Introduction to the 1959-1964 Studebaker Lark

Studebaker introduced the Lark a full year before the onslaught of the Big Three compacts. See more classic car pictures.
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The economy-priced 1959-1964 Studebaker Lark saved the company from financial disaster, but not for long. The following pages describe the developments and features of the 1959-1964 Studebaker Lark models.

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In the late 1930s, Studebaker found itself floundering financially, but the economical 1939 Champion saved the day. In 1958, Studebaker-Packard was hemorrhaging red ink, so the company gambled its future on another economy car, the Lark. It, too, saved the day -- but only for a while.

"Studebaker will be here when you're dead and gone!" scoffed one company employee when a reporter brought the news that the venerable South Bend plant was about to close.

But the newsman was right -- 1,108 cars came down the assembly line on December 20, 1963, and then the doors slammed shut. An annual payroll of $50 million and, worse yet, 7,000 jobs had been lost, just in time for Christmas.

An American institution had been lost, too, for Studebaker had been building vehicles in South Bend since 1852: freight wagons for the Union Army during the War Between the States; farm wagons for the country's expanding western frontier; "Izzer" buggies, the kind in which Grandpa courted Grandma; electric runabouts, just after the turn of the century; and, since 1904, sturdy gasoline-powered cars and trucks.

It just didn't seem possible that Studebaker was gone. And of course it wasn't, quite. Not yet. The firm's Hamilton, Ontario, plant would remain open for another 27 months, turning out Studebaker passenger cars -- albeit in limited numbers.

The two-door wagon, here a VI, enjoyed a production run of 26,709.
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The company had lost $25 million on its automotive operations during 1963. Cash reserves were used up, and there was simply no way the hemorrhage could be permitted to continue. The South Bend factory had to go.

Actually, it was a miracle that the end hadn't come sooner. Or rather, a succession of miracles. Studebaker had been in receivership back in 1933, the result of President Albert R. Erskine's insane policy of paying generous dividends from capital at a time when the company -- like virtually all of its competitors -- was losing money hand over fist. A couple of miracle workers named Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman managed to turn things around for a time, but then the recession of 1938 plunged the company once more into a sea of red ink, and it was crisis time again.

Studebaker's salvation, that time, came with the April 1939 introduction of the pert little Champion. Styled by Raymond Loewy, it was a smart-looking, well-built, economical little car, competitive price-wise with the "Low-Priced Three." On the strength of it, Studebaker moved quickly back into the black. The crisis was past.

But then, after scoring a series of successes with its postwar cars, Studebaker began to slip again. From a peak of 320,884 cars during the 1950 model year, U.S. production plummeted four years later to 68,708, a drop of 79 percent.

The Studebaker Lark received an attractive facelift for 1963, but that didn't stop sales from nosediving.
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Studebaker posted a first quarter loss of $8.3 million, and cash reserves were down to a paper-thin $16 million. Talks with Packard got under way, culminating in the merger of the two firms in June 1954. Two years later, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, seeking a tax write-off, got into the act.

Sales picked up in 1955, though the Studebaker side of the combined operation remained deeply in the red. And then the slide began anew. By 1958, model year production had fallen to 44,759 cars, despite the introduction of a new economy model called the Scotsman. Not even in 1938 had ouput been so low; worse, the Studebaker-Packard operation lost another $13 million.

At year's end, the Packard name disappeared for good. For the last two years, the once-proud marque had been nothing more than a rebadged Studebaker anyway, much to the distress of Packard aficionados. At that point, the loss was generally regarded as a small one.

The birth of the Studebaker Lark temporarily saved the company from financial failure. Read on to learn more about this automobile.

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The Birth of the Studebaker Lark

Studebaker injected a little pizzazz into the 1960 lineup with the Lark convertible.
Studebaker injected a little pizzazz into the 1960 lineup with the Lark convertible.
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Prospects for Studebaker's survival looked bleak. But the birth of the Studebaker Lark turned things around.

Harold Churchill, president of the company since 1956, had put his staff to work on the development of a new model for 1959. He was determined to rescue Studebaker once again -- as it had been 20 years earlier -- with a small economy car.

Thus was born (or should we say "hatched"?) the Lark, introduced in the fall of 1958. Development time had been almost miraculously short, for Churchill had given the green light to the project as recently as mid-1957. And a clever job it was!

The central section of the 1958 body (which dated back to 1953) was retained while front and rear overhang were chopped, resulting in a 27.4-inch reduction in the overall length of the sedans. Wheelbase was likewise shortened, from 116.5 to 108.5 inches, and more than 200 pounds of excess weight melted away.

The result was an automobile that measured three inches shorter and an inch and a half narrower than the Rambler American, yet very nearly as roomy inside as the big Ford Galaxie.

Speed Age described the Lark as "the only small car from either side of the water to offer genuine, comfortable seating for six adults."

Chief stylist Duncan McRae, who headed the design team, was evidently responsible for suggesting the Hawk-inspired square grille that was a salient feature of the new Lark, but the basic shape of the new little Studebaker was largely the work of designer Bob Doehler. Remarkably, despite the use of six-year-old body components, the Lark's styling emerged fresh and clean -- if a bit stubby. One couldn't call it handsome, perhaps, yet the car was attractive. Perhaps the adjective "cute" described it best.

Meanwhile, the Hawk, Studebaker's handsome sport coupe, was retained, evidently at the insistence of dealers. It was the Lark, however, that accounted for 94.4 percent of Studebaker's 1959 total output of 138,866 units.

Chief engineer Gene Hardig also made maximum use of existing components, making improvements as he adapted them to the smaller car. The frame, eight inches shorter than that of the 1958 Champion, was stronger and more rigid than before. Spring rates were modified. Incredibly, the Lark held the road better than its heavier predecessors. And the braking area was exceptionally generous in relation to the weight of the car.

The four-door sedan was easily the most popular Lark in 1960 with 54,946 built.
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Both six- and eight-cylinder versions of the Lark were offered, the latter commanding a premium of $135. The smaller engine was the old familiar flathead, destroked to its pre-1955 displacement of 169.6 cubic inches and rated now at 90 horsepower. A new crankshaft, revised pistons, and a higher-compression head made this the most efficient edition to date of an engine whose pedigree dated back 20 years to the original Studebaker Champion.

The compact Lark was exactly the miracle Studebaker needed in 1959. But with the Big Three about to flood the market with a slew of brand-new compacts, the outlook for 1960 wasn't quite so bright. South Bend countered by making the Lark more glamorous and more practical.

The 1960 model year bought a restyled Studebaker Lark. Continue on to the next page to learn about the features of the 1960 Studebaker Lark.

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Features of the 1960 Studebaker Lark

The Regal VIII ragtop was the priciest Lark model offered in 1960.
The Regal VIII ragtop was the priciest Lark model offered in 1960.
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In 1960, the Studebaker Lark received various stylistic changes. Read on to learn about the new features of the 1960 Studebaker Lark.

The V-8 was the 259.2-cubic inch overhead-valve job, inherited from the 1958 Commander. Rated at 180 horsepower -- 195 with four-barrel carb and dual exhausts -- it was too heavy to be ideal for small-car use. Yet, it had an excellent reputation for being tough, reliable, lively, and remarkably economical.

Three transmissions were offered with either engine, starting with the standard three-speed manual with column-mounted control. Stick-plus-overdrive was a popular option bought by the economy minded.

Because of its numerically higher axle ratio, it did good things for the car's performance -- particularly for the weaker six-cylinder engine. For those who preferred the shiftless life, Studebaker offered Flight-O-Matic, a Borg-Warner three-speed automatic coupled to a torque converter.

Trim levels consisted of DeLuxe (meaning "Standard") and Regal (meaning "DeLuxe"). The difference between them was about $180. Lark body-style offerings numbered four. The four-door sedan and two-door station wagon models came in both DeLuxe and Regal guise, while the two-door sedan was confined to the DeLuxe series and the hardtop was supplied only as a Regal.

In addition, a heavy-duty four-door model known as the Econ-O-Miler set its sights primarily on the taxicab market. The station wagons, incidentally, rode a wheelbase of 113 inches, since chopping them off at the rear would have destroyed much of their cargo area.

The Lark Regal VIII ragtop was the only compact convertible in 1960.
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The Lark's ride was remarkably comfortable. Speed Age, in fact, called it "excellent." The secret, in large measure, lay in the fact that -- in contrast to the Rambler American -- Studebaker cradled all of its passengers between the axles.

Construction, for a non-unitized light car, rated as very solid. Reviewers from Speed Age found "very little body shake and no rattles or vibration." Handling, reasonably good on the six, was even better on the V-8, thanks to a more efficient steering box, but the extra weight of the engine produced a pronounced tendency to under-steer when pushed hard through curves.

Most observers felt that the performance of the six-cylinder model was quite adequate. Tom McCahill, in a roadtest for Mechanix Illustrated, covered the 0-60 run in 16.8 seconds, just slightly faster than other reviewers recorded. The eight, on the other hand, could get up and go. The same 0-60 run, according to the Speed Age crew, took just 9.9 seconds in the 180-horsepower V-8.

The Lark found instant success, pacing Studebaker to a sales increase of more than 250 percent. Remarkably few teething problems arose, although the six-cylinder cars delivered disappointing fuel mileage at first. A new carburetor, redesigned combustion chamber, and revised axle ratio attended to this problem for 1960, resulting in a quieter, better performing, and more economical machine.

The V-8, however, distinguished itself an economy champion from the start; in fact, it yielded better mileage than the original six when the going got rough. Dick Griffith, driving a V-8 with automatic in the 1959 Mobilgas Economy Run, averaged 22.28 mpg from Kansas City to Los Angeles. In the process, he bested the other 37 V-8s entered.

A look underneath the 1960 Lark Regal VIII's hood.
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Two new body styles joined the Lark lineup for its second season. A four-door wagon proved far more popular with buyers than the original two-door version, and the convertible added a bit of glamour to the line. "Here at last is the means to enjoy the Lark's marvelous maneuverability and stable agility while reveling in the light of refreshing breezes and warm sunshine," cooed Studebaker. Further, it was the only compact American ragtop on the market at the time.

Styling changes for 1960 consisted mainly of a new grille texture, which was also carried over into the side grilles. The Lark emblem now rested in the lower center of the grille, rather than to the left. Both the V-8 and the six received minor updates, among them new engine mounts and air cleaners.

The 1961 Studebaker Lark received a major change -- a new engine. Keep reading to find out more about this exciting change.

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1961 Studebaker Lark

The most obvious change to the 1961 Lark was that the side chrome strip now ran above the sculptured character line.
The most obvious change to the 1961 Lark was that the side chrome strip now ran above the sculptured character line.
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The model's first major change came for the 1961 Studebaker Lark, when the six-cylinder engine -- now called the "Skybolt Six" -- switched over to overhead valves. Horsepower shot up to 112, a boost of more than 24 percent, while torque gained a more modest 6.2 percent.

On the face of it, this new engine should have been a winner, for it suffered little loss in economy while offering greatly enhanced performance. According to Car Life, 0-60 mph could now be covered in 14 seconds flat -- a remarkable record for a small-displacement six. But there was a downside, a serious one. Cracks began to develop between the valve seats, and the resultant warranty claims -- in addition to being expensive -- hurt the Lark's reputation.

Other changes for the 1961 Studebaker Lark included an all-new dashboard, a dip in the center of the front and rear bumpers (which continued to be identical), higher-riding side trim, revised taillights, and a lower hood and rear deck.

The Lark emblem moved back to the lower left side of the grille. The sedans and hardtops also sported a flatter roof panel and revised C-pillar and rear window design.

The little 169.6-cubic inch six received overhead valves in 1961, boosting horsepower to 112.
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A new model, the Cruiser four-door sedan, rode the 113-inch wagon wheelbase. It boasted four inches more rear legroom and plush trim for a modest $168 premium over the Regal VIII sedan. Regals and Cruisers also flaunted quad headlights, and the latter could be ordered with the 289-cubic inch V-8.

Recirculating-ball steering improved directional stability and reduced steering effort, and sixes could now be equipped with power steering, which required only 3.5 turns lock-to-lock. Finally, an optional "Skytop" sunroof joined the options list.

The onslaught of the Big Three compacts and a little-changed 1961 Lark caused output to skid 50 percent. But designer Brooks Stevens was about to work miracles on the Lark's styling -- despite a shoestring budget.

Lark sales nonetheless slumped after the good back-to-back years of 1959-1960 -- the onslaught of compacts from the Big Three saw to that. With Lark output reaching only 67,000 units, changes appeared to be in order, both in the product and in corporate leadership. By the end of 1960, Harold Churchill had been pushed into early retirement, to be succeeded by Sherwood Egbert, hotshot chief of McCulloch, the performance equipment company.

Looking for a miracle, Egbert turned to an old friend, industrial designer Brooks Stevens. With precious little money to accomplish his objectives, the new president asked for a facelifted Lark and a restyled Hawk. And he wanted them in time for the 1962 season. "On the face of it," Stevens later recalled, "the job was impossible . . .. But Sherwood wasn't an automobile man. He didn't know it was impossible."

The 1961 Lark's taillights and front end were also altered.
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Stevens' Gran Turismo Hawk, with its crisp, Thunderbird-inspired roofline, is a story in itself. Suffice it to note here that its introduction resulted in a 139-percent increase in sales.

The 1962 and 1963 Studebaker Lark models also went through stylistic changes. Continue on to the next page to learn about these changes.

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The 1962 and 1963 Studebaker Lark

The 1962 Lark received a new grille, roofline, rear window, rear fenders, decklid, and taillights.
The 1962 Lark received a new grille, roofline, rear window, rear fenders, decklid, and taillights.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Turning his attention to the upcoming 1962 and 1963 Studebaker Lark models, Stevens -- sensing that the public had tired of the car's stubby appearance -- stretched the wheelbase of all four-door cars to 113 inches.

This seemed a good move since the 1961 Cruiser had outsold the Regal VIII sedan by a margin of five to three. Front and rear overhang increased, and all non-wagons featured extended rear fenders with new round taillights. Thus, overall length of the sedans stretched an additional 9-13 inches. Wagons, which received only the front-end modifications, grew by 2.5 inches.

The new grille, with a heavy wraparound chrome band, was subtly reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz, then being distributed in the U.S. by Studebaker. And a sporty new series called the Daytona was added to the line. Available only as a convertible or a hardtop and priced just $90 above corresponding Regal models, the Daytona featured bucket seats and upgraded trim, plus the option of a Borg-Warner floor-mounted T-10 four-speed transmission.

Complementing Studebaker's efforts, a Daytona was selected to pace the 1962 Indy 500. As a further nod toward a performance image, the 289 V-8 was made available on all models.

The four-door Six featured fancy Regal trim and was listed at $2,190.
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Side trim on the 1962s moved back down to the contour line, quad headlights were standardized for all models, and a bolder grille mesh adorned the front end. Studebaker also dropped the VI and VIII Lark designations, calling them Six and Eight, and now used block letters to spell out LARK.

Altogether, the 1962 Studebaker line represented a marvelously effective facelift, accomplished on a budget of just $7 million (including Hawk) -- pocket change by Detroit standards. And despite Stevens' misgivings, the job was completed on schedule. His restyle helped push Lark model year sales back to 93,000 units despite a 38-day strike early in the year, and the company went on to earn $2.56 million.

Some welcome changes showed up for 1963. The 289-cubic inch V-8 became the Cruiser's standard powerplant. The once-fashionable windshield "dogleg" was eliminated and thinner door window frames gave the greenhouse a much lighter look.

An array of performance options became available, no doubt due to Egbert's association with Paxton. And Stevens cooked up the Wagonaire, a station wagon with a sliding roof panel, a feature that provided a rear sunroof while enhancing the vehicle's utility as a cargo carrier. Unfortunately, the open air feature proved to be a mixed blessing, for it tended to leak during heavy rain.

Series names were shuffled about for 1963. The Standard now held down the bottom rung. Regal became the first step upwards, followed by a new Custom Series, followed by the Daytona. The Cruiser continued as the premium four-door sedan.

The Wagonaire featured a novel -- and useful -- sliding rear roof panel.
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Meanwhile, the Lark name was being progressively downplayed, evidently in the hope of creating a new image for Studebaker. The name, in fact, didn't appear at all on the 1963 Cruiser or a midyear Standard model, and it saw less and less use in the company's advertising program.

It wasn't enough. Lark's 40-percent sales gain in 1962 over the discouraging 1961 figure still left it far below the results of 1959-1960, and 1963 witnessed the start of a free-fall from which Studebaker would never recover.

The 1964 Studebaker models went through more changes, and the company billed them as "Different by Design." Continue on to the next page to learn more about Studebaker's new models.

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The 'Different by Design' 1964 Studebaker Models

The 1964 Daytona was Studebaker's last ragtop -- only 703 were built.
The 1964 Daytona was Studebaker's last ragtop -- only 703 were built.
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Studebaker billed its 1964 models as "Different by Design." Thanks to Stevens' genius, they received a disguise clever enough to make them look brand new. Front fenders, hood, deck lid, and sculptured roof panel sported new sheet metal, and the result was a handsome, crisply styled car, bearing little resemblance to the earlier models.

The Lark name did not appear on any of these cars, though in some of the promotional material the title was used in connection with the less expensive models.

The 1964s came in four series, excluding the sports-oriented Hawk and Avanti coupes. In ascending order of price, they were the Challenger, Commander, Daytona, and Cruiser -- a total of 21 models in all. Two-door cars continued on the 109-inch chassis, four-door models with the 113-inch stretch. Overall length of the sedans measured 194 inches, about the same as the contemporary Dodge Dart and 19 inches longer than the 1959 Lark.

Although quite attractive, the restyled Studebakers didn't sell. In part, no doubt, the problem had to do with the public's concern about the company's future -- nobody wanted to be stuck with an orphan. Resale values took a beating, which only exacerbated the problems of the sales force. By January 1965, a five-year-old Lark was worth 36 percent less than a comparable Chevrolet.

Another change of leadership occurred on November 11,1963. Sherwood Egbert, stricken with the cancer that would eventually claim his life, resigned. In his place, the board of directors appointed Packard veteran Byers Burlingame. Three days later, Burlingame called a temporary halt to production. On hand at that time was a three-month supply of 1964 Studebakers, together with some 3,000 unsold and seemingly unwanted 1963 Larks. Production resumed a week later, perhaps simply in order to use up supplies on hand. But the end, as least as far as the South Bend factory was concerned, was inevitable.

The story would have ended here, save for the Canadian postscript. Gordon Grundy, the enthusiastic president of Studebaker-Canada, felt confident that his plant -- far more modern and efficient than the outmoded Indiana facility -- could make money on an annual production of 20,000 cars. Granted permission to try, Grundy gave it his best shot.

As an economy measure, Grundy simplified the line. The Avanti, Hawk, and Challenger models were eliminated and the trucks discontinued -- none of them had been built in Canada anyway. Engines continued to come from South Bend for the time being, that part of the factory remaining in operation pending the end of its union contract.

With the announcement of the 1965 lineup, the Lark designation disappeared completely. So did the South Bend engines. The cars, nearly identical in appearance to their immediate predecessors, now utilized powerplants supplied by GM's McKinnon Industries plant in nearby St. Catharines.

Similar in design to the 194-cid six and the 283-cid V-8 used by the American Chevrolet, these engines boasted a number of components that were more stoutly built than their stateside counterparts. Unfortunately, they added $130 to the cost of producing each new Studebaker. General Motors clearly wasn't into charity!

Grundy advertised his Canadian Studebakers as "The Common-Sense Cars," (and north of the border as "Canada's Own Car") expressing the hope that annual model changes would be unnecessary. Competitive pressures forced some minor styling changes for 1966, mainly a distinctive new grille and minor exterior and interior trim changes. One new engineering innovation was "Refreshaire," Studebaker's last. It vented interior air through the trunk and outside via vents placed above the taillights.

The 1964 Studebakers came in four series -- the Challenger, Commander, Daytona, and Cruiser.
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But in the end, the Canadian effort came to naught. Sales failed to live up to Grundy's expectations, and on March 4, 1966, the word came down from the directors that production would be halted. The last cars to bear the Studebaker name rolled off the assembly line on March 17, St. Patrick's Day.

The Lark had granted Studebaker a stay of execution. But with the closing of the Hamilton, Ontario, factory, another of the great names of the automotive world had passed into history.

As the French would say, "Quel dommage!" -- what a shame.

The high-performance Super Lark model was introduced next, and was often referred to as one of the first muscle cars. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the Super Lark.

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1964 Studebaker 'Super Lark:' First of the Muscle Cars?

Although the Studebaker's Super Lark, known as possibly the first muscle car, was an impressive, high-performance automobile, it was produced a little too late to save the company.

Studebaker President Sherwood Egbert was having trouble getting his stunning new Avanti into full-scale production. So in order to capitalize on the high-performance components that had been developed for the Avanti under the supervision of Andy Granatelli, Egbert decided in early 1963 that some of this equipment should be made available to buyers of both the Gran Turismo Hawk and the Lark.

There were two new engines, initially, both derived from Studebaker's respected 289-cubic inch V-8. Known as the R-l and R-2, both powerplants were fitted with special camshafts and extra stout bearings. (Later on, two more variants were developed, the 304.5-cubic-inch R-3 and R-4, but neither was produced in significant numbers.)

The R-1, fed by a four-barrel carburetor and boasting a compression ratio of 10.25:1, was rated at 240 horsepower, a very healthy figure indeed. But it was the R-2 that had been designed to blow the competition into the next county. In this application, the compression ratio settled in at a more modest 9.0:1, but the engine boasted a Paxton centrifugal supercharger supplying between five-and-a-half and six pounds of pressure. Horsepower reached the magic one-for-one formula: 289 horsepower from 289 cubic inches.

Other options of interest to the performance-minded buyer included a Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission (or, alternatively, a heavy-duty Borg-Warner three-speed automatic), heavy-duty suspension, rear stabilizer bar, limited-slip differential, and caliper-type front disc brakes. All of these goodies became available at mid-year in the "Super Lark" package, which was priced at $766.70.

The result was an automobile unlike any previous Studebaker. Car Life, driving a Super Lark equipped with automatic, clocked the 0-60-mph run in just 7.8 seconds. And Motor Trend, testing a 1964 R-2 with a four-speed gearbox, shaved half a second off that figure. The standing quarter mile came up in just 15.8 seconds, with a trap speed of 90 miles per hour. Top speed was clocked at 123 mph.

At that, the editors noted that with taller gearing than the standard 3.54:1 cogs, the car would easily have been capable of even greater speeds. And it was; Andy Granatelli had already driven an R-2 with more favorable gearing to 132.04 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Motor Trend also found there was plenty of braking power to cope with all that speed, for repeated hard stops from 123 mph failed to produce any appreciable fade.

The Super Lark may have been too little. Certainly it was too late, at least to help save Studebaker. But it was nonetheless an impressive performer and a stellar value for the type of no-holds-barred, high-performance machine that would later come to be known as the "muscle car."

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