1952 Studebaker

Studebaker's centenary was celebrated in 1952, marking 100 years of excellence for the blacksmiths-turned-automakers.

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The 1952 Studebaker commemorated the company's 100th anniversary.
The 1952 Studebaker commemorated the company's 100th
 anniversary. See more pictures of Studebaker cars.

When Queen Anne saw the completed Cathedral of St. Paul's in 1710, she told the architect, Christopher Wren: "Sir, I find your cathedral awful, terrible and amusing." The Queen meant to convey, by the understanding of those words at the time, that Wren's masterpiece was awe-inspiring, imposing, and moving -- just about the way we regard St. Paul's 285 years later.

Several decades have gone by since the "shovel-nose" Studebaker made its debut, yet a lot of people today might regard it as awful, terrible, and amusing, which wouldn't have been understood by Queen Anne.

But if semantics have changed, so have automotive values. By the standards of 1952, this car was a fitting tribute to its maker in Studebaker's centenary: one hundred years since Henry and Clem Studebaker had pooled their worldly wealth of $68, set up a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, built three covered wagons, and started putting America on wheels.

For most of their first half-century, of course, Studebakers were horse-drawn. The firm's "Conestoga" wagon came to be an intrinsic symbol of the opening of the American West.

Studebaker wasn't the first company to build automobiles, not even in the United States: it was still churning out wagons, shays, flyabouts, and buckboards when the first Duryea hit the road in 1893, the first Oldsmobile in 1896-1897, the first Ford in 1903.

Nevertheless, it was of some note, and certainly worthy of celebration, that by the mid-twentieth century Studebaker was the oldest company in the transportation business -- the oldest, indeed, by nearly 50 years. That was something worth shouting about. That shout was conveyed by the 1952 Studebakers.

Though the front of the 1952 Studebaker was new, the rear remained largely unchanged.
Though the front of the 1952 Studebaker was new,
the rear remained largely unchanged.

One supposes the venerable firm could have done better. Could not the company that had brought us the innovative Electric, the magnificent Garford, the great President Eight of "Style and Stamina," and the memorable postwar Starlight coupe have conjured up another milestone of automotive progress to celebrate its centenary? Did Studebaker not have, in the Raymond Loewy Studios, the best industrial design team in the business? Weren't Studebaker engineers, like Eugene Hardig and Harold E. Churchill, models of their profession, who had only just given America the first modern small-block V-8?

The 1952 wore a new front end, but from the cowl back the body was dated. In retrospect, Studebaker should have made 1951 the centennial year -- it was the true hundredth year of business, after all -- and used the then-new small-block V-8 to celebrate the milestone event. By comparison, 1952 offered no development approaching its importance. Unfortunately, the timing was off.

After World War II, Studebaker had opted to get a jump on the competition with a brand-new design and thereby be "First by far with a postwar car!" Instead of running along happily with prewar bodies for three years like everybody else, management scrapped the 1942-style Skyway Champion in May 1946, only seven months after it had appeared, and by June was selling a dramatic 1947 model, the most original and daring shape to come from the industry since the Chrysler Airflow.

With its low, lithe stance, pointed tail, and acres of glass (especially the Starlight coupe with its huge wraparound backlight), the 1947 Studebaker was unlike any other automobile, including the brand-new and allegedly up-to-date Kaiser and Frazer. Unlike the ill-fated Chrysler Airflow, it sold like hot-cakes. But there was a problem.

Despite the dramatic model change-over for 1947, Studebaker, like most independents, didn't have the resources for the three-year design cycles common with the Big Three. Studebaker couldn't seriously face-lift the new body until 1950, and required six or seven years to amortize and replace the main body (from cowl to tail).

The 1950 "bullet-nose" model looked radical, but was strictly a cowl-forward facelift. Studebaker had planned an all-new car, dubbed "Model N," for its 100th Anniversary year, but other expenses got in the way.

Besides the 1950 frontal lobotomy, there was the switch from the transverse leaf-spring "Planar" front suspension to conventional coil springs, an "Automatic Drive" transmission option for Commanders and Land Cruisers in 1950, the tooling expense of a new V-8 engine for 1951, and war materiel to be produced for the government for the expanding Korean "conflict."

Strapped to the limit, management put off the all-new car for a year. This was an indication of the trouble the carmaker was in. For more on Studebaker's decline, continue on to the next page.

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