Nineteen fifty-two was a memorable year in South Bend, as it was Studebaker's centennial celebration. On February 16, the South Bend Association of Commerce put on a major celebration at Notre Dame University.
This 1952 Studebaker Commander served as the
pace car for the Indianapolis 500 that year.
Two days later, at 7:30 in the morning, the first Studebaker of the firm's second century left the factory amid much fanfare: a Champion four-door, Studebaker's 7,130,875th vehicle, according to William Cannon and Fred Fox in Studebaker: The Complete Story.
Studebaker paced the Indianapolis 500 race with a blue Commander convertible that was later given to winner Troy Ruttman, and held pre-race activities that would warm the heart of any Hoosier.
A huge Memorial Day parade was led by the Conestoga wagon that had carried John Studebaker west into Ohio from Gettysburg in 1836. That was followed by locally built varieties, including Abraham Lincoln's "last ride" carriage from 1865, and followed by an early Studebaker Electric, a circa 1910 Everitt-Metzger-Flanders (distributed by Studebaker), and gas-powered Studebakers through to the present.
Meanwhile, Stephen Longstreet authored a book, A Century on Wheels, and Studebaker itself published a softbound picture-book called 100 Years on the Road, and also passed out souvenir Centennial coins to its employees. Famed automotive journalist Floyd Clymer devoted the entire July issue of Automobile Topics to Studebaker.
"At the start of its second century, Studebaker is the oldest name in highway transportation in the world," said the Centennial Report to stockholders, "and the only automobile manufacturer with a history of performance that antedates the horseless carriage."
The company now had "the strongest world-wide sales and distributing organization in [its] history. The enterprise which Henry and Clem Studebaker launched in 1852 with faith and integrity has prospered in succeeding hands, and at the end of its first one hundred years is a strong, vibrant business organization well-equipped to take advantage of the boundless opportunity with which it enters its second century."
Even the addition of the hardtop 1952 Studebaker
Starliner couldn't ensure the company's future.
The facts, alas, were somewhat different. In calendar 1952, Studebaker would produce only 161,520 cars, its lowest figure since 1947, when production hadn't yet built up to capacity. On sales of $585 million (more than 40 percent of that from government contracts), it netted a $14-million profit, a low percentage based on previous performance.
Production was hampered by some happenings not of South Bend's doing -- a national steel strike, for example, during the six middle weeks of summer. But there were other factors, distinctly Studebaker's own, that suggested trouble ahead.
Chairman Paul Hoffman, who had departed the company for the government by then, had left president Vance a legacy of labor troubles. Work standards on the 1950-1952 models were so poor, Vance said privately, that they'd lost $10 million for that reason alone. Vance blamed Hoffman for having created a poor labor climate and an unproductive workforce.
It was more expensive by at least 15 percent to build a Studebaker at South Bend than a Plymouth in Detroit. But many who knew him said that Vance was little more successful at taming the wild men on the shop floor than Hoffman had been.
Still, there were some signs of hope: The defense and truck businesses were up. But the future really didn't depend on Vance's statement to stockholders or even the whims of the labor force. The future depended on the upcoming 1953 Studebaker.
For more information on cars, see: