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How Studebaker Works


1952, 1953, 1954 Studebakers
The pillarless 1953 Studebaker Starliner was one of the company's sleek "Loewy coupes."

An all-new Studebaker was planned for centennial 1952, with unit construction and evolutionary bullet-nose styling. But though this "N-Series" progressed to a running prototype, it was abandoned due to continuing government restraints on civilian goods and a big upturn in Studebaker's military business.

Accordingly, the '47 platform was facelifted one last time for '52, gaining a low and toothy full-width grille dubbed "the clam digger" by Loewy Associates stylists. Offerings stood pat with the exception of the belated addition of new Starliner hardtop coupes. As in '51, trim levels comprised Custom, DeLuxe, and Regal for Champion; Regal and State for Commander. Starliners were top-liners.

To no one's surprise, Studebaker paced the 1952 Indy 500, and a Champ and Commander scored class wins in that year's Mobilgas Economy Run. But Studey's centennial saw production of just 186,239 units.

Studebaker updated its look in literal high style for the first model year of its second century. Headlining the all-new '53 line were the now-legendary "Loewy coupes." These were sleek, low, and clean -- triumphs of good taste.

There were six in all: pillarless Regal Starliner and pillared Deluxe and Regal Starlights, Commander, and Champion. Despite the "Loewy" nickname, the basic design was actually the work of Bob Bourke. It was first intended only for a show car, but Loewy himself convinced Studebaker management that it should be put into production.

Perfect from every angle, the Loewy coupe mounted a new 120.5-inch Land Cruiser chassis rather than the 116.5-inch platform used for other models. Advertised as the "new European look," it's still widely regarded as America's best automotive design of the decade. Studebaker's 1953 two- and four-door sedans were almost as pretty, bearing coupe lines but necessarily stubbier and more upright on the shorter wheelbase.

Ominously, tooling the '53 line delayed its production, which ended at a disappointing 169,899. Worse, when things finally did get rolling, demand for coupes was four times that for sedans. Management had expected just the reverse, and both time and sales were lost in switching around.

On top of that coupe frames were too light and the flexing resulted in squeaks and rattles. Still, Studebaker managed a slim $2.69 million profit for the fiscal year.

Eggcrate grille inserts identified the predictably little-changed '54 models, which again included the "Loewys," a pair of cheap Champ Custom sedans, and Deluxe and Regal sedans in each line. A belated newcomer was the two-door all-steel Conestoga, Studebaker's first station wagon. Named for the famous "prairie schooners" of the firm's infancy, it came as Deluxe and Regal Champs and Commanders.

Also new for '54 were seven extra horses for Commanders and larger brakes across the board. More importantly, the coupe's frame was beefed-up, but Studebaker's reputation had already been hurt by the poor quality of the '53s.

But Studebaker's weaknesses were now painfully apparent. On "pricing out" a Commander Starliner using the General Motors cost structure, Bourke found that Chevrolet could have sold it for $1900; Studebaker charged $2500.

Meanwhile, the "Ford Blitz" was on, as Dearborn waged a no-holds-barred price war with GM. Though neither giant damaged the other, they wreaked havoc on independents like Studebaker, whose model-year volume plunged to 81,930.

But just as things looked blackest, Nash president George Mason persuaded Packard president James J. Nance to purchase Studebaker as a prelude to combining with Nash and Hudson to form Mason's hoped-for American Motors.

The Packard takeover was duly accomplished in October 1954, ­ushering in the able Nance to preside over a new Studebaker-Packard Corporation. But when Mason died suddenly that same month, so did his dream of a "Big Four."

For more on defunct American cars, see:


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