The 1952 models, like this Studebaker Starliner,
needed record sales to stave off financial disaster.
Korean War shortages had put the government into an allocation mood and, starting in 1951, Washington actually stipulated how many cars could be built by each company. Although its allocations purposely favored the independents, there were only so many cars they could build, since the scarcity of raw materials such as chrome and steel also kept a lid on production.
From 1950's record of 268,099 cars built during the calendar year, Studebaker produced only 222,000 in 1951, which was below its National Price Administration quota, and would churn out only 161,520 for 1952 -- 35,000 less than the break-even point. (Actually, in terms of model-year production, the 1952s outnumbered the more celebrated 1953s, but for reasons germane to the 1953 product, not the cars on these pages.)
Hindsight tells us that the decision to rush a brand-new design to dealers in 1947 was a serious marketing misjudgment in the long run. The handsome 1947s sold very well, true. But the fact was that in the seller's market of 1947, anything on wheels sold well, and again in 1948, and yet again in 1949.
Clearly, Studebaker should have bided its time, gotten its labor and other overhead under control, and then launched its first all-new postwar car alongside the Big Three in 1949. That's because by the end of 1949 the country's immediate need for cars had been met, and competition had returned to the industry with a vengeance.
Left with an independent's typical extended amortization period, Studebaker had to make do with face-lifts -- when management was eventually convinced a styling change was necessary. The 1948-1949 models were hardly changed at all. The 1950 cowl-forward restyle was more radical, but went out of fashion fast. The company also lacked the money -- or at least the managerial impetus -- to expand its range of body styles.
Although Studebaker did finally produce a "hardtop convertible" in 1952, it was the last major American car company to offer one, and it waited until 1954 to add a station wagon (and then only a two-door), a body style that exploded in sales as makers replaced the old "woodies" with all-steel construction.
The 1952 Studebakers, like this Commander Land
Cruiser, just couldn't compete with the Big Three.
Waiting so long to create the two most popular new body styles of the decade gave a jump to the competition, which hurt sales almost as much as the concurrent price wars between Ford and General Motors. Studebaker dealers were left with old-style cars, not enough new body styles, and prices hundreds of dollars higher than its Big Two competitors, General Motors and Ford.
Adding to Studebaker's woes were an antiquated plant that management had failed to modernize with defense profits after the war, and an aggressive labor force that was always given everything it demanded by Studebaker's pro-labor chairman, Paul G. Hoffman. Those two factors contributed to a towering 200,000-unit break-even point by the early 1950s, a time when dealers just weren't capable of delivering enough sales to sustain it.
This isn't just hindsight, either. Several business journals of the day saw disaster shaping up, and warned against it publicly, but Studebaker's top managers, who had saved the company in the Depression, failed it in the Revival. Within two years of its Centennial, Studebaker would be bought by Packard, to march down a fatal road that ended in oblivion scarcely a decade later.
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