1960s Studebaker Concept Cars


Image Gallery: Concept Cars In 1963, Brooks Stevens developed a three-phase plan for the 1964-1966 Studebakers. Step one was this wagon concept car for the 1964 line. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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."

The novel sliding rear roof panel on this Studebaker concept car was a Stevens idea continued from the production 1963 Studebaker Lark Wagonaire.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

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1960s Studebaker Concept Cars' Mercedes Look

Step two in the comeback plan for Studebaker took the form of this hardtop sedan concept car that displayed design projections for 1965.
Step two in the comeback plan for Studebaker took the form of this hardtop sedan concept car that displayed design projections for 1965.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1960s Studebaker concept cars' Mercedes look was the creation of designer Brooks Stevens. This page focuses on Stevens' design ideas for the Studebaker concept cars.

As planned, the least radical of Stevens' proposals was the 1964 design, which was done as a station wagon with sliding rear roof panel a la Stevens' new-for-1963 Lark Wagonaire.

Grillework continued the "Mercedes look" from his 1962-model Lark facelift, but in a more exaggerated trapezoid tapered in toward the bottom. A broad chrome grille header bearing the Studebaker name was spread over to crown side-by-side quad headlamps.

Hood and deck were broader, flatter, and lower than on late Larks, while front fenders were sharper and thrust rakishly forward at the top. Mindful of Studebaker's threadbare budget, Stevens contrived to save money by using identical bumpers at each end and center-hinged doors that interchanged diagonally (right front to left rear, left front to right rear).

The stately concept car sedan had a strong Mercedes-Benz air, reflecting Studebaker's role as the German automaker's U.S. importer.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Opening those doors revealed a modest evolution of the 1963 Lark interior, which Stevens blessed with a nifty oblong gauge cluster containing round dials and rocker-switch minor controls. The 1964 proposal retained these items, but with gauges grouped in a three-element panel, as on the GT Hawk, instead of a flat one, with outer ends again angled in slightly to enhance legibility.

With the doors opened, the area around the gauges lit up as extra courtesy lighting. Those doors were quite thin, contributing to passenger space that was relatively colossal for a compact package. Equally generous glass areas added to the spacious feel inside and made for panoramic viewing to the outside.

Had all gone as planned, this design would have been replaced for 1965 by a slightly more advanced version. Stevens modeled it as a hardtop sedan with broad rear roof quarters, as on the GT Hawk and Ford Thunderbird.

An ultra-low beltline and glassy greenhouse were again on hand. So were diagonally interchangeable center-opening doors (complete with vent panes), but here they were cut into the roof for easier entry/exit. Equally predictive were hood and trunklid "cuts" that included the tops of the fenders, giving big openings and easy access to engine and luggage.

Up front was a narrower but still large grille of roughly squarish shape, filled with a mesh-and-bar latticework made convex at the horizontal centerline. Outboard were French Cibié rectangular headlights, though such things were then illegal in the U.S.

The concept's center-opening doors could be swapped diagonally, and gave easy access to uncommon passenger room for a compact car.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Predictably, the 1965 interior also took proposed 1964 concepts a step further. The driver again faced a large upright nacelle holding rocker switches and straightforward white-on-black gauges (a full set save tachometer), plus a couple of hefty levers. The rest of the dash was a slim, low-set padded shelf.

Concealed within was a slide-out "vanity," a drawer-type glovebox divided into big and bigger sections. Each part had its own lid, and the larger one lifted to reveal a makeup mirror. Stevens had first used these ideas on the 1963 Lark.

More novel yet were the radio and clock, which lived atop the dash in clear semi-spheres. Of course, these items would have been optional, and that was the beauty of this design: no unsightly dashboard "blanks" if you didn't order them.

Radio operation was clever: Push down on the bubble for on/off and volume, turn it to change stations. The clock bubble also rotated, allowing everyone to tell the time with equal ease, A final touch was a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, an uncommon feature at the time.

The clean, modern dash featured dual vanity gloveboxes and a big, bold gauge cluster.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Stevens' wanted to introduce a whole new generation of Studebakers, starting with his prototype for 1966 -- the Sceptre. Continue on to the next page to learn more about this car.

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1960s Studebaker Concept Cars Sceptre Series

The third and most radical of the Stevens-designed 1960s Studebaker concept cars was this Sceptre hardtop coupe. It would have been a 1966 model.
The third and most radical of the Stevens-designed 1960s Studebaker concept cars was this Sceptre hardtop coupe. It would have been a 1966 model.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1960s Studebaker concept cars Sceptre Series previewed a sharp-looking coupe planned as a 1966 production model.

Stevens hoped to usher in a whole new generation of Studebakers with his prototype for 1966, a shapely notchback two-door hardtop he called Sceptre.

Eyed at one point as a replacement for the GT Hawk, it looked smoother and lower than the 1964-1965 designs, but was still fairly angular and just as glassy on the same relatively compact platform.

But the Sceptre had plenty of startling departures. They began up front, where Stevens replaced conventional sealed-beam headlamps with a single full-width tube, developed by Sylvania, that gave more light with virtually no glare. (It now seems an amazingly accurate forecast of the "light bars" used on certain Mercurys, though those are just for nighttime "identity," not illuminating the way.)

Marking the tail was a similar tube behind a recessed full-width red lens. Equally forward-thinking was Stevens' use of blue polarized-glass insets for the C-pillars, which were transparent from the inside but appeared opaque from the outside. (You can think of this as a low-tech precursor to the light-sensitive LCD "glass" that appeared 25 years later for various concept cars and a few aftermarket moonroofs.)

Other distinctions included pointy front fenders, front cornering lights, a wheel-cover motif remarkably like that of Mazda's later rotary-engine symbol, and a big tri-color emblem mounted on a raised circle smack in the middle of the hood.

Sceptre's interior was no less striking. Driving necessities were squarely ahead of the wheel once more, but Stevens now put all the secondary gauges in bubbles, each tilt-adjustable for best viewing.

The speedometer was a wide strip-type device on a short stalk that pivoted up from between the two middle bubbles; the stalk could be folded flush with the panel, leaving the speedo just above the minor dials, or raised to put it close to driver eye level -- a kind of early "head up display."

To the right was a floor console angled in for optimum control reach. Here too, Stevens penned a very clean overall dash with lots of padding to conceal another sliding vanity, but also a "rally table" on the right side. Seats were four vinyl-covered buckets with center sections trimmed in chrome-like Mylar plastic.

With all this, the Sceptre would have been a sensation in 1966. But, of course, it had no more chance of reaching showrooms than Stevens' other "comeback" Studebakers.

As the designer recalled, money ran very low sometime in 1963, "and we were suddenly told we'd just have to reskin the Lark again. . . . Of course, you never dared stop. So we kept going on the prototypes even then." But not for long, as the book closed on all these ideas when Studebaker closed its historic South Bend plant.

Concept cars often test different styling on their left and right sides. The Sceptre concept's right side featured simpler bodyside trim than its left side.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Stevens wasn't the only one working on new Studebakers. Also in the running were two prototypes for an entire line of 1965-1966 66 models patterned on the glamorous Avanti coupe.

These were built under the redoubtable Raymond Loewy, the guiding light for that show-stopping GT, whom Egbert still retained as a consultant. A talented Loewy team had fast conjured the fiberglass-bodied Avanti while Stevens was facelifting the Lark and Hawk -- the second of Egbert's two-step plan to spruce up Studebaker's image. But though Loewy delivered exactly what Egbert wanted, the Avanti itself did not.

Raymond Loewy, Charles Sorensen, and Brooks Stevens developed two more prototypes for Studebaker -- the Avanti and the Famiia. Continue on to the next page to learn more about these cars.

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1960s Studebaker Concept Cars Avanti and Familia Series

The 1960s Studebaker concept cars Avanti and Familia series were the last hope for the failing Studebaker company.

Like Stevens, Loewy had definite ideas about new Studebakers, and went overseas to get prototypes built. But where Stevens chose an obscure Italian coachbuilder, Loewy chose the obscure French house of Pichon-Parat, near Paris. The results were full-size notchback and fastback designs configured as a two-door on one side, a four-door on the other.

Loewy tried hard to sell Egbert and other Studebaker executives on these Avanti-styled sedans, and the mockups he showed were practical yet different.

Either would have been a logical follow-up to the sensational coupe: clean and handsome, with the same unmistakable design signature. Pressing harder than usual, Loewy trimmed both prototype interiors in full leather, though lack of time and money forced the use of decals in place of dashboard gauges.

The one problem with this idea -- aside from Studebaker being almost broke -- was the car that inspired it. Though first shown in 1962, the Avanti wasn't genuinely available until 1963, by which time events had rendered it a commercial failure.

Production delays weren't entirely to blame. As former body engineer Otto Klausmeyer said later: "The fastback prototype should have been built [first] instead of the Avanti. . . . Yet the Avanti was in production, and had been abundantly rejected by the public before the sedan prototypes were finished. . . . The directors would not approve the sedans because they feared the Avanti influence would be the kiss of death, not because they were a bunch of provincial sod-busters, as most articles about these cars imply." So in the end, there was no way Loewy could win this particular battle. Like Custer at Little Big Horn, the odds were overwhelmingly against him.

But the persistent Brooks Stevens made one last try. Determined to save the South Bend plant and its workforce, he met hurriedly in early 1964 with Charles "Cast-Iron Charlie" Sorensen, the renowned Ford production whiz of the 1930s who served briefly as president of Willys in the mid-1940s. Together they hatched a revolutionary new small car with a very spacious interior on a 113-inch wheelbase. Introduction was projected for 1967-1969.

Variously called "Familia" and just "Studebaker," this boxy but attractively clean-lined sedan was conceived around a plethora of interchangeable parts: hood/trunk, doors, bumpers, head-light/taillight housings, windshield/backlight, even side windows.

Sorensen conjured a simple production line to suit the unitized fiberglass construction. Specifically, he devised a carrier that moved four half-body molds around to individual stations for gel coating, outside and reinforcement matting, and bake-oven curing.

The carrier turned and positioned the bodies at each step, and also returned them to the starting point. With this plus all the dual-duty parts, a simple proprietary engine and minimum frills, Stevens and Sorensen pegged unit production cost at an ultra-low $585, which meant a probable profit at a retail price of $1,100 or less.

"I had tremendous hope for this idea," Stevens said later. "I took the project to the board at the end of February 1964, and they were quite interested.

Unfortunately, the financial backers had just breathed a sigh of relief after dumping automobiles at last. There was no way any money was going to be made available for anything on wheels. I quit in disgust. I guess it was too late. It was certainly the wrong time to try."

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: