How an ultimately doomed American car manufacturer unwittingly laid the financial foundation of one of today’s most successful sports car makers.
Ferdinand Anton Ernst (better known as Ferry) Porsche visited the USA for the first time in his life in December 1951. The 42-year old general manager of Porsche AG; his father Ferdinand Senior having passed away earlier that year, was there to carry out consulting work on a military vehicle project for the US Army as well as to discuss sales and distribution with Max Hoffman, Porsche’s importer and distributor for North America.
During that meeting Hoffman suggested to Porsche that providing consultancy services for American carmakers might be a lucrative idea for the enterprising young firm. Shortly before, Hoffman had met with longtime Studebaker executive Richard A. Hutchinson to discuss the future of the American car market and he suggested that Studebaker should offer a true economy car, a kind of American Volkswagen, instead of trying to match the big three line ups.
Of course Hoffman knew just the company to help them do it: the ones who had designed the original Volkswagen. Even though at that time the VW Beetle was not yet selling in great numbers in the USA, the shrewd Hoffman knew that Hutchinson would be open to the idea, for he was aware that shortly after the second world war the Studebaker executive already had one of the first VWs shipped to the South Bend facilities for evaluation and pushed for Studebaker to become the sole US agent for Volkswagen. However, Studebaker President Harold S. Vance decided against the idea. It was therefore not surprising that Hutchinson agreed to meet with Porsche.
In May of 1952, a Porsche delegation including Ferry Porsche, Karl Rabe, Leopold Schmidt and designer Erwin Komenda were invited to South Bend. The Germans had brought along the Porsche Typ 530, in essence a prototype 4-seater 356. Even though the first impressions were not very favourable – the ride was much too harsh for American tastes – they jointly defined new specifications and a consultancy agreement was signed that same month.
Instead of the simple rear-engined car Porsche initially suggested to Studebaker the South Bend firm wanted a larger, front-engined car. In response Porsche proposed a monocoque-bodied sedan, to be powered by three possible V6 engine configurations: water-cooled, air-cooled and a mixed cooled version (aircooled cylinder heads, watercooled cylinders). Displacement was 186.3 Cubic inches or approximately 3000 cc and the vee angle of these engines was an at the time novel 120 degrees.
The watercooled version developed 98 bhp, the aircooled version slightly more- 106 bhp. The complex mix-cooled variant was abandoned early on, leaving only the 542L (Luft/Air) and 542W (Wasser/Water) V6s to be
considered for further development.
The finished prototype, Typ 542 (known as Z87 within the Studebaker organisation), was secretly shown to the Studebaker management in Geneva in march of 1954, on the eve of the Motor Show. Typ 542 had a pontoon-type monocoque body and a wheelbase of 111 inches, four less than the Studebaker Champion. The transmission (a three speed with overdrive), brakes and steering gear were all Studebaker-sourced items.
Porsche had fitted the Typ 542 with independent rear suspension, not primarily in the interest of better ride and handling but rather to enable a smaller and lower driveshaft tunnel. Since Studebaker had no experience with aluminium engine production, they insisted – against Ferry Porsche’s suggestion – on cast iron for the engine block. The pistons and cylinder heads of both V6 engines were to be made of aluminium however.
After Studebaker’s people had returned home having given their blessing for further development, the prototype faced tough testing during that summer over the steep and winding Tyrolean mountain roads that Porsche liked to use to test their own cars.
In the autumn of 1954, the now near-final Typ 542 arrived in the USA. Since their visit to Switzerland, Studebaker’s interest in the car had waned considerably however because by now the oldest American car manufacturer was in serious trouble.
The beautiful all-new 1953 Loewy/Bourke designed models had tarnished Studebakers quality image considerably as they were plagued by a plethora of teething defects, substandard build quality and poor finish. To make matters worse GM, Ford and Chrysler had initiated an enormous sales promotion push that year to increase their market share and with any luck push the independents out once and for all.
The low sales figures of 1954, reflecting the public’s loss of confidence in Studebaker’s long term chances against the big three, were disastrous for the bottom line. Later that year Studebaker would enter into a merger with equally troubled Packard- an alliance that was described by one pundit at the time as “Two drunks trying to hold each other up”- a harsh but sadly apt description.
Nevertheless, the Typ 542 still underwent a full evaluation at the South Bend proving grounds with both engine configurations being tested. The overall verdict was positive although the ride was still deemed too hard for the average American driver, and both the amount of oversteer in hard cornering and sensitivity to crosswinds still needed work. The 542 was also somewhat overweight, and by 1955 its styling was starting to look dated.
Lack of finances first and foremost, but also loss of confidence and perhaps even a bit of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome ultimately kept the Typ 542/Z87 from being released for production however.
But this was not quite the end of the story. Earlier that year Studebaker had initiated a marketing survey in order to find out what would be the American car buyer’s ideal small(ish) economy car. The results indicated that the vast majority favoured a light, simple, easy to service, rear engined and aircooled car. In other words: a Volkswagen Beetle.
Ferry Porsche knew of the survey and its results and proposed a smaller vehicle, the Typ 633. This was a notchback two-door sedan, powered by an aircooled flat four engine in the rear. Alas, the Typ 633 would remain just an idea on paper as by that time Studebaker simply lacked the financial resources to make it a reality even if it had wanted to.
Even though both its prototypes were ultimately rejected, the project would turn out to be hugely beneficial for Porsche. In the early postwar years, Porsche was working from a few converted wooden sheds in the Stuttgart suburb of Zuffenhausen. The increasing demand for his cars prompted Porsche to design a new, state of the art car assembly plant. However, the banks were unwilling to provide credit to the still young firm.
The Studebaker project in 1952 however earned Porsche around 2 million Deutschmarks, which changed the banks’ mind. Before the end of that year the first cars would roll out of Porsche’s brand-new factory. For Studebaker the story did not end so well. After a temporary revival of sales in 1959 with the clever compact Lark an inexorable decline set in, resulting in Studebaker closing its South Bend operations in 1964 (the 542 prototype is presumed to have been destroyed at that time along with several other experimental vehicles).
They would survive for two more years in exile in Canada but after 1966 there would be no more cars built bearing the name of America’s oldest car manufacturer.