The 1964 Studebaker Wagonaire was not as popular as the company
had hoped. See more pictures of Studebaker cars.
As the rank-and-file employees at Studebaker walked out of the South Bend, Indiana, plant on a cold and bleak December day in 1963, they were handed a single sheet of paper. The message on it informed them that the plant was closing permanently and all automotive production was moving to Canada. Thus ended 111 years of Studebaker vehicle production in the United States.
There had been numerous warning signs during the previous few years so the news could not have been a great surprise. But coming as it did only a few weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and shortly before Christmas, it was a severe blow to a workforce of more than 6,000, many of who had never worked for anyone else.
The 1965 Studebaker Wagonaire featured a V-8 engine.
Still, it was true that during its last few years of existence, the company was able to create some of its most advanced automotive achievements, despite being strapped for cash. Of course the Avanti (CA, May 1984, February 1998), designed under the auspices of Raymond Loewy, tops this list, but engineering achievements ran apace.
High-performance engines, compliments of the Granatelli brothers of California, helped the corporate image, while the company led the industry in offering optional front power disc brakes (standard on the Avanti), seatbelts, as well as safety-padded instrument panels and a transistorized ignition. Out of this same burst of creativity came an intriguing new take on the humble station wagon.
Famous for building quality horse-drawn conveyances starting in 1852, Studebaker produced its first automobile, an electric, in 1902. Its first gasoline-powered car came two years later. The company rebounded from the tragic, Depression-ravaged administration of president A. R. Erskine to become the industry's leading independent auto-maker by the time of America's entry into World War II.
After the war, the company scooped its rivals with the first all-new postwar cars (CA, August 1994). Between 1947 and '52, Studebaker enjoyed some of the best years in its long history, with record profits (1949) and record sales (1950). Revolutionary new styling for 1953 (CA, February 2000) gained critical acclaim, but a combination of corporate mistakes, cutthroat competition from the Big Three, and labor problems brought the company -- which merged with Packard in 1954 -- to near extinction by the late Fifties.
President Harold Churchill's gamble on a new compact in 1959, the Lark (CA, August 1989), provided a brief glimmer of hope -- and a $28.5 million profit. The recovery was stunted, however, when the Big Three brought out compacts in 1960 (CA, December 1997).
In early 1961, Churchill handed over the presidential reins to 40-year-old Sherwood Egbert, a dynamic former Marine who had until recently been the head of a California company that made superchargers. Though Egbert threw himself into the job with great vigor, he couldn't stanch the red ink, and by fall 1963, he was forced by the circumstances of his own terminal illness and poor sales to resign.
During his brief tenure of leadership, Egbert chose to outsource much of the styling responsibilities. In addition to Loewy, he relied heavily on the talented Milwaukee designer Brooks Stevens (CA, June 2005). He created a completely new look from the 1953-generation hardtops for the GT Hawk (CA, August 1988) introduced in 1962.
Likewise, it was his genius that created a sliding-roof station wagon, the aptly named Wagonaire that made its debut in fall 1962. The car was modeled loosely after the Scimitar, an aluminum concept car built under Stevens' direction in Germany in 1959. Stevens patented the sliding-roof design, but later assigned it to Studebaker when the cars went into production.
Studebaker had never been a major player in the wagon market -- insofar as self-propelled vehicles are concerned. Its first true station wagon was a "woody" produced in very low numbers between 1937 and 1939. Studebaker next gave the station wagon some fleeting thought for the 1947 model year and actually produced a prototype woody on the Champion chassis.
However, when management had to choose between adding a convertible or a wagon to the lineup, it opted for the ragtop. (The wagon prototype survives in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend.)
It was 1954 before the company mass-produced a wagon, an all-steel job with a name that harked back to the firm's nineteenth-century origins: Conestoga. Sales were good, and Studebaker was in the wagon market to stay. Between 1954 and 1962, it assembled more than 125,000 wagons, approximately 14 percent of its total automobile sales, which was slightly above the industry average.
Of course, being the feisty independent, Studebaker was always looking for an edge against its bigger competitors. The hope was that Stevens' unique and functional sliding-roof wagon just might catch the fancy of the car-buying public in 1963.
The new '63 Studebakers began arriving in dealer showrooms in September 1962. While they looked quite similar to the '62s, there were numerous differences. The most significant of these came from eliminating the wraparound windshield, which was accomplished by creating a new cowl section. The roof panel was revised, as were the rear quarters and back glass. In the front, a Mercedes-like fine-mesh grille was flanked by quad headlights. Narrower door pillars gave the car a more airy look than its predecessors.
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