.
THE PACKARD HAWK
In January 1956, Studebaker-Packard’s principal financiers flatly refused Jim Nance’s request for a $50 million long-term loan to fund future tooling and operating expenses. That refusal meant Studebaker-Packard was living on borrowed time. Unless the company could find another partner, it was doomed.
The Studebaker-Packard board spent the spring frantically courting potential buyers. Talks with Chrysler and Ford came to nothing and George Romney refused a merger with AMC. The board finally negotiated a management agreement with Roy Hurley, president of the aviation company Curtiss-Wright, giving Hurley operational control over the company in exchange for S-P’s remaining defense business (which was spun off into a separate company called Utica Bend) and promises from the Defense Department of more government contracts. It was not a great deal for Studebaker-Packard, but it provided enough cash to keep the doors open.
Nance resigned after the deal was signed in early August and Studebaker chief engineer Harold Churchill took over as Studebaker-Packard’s president. The board had already decided to consolidate all production at Studebaker in South Bend; production at Studebaker’s facilities in Detroit had ceased in late June. Ironically, Packard had originally been the stronger partner, but Studebaker’s losses became a black hole it could not escape.
The Studebaker Hawk continued into the 1957 model year, but the model line was greatly simplified, leaving the Golden Hawk and a new pillared Silver Hawk. Since Studebaker-Packard gave up its Utica factory as part of the Curtiss-Wright deal, the 352 cu. in. (5,766 cc) Packard engine and Ultramatic were gone, so the Golden Hawk was now powered by Studebaker’s 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) engine, fortified with a McCulloch supercharger. It claimed the same 275 gross horsepower (206 kW) as the departed Packard engine, but it was more expensive, which raised the price of the 1957 Golden Hawk by $121.
Despite Studebaker-Packard’s financial crisis, Hawk sales were little changed in 1957, still hovering under 20,000 units. The Silver Hawk and Golden Hawk soldiered on into 1958, now joined by a new Packard version, called simply Packard Hawk.
The Packard marque had only barely survived the end of production in Detroit. There were initially no solid plans to continue it until Harold Churchill discovered that it would only cost about $1 million to create a Packard-like sedan using a Studebaker body and chassis. In 1957, the “Packard-baker” had only been available as a four-door sedan and wagon; the Packard Hawk coupe was not launched until 1958.
The Packard Hawk was originally created as a one-off for Roy Hurley. With the management agreement between Studebaker-Packard and Curtiss-Wright, Hurley had become a frequent visitor to the South Bend offices. On one visit to the styling studio, Hurley asked Studebaker chief stylist Duncan McRae, who had replaced Bill Schmidt a year earlier, to build him a car that looked like an Allemano-styled Maserati 3500 GT he had seen on a recent trip to Europe. It was a pointless indulgence for a company on the brink of collapse, but the board could not afford to antagonize Hurley, so they raised no objection.
The car McRae created for Hurley was basically a Golden Hawk that had been heavily customized in an effort to emulate the Maserati’s styling cues on the existing body shell. McRae and his team added a bolt-on fiberglass nose with a fish-mouthed grille and Cadillac-like bumper overriders along with a fake spare tire bulge in the rear deck like that of the contemporary Imperial. Hurley’s car also had a lavishly trimmed interior with real leather upholstery.
Like its 1953 ancestor, the Packard Hawk was never intended as a production car, but someone — perhaps Hurley, perhaps the board — decided it would be a logical way to fill out the now Studebaker-based Packard line. It went on sale for the 1958 model year with a wince-inducing price tag of $3,995, $364 more than either a Corvette or a Thunderbird hardtop.
If the Hawk was supposed to add luster to the dying Packard brand, it failed miserably. Sales totaled only 588 cars and Studebaker-Packard almost certainly lost whatever modest sum they’d spent to produce and market it. Even if it hadn’t looked like a mutant catfish, the Hawk was too expensive to sell in meaningful numbers and the Packard-bakers had robbed the Packard marque of whatever credibility it had left. The coupe died with the Packard nameplate at the end of the model year.
The Golden Hawk did little better. Sales fell from around 4,300 in 1957 to fewer than 900 for 1958. Silver Hawk sales, meanwhile, fell to around 7,300, half of the 1957 tally. The recession that began just before the ’58 cars went on sale didn’t help, but the bigger problem was again price. A fully equipped Golden Hawk ran to around $3,500 and buyers with that kind of money were not inclined to spend it on a Studebaker, especially with the company’s future in such doubt.
Even before the demise of the Packard Hawk, Harold Churchill was working on transforming Studebaker’s 1953-vintage sedans into the compact Lark, which went on sale for the 1959 model year. Like Jim Nance in 1955, Churchill initially wanted to kill the Studebaker Hawk, betting everything on the new Lark. Since the Lark lineup would finally include a hardtop model, the Hawk had served its original purpose and it was still too expensive to sell well.
Churchill’s arguments were logical, but the sales force balked. By American standards, the new Lark was a very small car and the sales organization feared that having no full-sized models in the showroom would be a disaster. The tenacity with which they clung to such a moribund model speaks volumes about Studebaker’s desperation at that point. The sales force was reluctant to give up anything that was selling, however poorly.
Churchill eventually relented, granting the coupe a second reprieve. The slow-selling Golden Hawk was canceled, leaving only the pillared Silver Hawk in six-cylinder and V8 forms. Sales fell to 7,888 units. In 1960, the Silver Hawk was renamed “Hawk” and the six-cylinder version was dropped, leaving a single model with tidied-up styling and the 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) V8. Sales continued to decline each year, falling to 4,507 in 1960 and 3,929 for 1961. The Lark had been quite successful, so the salespeople no longer needed the big coupe as a fallback plan. It appeared that the Hawk had outlived its usefulness.