The 1960s Studebaker concept cars, a collection of intriguing prototypes, represented one of the few bright spots for the proud but failing Studebaker company.
The cars in this article were once called the "cars that could have saved Studebaker." In truth, they could not. By the time the first of these projected designs was broached in late 1963, Studebaker's auto business was virtually beyond saving by any means.
Its problems proved fatal soon enough: fast-falling demand for an aging group of cars, insufficient cash for getting out more competitive new designs, scant hope of finding a funding angel, and a general loss of public confidence -- the classic corporate death knell.
With that, Studebaker was forced to close its century-old South Bend, Indiana, factory in December 1963 and retreat to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where it hoped to make a stand building "common sense" family compacts at the rate of about 20,000 a year.
But when it failed to achieve even that modest goal, the firm had little choice but to quit the car business for good, which it did after model-year 1966. In the end, Studebaker succumbed to the accumulated effects of some 40 years of inept management, steadily weakened by battling one debilitating disaster after another.
Ironically, the designs shown here might well have turned things around had they reached production under more astute management. They were certainly imaginative cars, and most were exactly right for the times.
Even more ironic, Studebaker had finally gotten such astute leadership when the dynamic Sherwood H. Egbert was named company president in 1961 after holding the same job at Los Angeles-based McCulloch Corporation, which sold superchargers to Studebaker. For a brief moment, the situation seemed hopeful.
Egbert was an old friend of noted Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens, and he promptly called on Stevens to remodel the company wares for 1962 as a first step in remodeling Studebaker's sagging image.
It was a crash program, less than a year long, but Stevens came through brilliantly. First he created the handsome Gran Turismo Hawk, using the old Raymond Loewy hardtop design from 1953. He also deftly reskinned the compact Lark, then further improved its looks for 1963-1964.
But this was only a prelude to Stevens' plans for 1964-1966: "As soon as Sherwood Egbert called me in to facelift the 1962s, our studios got to work on projections for all-new, or at least new-looking, Studebakers. . . . By degrees, each more radical than its predecessor, these cars would have replaced the Lark, falling at the Cruiser end, the big end of the intermediates. Wheelbase would have been 116 inches, later adding [a 113-inch chassis]. We planned to continue the 289 V-8; though it was old, it was a good engine, and with a blower it went like hell. We . . . mounted [it] farther back for better weight distribution, and prepared three prototypes: a wagon, sedan, and hardtop coupe. Each model had two different sides representing standard and deluxe versions."
Roundly approving what Stevens had in mind, Egbert asked him to oversee construction of full-size mockups. Trouble was, Studebaker was then so short of cash that all it could afford was $50,000 for the lot.
Stevens decided his only hope was Italy, but not some high-priced outfit like Pininfarina. Happily, he discovered a small coachworks in Turin called Sibona-Bassano. "I walked in," he remembered, "and there was laundry on the line and chickens running around. I took these two little guys out and fixed them up with Camparis. We got good prices out of them -- $16,500 per car, an incredibly low figure." Better yet, the finished models were worthy of a Pininfarina. Stevens termed them "jewel-like," and recalled Egbert being very excited about them.
Stevens' facelift plans included attractive grillework with a "Mercedes-look." Continue to the next page to learn more about these concept cars.