THE FIVE STUDEBAKER brothers were blacksmiths and wagon builders when they founded the company in 1852, and many a 19th Century pioneer crossed the Great Plains in a Studebaker-manufactured horse-drawn wagon known as a ‘prairie schooner’. It wasn’t until 1902 that the company leapt into the newfangled automotive world, initially building electric cars and lorries. Within a decade, however, they were focusing on the petrol-powered cars that became Studebaker’s staple.
The Studebaker National Museum honours the company’s heritage in its former main manufacturing hub of South Bend, Indiana. It sprawls over three storeys, displaying a rotating assortment of about 70 vehicles drawn from the 120-strong collection. Permanent exhibits include the Presidential Carriage Collection – including the one that took Abraham Lincoln on his fateful final journey to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC – and the Military Collection.
But most of the floor space is set aside for celebrating Studebaker’s motoring heritage, such as the 1928 Studebaker Commander, which set endurance and speed records when it was driven for 25,000 miles in 23,000 minutes, averaging 65mph. Touch-screens allow visitors to view even more information about Studebaker’s motoring heritage.
Rarities include a one-of-five 1932 President St Regis Brougham, while a 1933 Rockne is a vestige of a subsidiary company named after American football coach Knute Rockne, from the nearby University of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Rockne died in a plane crash before the car was introduced and it was in production for only two years.
The wood-sided 1947 Champion Deluxe estate was dropped before production started so the prototype had been discarded long before its 18-year restoration, which was completed in 2012. Meanwhile, Robert Bourke’s 1953 Champion Starliner was heralded on the cover of TIME magazine, and showcased at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
A 1950 Commander Starlight Coupe has the bullet nose that briefly became Studebaker’s signature and also starred in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, when Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear went on a road trip in it. The actual prop car sits in the cellar of the museum, in the Visible Storage System area where dozens of unusual Studebakers are displayed. They include a 1963 truck prototype that used flat sheet metal and glass components to create an inexpensive, if boxy, small lorry, and a 1936 Studebaker Ace, its first cab-forward delivery lorry, which increased manouevrability in tight urban settings.
The late 1950s and early 1960s spawned some revolutionary concepts and prototypes in the hope of future-proofing the company. The Astral looks as though it was the inspiration for the bubble-top flying cars in The Jetsons, while Raymond Loewy’s 1962 notchback prototype sedan was built by Pichon-Parat in Paris. Brooks Stevens’ aerodynamic 1962 Sceptre prototype has Sylvania tubular headlights and tail-lights that stretch the width of the car. Built by Sibona-Bassano in Turin, Italy, it could easily have driven off the set of Moonraker.
One edgy design that did make it into production in Studebaker’s waning years was the Loewy-designed Avanti. Introduced in 1962, the four-seater sports car boasted a profile that was so quirky it was the favourite boyhood car of rocker Alice Cooper. According to Cooper, who now owns one: ‘People hated how the car looked but I liked it because it’s got this asymmetrical body and was just the weirdest car. When it came out, I was 15 and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.’
A 1963 Avanti that is on view, powered by a 411bhp V8 motor, reached 170.81mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963. The name Avanti may mean ‘forward’ in Italian, but it represented the end of innovation by Studebaker.
The literal end of the line for Studebaker is represented by the 1964 Daytona Hardtop. It was the last US-built Studebaker (production continued in Canada through 1966), rolling off the line on the plant’s final day, 20 December 1963. It was sold to a customer in Pennsylvania but the company switched the cars so it could hold onto the historic final vehicle. There are only 24 miles on the odometer.
STUDEBAKER NATIONAL MUSEUM, 201 Chapin Street, South Bend, Indiana 46601, USA. Open all year round, 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday and midday to 5pm on Sundays. Adult admission $11. See studebakermuseum.org.