The History of the Studebaker Automobile

by Steve Dearborn

Like most reading this article, over the years, the automotive industry has played an important and influential role in my life. As a youth, I was always excited when new automobiles made their debut and I experienced seeing my first new model, whatever brand it was. The industry paraded the new autos and I quickly learned the names of most models easily. Names such as Thunderbird, Corvette, New Yorker, Beetle and Champion helped make it easier to remember the wide variety of designs that were popping up every year.

Each manufacturer made an impression on me. I remember how they brought out the wrap-around windshields, the dynamic tail fins, and loads and loads of chrome. It seemed every model had some kind of particular design feature that stuck in my mind helping my identification process but I was really impressed by the bullet nose introduced on the 1950 Studebakers. Not only was the bullet nose a dramatic design at the time but the racy lines and the rear wrap-around windows made the Studebaker a real winner in my eyes.

At one point when Studebaker was losing money, Packard bought the company out and it became known as Studebaker-Packard.

In addition, a new dynamic Studebaker sports model called the Avanti caught the attention of car enthusiasts. I thought this car would really bring Studebaker to the forefront in the car manufacturing world and in some ways it did. But Studebaker did not sell enough cars, especially the Avanti, and before long, both the Studebaker and the Packard were somethng from the past.

Neither the Studebaker nor the Packard company exist in the world of automotive manufacturing, but the designs brought out by Studebaker are not forgotten and the history of the Studebaker family and business is still a gripping story.

The Staudenbecker family originated in the Ruhr Valley region of Germany. Two brothers, Peder and Clemens Staudenbecker, wanted to leave this area possibly because of tax and religious rules; however, they were in a trades guild at the time and in order to leave Germany, they were required to move to another community and work for five years in some other field of labour. This was required because it was thought to cut down on trade "secrets" being taken out of the country. Once the five years was expired, Peder, Clemens, and a cousin, Heinrich, along with their families emigrated to America in 1736. It was somewhere during this emigration process that the name "Staudenbecker" became recorded as "Studebaker".

The families landed in Pennsylvania and began farming. Over the next few years, they communicated home that people could make a living in the new world if they worked hard. They expressed their respect for the "wild Indians" but conveyed their disapproval for the practice of importing African slaves. As time passed, however, the French began riling up Indian bands against the English settlers. In 1756, Heinrich and his wife and a child were killed by Indians. Over the next two decades, the remaining Studebakers and their family offspring won respect in the region and were known for their dedicated work as blacksmiths and woodworkers.

There is a conflict in records regarding who fathered John Clement Studebaker, born February 8, 1799 in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Skilled as a blacksmith and wagon-maker, John Clement Studebaker went on to sire five sons: Henry, Clement, John M., Peter, and Jacob in chronological order. The brothers also had five sisters. Their mother was the former Rebecca Mohler.

The Studebaker Brothers

Photo of the Studebaker Brothers

Front Row: Clem, Henry, John M.

Back Row: Peter, Jacob

In the 1830's, the father John C. set up a blacksmith and wagon maker business in what is now called Gettysburg. Although work was substantial, and John C. built up his reputation as a skilled worker, he was not a born businessman. He tended to be very charitable to others and gave credit to people who could not or did not pay him back. Within a few years, he had to sell his business holdings but not before he taught all his sons the art of blacksmithing and wagon building. He decided with the help of his sons to build a covered wagon, called the Conestoga Wagon, and move the family to Ashland, Ohio. He purchased a farm and a mill but found his creditors followed him from Gettysburg and he ended up having to mortgage his farm to pay debts.

Conestoga Wagon Picture
Conestoga Wagon

John C. then pondered the thought of moving further west. He eventually moved his family again to South Bend, Indiana, using the same covered wagon he had used in the move to Ohio. At South Bend, two of the brothers, Henry and Clement set up a wagon-making business of their own, H&C Studebaker, in February, 1852, with limited success at first. A third brother, John Mohler, or "J.M." as he was called, decided to venture to California and seek his fortune in gold mining. After he arrived in 1853, he had but 50 cents to his name, so he made use of an opportunity to become a wagon-maker working with a local blacksmith. Instead of building wagons, however, the region actually needed wheelbarrows and over the next five years he plied his trade to the point he saved up $8000, a substantial sum in those days. J.M., or "Wheelbarrow Johny" as he became known, then decided to move back to South Bend and put money into the brothers wagon business which had a need for further help in building wagons. The military had contracted wagons because of the Civil War. It helped too that another Studebaker brother, Peter, set up a store in Goshen, Indiana, that served as a wagon distribution outlet.

Because of religion, Henry was against wars and wanted to farm so J.M. bought his share of the business. In 1868, the brothers Peter, Clem, and John M. set up a new firm called the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company. Because of western expansion and military requirements, business flourished and the Studebaker wagons were considered by many as the best. The youngest brother, Jacob, joined the business two years later to look after the carriage factory. As with most businesses, the Studebaker brothers faced drawbacks such as devastating fires in 1872 and 1874 which destroyed all or part of the Studebaker factories but nevertheless had the problems under control in short time. Their annual sales in 1877 exceeded a million dollars and they were seeking to open new business in Europe.

In 1891 a notable lawyer, Fred Fish, married into the family and soon became an important cog in the Studebaker business. The late 1890's saw the advent of paved roads and Fish suggested they look into what were called "horseless carriages". The company opted in 1902 to manufacture electric vehicles over gasoline-driven means of transportation and the Studebaker Electrics such as the Runabout were built up until 1911. Fish became the chairman of the executive committee for Studebaker and, with insight into the future, made deals with two makers of gasoline vehicles in 1904, Garford of Ohio, and EMF of Detroit and Walkerville, Ontario, so that this aspect of horseless carriage manufacturing was not overlooked. Also in 1911, the company was designated to be called Studebaker Corporation and the name "horseless carriages" had become better known as automobiles. Studebaker's decision to embrace the automobile industry proved to be a good one as sales increased from $3.6 million in 1901 to $43.4 million in 1914.

Studebaker South Bend Factories Picture
Studebaker South Bend Factories (1902)
Credit: Smithsonian Institute

By the time of World War I, Studebaker emphasized good quality through the production of many automobiles, wagons, trucks, ambulances, tanker trucks, gun carriages and other such vehicles. In 1915, a significant appointment was made when Albert Russel Erskine was named to replace Fred Fish. Erskine served as president of the Studebaker Corporation from 1915 to 1933. He in fact guided the company from the "horse and buggy" days into the position of a leading player in modern auto production. (The 1927 Studebaker Erskine Roadster Model 50J with rumble seat was named for him.) All five Studebaker brothers had died by 1917 and the company business was left in the hands of their sons and sons-in-law.

Fred Fish Photo
Frederick Samuel Fish

Albert Russel Erskine Photo
Albert Russel Erskine

The Great Depression was an economic slump in North America, Europe, and other industrialized areas of the world that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the cause of the failure of many companies during this era, and affected Studebaker as well. Erskine was convinced Studebaker would find the market coming back up and he issued above average dividends on Studebaker stock. He remained hopeful about future sales even when the world markets said otherwise. Studebaker applied for receivership which meant they would have to close the company and sell off their assets to pay their debts. The company lobbied the USA Congress with the idea that if it could stay in business, Studebaker would therefore retain workers and jobs, which would in turn bring more tax money into the government. The argument was convincing because Congress revised the bankruptcy laws which allowed Studebaker to reorganize and repay its debts.

During this time, however, Erskine had Studebaker buy a company called White Motor Company at substantially inflated prices. This was a critical decision because it placed the Studebaker company several million dollars in debt. In 1933, because he personally felt guilty over the way he had handled Studebaker's affairs, Erskine committed suicide.

In 1939, the company designed and produced a car known as the Studebaker Champion. Profits were soaring but World War II forced the company to again become a manufacturing giant in the war effort. Studebaker's war vehicles were judged to be reliable and sturdy further enhancing the company profile. Studebaker produced over 200,000 US6 trucks for use by France and the Soviet Union. In addition, the company was building engines suitable for use in the B-17 Flying Fortress. Studebaker also designed a unique multi-season vehicle called the Weasel which was later upgraded and called the M29. These vehicles proved to be capable of working in all types of environment; a factor that was very beneficial for a military vehicle.

Following the war, however, Studebaker did not meet their competition's upgrades in technology. New methods of production were needed to produce more cars faster and cheaper and Studebaker faltered in this respect. By the 1950's a feature called the "bullet-nose", which Studebaker had worked on in the early 40's, proved to be an interesting conception in the design of Studebaker cars. Exciting exterior designs were impressing the nation and Studebaker Champions, Commanders, and Starlights were having a significant impact on national car sales. After 1952 car sales fell off and profits went down.

In 1954, Packard bought out Studebaker and formed the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. One of the most notable cars, the Studebaker Hawk, was released to raves in 1956. The Hawk continued Studebaker's impressive string of leading automobile designs. This was followed up in 1957 with the introduction of a compact car called the Lark. Sales of the Lark in its first year were very good but gradually wore down in the next few years. The next major Studebaker designed car appeared in 1962 and was a sports car called the Avanti. It was an exciting car with a fibre glass body built on the chassis of a Lark having a Hawk engine. The Avanti was meant to recharge the company but production problems again haunted the Avanti sales. The company was still having manufacturing and production problems and sales fell off. Avanti, the last Studebaker produced, led to the closing of its South Bend factory in 1966.

For further and more detailed information on the History of the Studebaker, please visit the following sites that were used for reference:

Studebaker Museum
Studebaker: The History of Studebaker Corporation
Studebaker History

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